Vive la difference: why Zurich is not Ashby-de-la-Zouch

There’s a lot of loose talk about globalisation making the world more similar everywhere you go, erasing local differences and creating a one-size-fits-all international culture. But then there’s a lot of loose talk about both globalisation and culture. A recent news story at the BBC website about a Swiss referendum that saw two-thirds of those voting rejecting an increase in the legal minimum holiday entitlement was also widely picked up elsewhere, presumably because the idea that people might vote not to have longer holidays is just too odd.

As usual, the truth is more complicated. While there are union-backed concerns about the impact of work-related stress, Switzerland is also suffering from a very strong currency that is impacting on national competitiveness and voters decided to give greater weight to the possible impact on the economy of more paid holiday entitlement as a legal requirement. The italics are important too: as a Guardian article on the story pointed out, the current legal minimum may be four weeks but the average actually received is closer to five weeks – the legislation is for a minimum, not a maximum. Career Investing blog may have commented with a simple

Ah, the Swiss.”

But the most Swiss things about the vote to this reader’s mind were:

a) A judgement about the bigger picture rather than a simple ‘longer holidays – yep, I’ll have some of that’

b) That they had a referendum about it.

As many commentators couldn’t resist pointing out, the Swiss have referendums on a regular basis, triggered by a call of 100,000 voters or more. And yes, some of these are about things that grab the imagination of headline writers: ‘sex boxes’ for prostitutes in Zurich, for example. (Here the Swiss strike me as sharing a pragmatic gene with the Dutch, who are generally seen as wild libertarians by most people in the UK. The Dutch see themselves, by contrast, as simply recognising that some human activities are going to take place no matter what the law says, and enabling them to take place in a manner that causes the least public offence or individual danger acknowledges this while trying to reduce the risk of harm.) The Swiss aren’t being cussed or contradictory or extraordinary so much as simply being … well, Swiss.

Figures and commentary from the OECD show that working hours in Switzerland are not extravagantly high (certainly not compared with some South American or East European countries), while levels of employment and of life satisfaction are considerably higher than average. Intriguingly, voter turn-out in Switzerland is also the lowest in the OECD area: all that democracy might seem like a wonderful idea in practice, but the Swiss appetite for exercising it doesn’t seem to be that great.

International comparisons aren’t, I suspect, an ideal topic for nugget-sized news items: national differences operate on such a complex mesh of variables that any real understanding is quickly lost. And what is important culturally in one nation may be far less significant in others: Western European ideas of privacy and personal space, for example, are very different from those of some Asian countries: some aspects of lives of others that we look upon and shudder aren’t things that necessarily cause angst to those we’re looking at – they just do things differently.

Even cultures might seem closer to each other, superficial similarities can be misleading. I’ve recently returned from a long holiday in New Zealand (and blogging in absentia through the wonders of technology and broadband). I’d ignored comments from friends before I left that I was flying several thousand miles to visit the 1950s, although I did anticipate an Anglophone culture. NZ is ‘England in the 1950s’ only in the sense that it felt like a country where that era was the beginning of significant divergence: NZ is not a British 1950s, but a NZ 21st century (and very proudly so) that you can think of – if it helps – as a version of England that took a different path over the last 60-70 years.

They might speak the same language – give or take some alarming vowel shifts (never point at anything in NZ and announce that “I want six”: you might get slapped) – drink tea, play soccer and cricket and grow petunias, but it’s also a Asian-Pacific country with a bi-cultural (European and Maori) approach that, implemented only in recent years, is already being overtaken in Auckland at least by a visibly growing population of new New Zealanders whose ethnic backgrounds are Korean, Japanese, Chinese …

Spending a couple of days with a friend who lives in Wellington and who’s worked in Europe, it was fascinating to hear her talk about ‘the Kiwi work ethic’ (although the OECD figures don’t necessarily agree), the cost of living (average incomes are the one indicator where NZ performs poorly against OECD competitors), quality of education, working opportunities and more. A country that has suffered heavily in the past from ‘brain drain’, and one with such a small population (a little over 4 million), needs to be very mindful of retaining its citizens. A seemingly highly entrepreneurial lot – even the smallest community has a café that will also sell you (surprisingly good) local arts and crafts, guided tours or a hair-raising ‘extreme sports’ opportunity – the country is ranked as one of the most business friendly in the world. In a nation with such a thinly-spread population and terrain that makes distribution challenging, creating opportunities matters.

Even so, we were visibly struck by the apparent absence of young-ish men in many small towns: some would, of course, be toiling in offices or on tractors, but their lack of presence outside the bigger towns and cities was striking. (Many Kiwis will work abroad in young life to gain experience, returning later: we hope the country will continue to attract them to do so.)

We were also struck, everywhere we went (including supermarkets, petrol stations and many other situations where our tourist status was incidental), by the strong focus on customer service. Rarely have we spent time anywhere where we were so wonderfully well treated, aided and assisted, and we very genuinely felt that it was meant: even the checkout lady really did want you to have a nice day – and would gladly suggest destinations, cafes, campsites or anything else that might make your day better.

A day in the centre of a British city on our return was eye-opening: we were speaking the same language, and eating similar foods but we were clearly in a very different culture – and not one that seemed to put much of a premium on the customer being right. (And being told that there’s a 20 minute wait for food is annoying anyway, but just plain rude when there’s already been a 35 minute wait in anyone even attempting to take your order.) Travel doesn’t just introduce you to other cultures: it throws your own culture into sharper relief when you return.

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