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Monthly column: The rule in Zurich vs the exception (in Eindhoven)

In this monthly column Vincent Merk, senior lecturer intercultural management and community advisor at TU/e, writes about a topic that is relevant to the international community. This month: The rule in Zurich versus the exception (in Eindhoven).


My story this time starts in Downtown Zurich, Switzerland, at 3 am. A group of local and international students were walking outside a discotheque right after closing time. They were on their way home, but for that purpose they needed to cross a major street. The traffic light was on bright red for the pedestrians. But it was 3am, remember? No traffic at that time of the night, so all the international students readily crossed the street after a last quick check no car was coming. The locals, the Swiss, automatically stayed on the sidewalk as a group, waiting for the light to turn green. Meanwhile all the internationals who’d already crossed the street yelled at the Swiss to also cross and “not just stupidly wait because there’re no cars anyway”! But they didn’t, and stoically waited for the green light.


This anecdote is an illustration of the cultural dimension “the rule vs the exception”. When I tell this story (reported to me by some of those internationals) in various intercultural settings involving students or (young) professionals, most people will have a good laugh and agree it was rather stupid to wait while no cars were coming. But, as we know, there are two faces to each coin. Many people in the world, although they usually respect (traffic) rules, will spontaneously try their luck at 3am and cross the street, making an exception to that very rule. But come on, of course there are no cars, so why worry? Clear case. You can argue they adapted to circumstances but indeed broke general rules. It’s often seen as a positive attitude of flexibility, improvisation and creativity.


In contrast, for those respecting the rules in whatever circumstances (so also at 3am), there’s another rationale. By never making exceptions to the rules they’ve created and hence respect, they have a comfortable life with a clear conscience. Of course you need to trust the system that in turn protects you. However, they’re also often seen as too rigid and lacking that sense of improvisation and creativity those rules breakers often have.


Let’s all admit those traffic lights are a tricky thing … Germans often put a double red light for pedestrians, in case one was not enough, nor visible; and in India a red light for cars means: “first look if there’s no policeman around, second also no cars, and third then just go”. And what about the Dutch? As we all know, cyclists are terrible at respecting any rules, drivers and pedestrians usually behave better in street traffic. This is generally the case in Eindhoven.


Anyway, whatever the circumstances, there is no right or wrong here, this example is just an illustration of the fact reality has multiple interpretations. This simple axiom forms the basis for cultural awareness and intercultural competence. Both are needed to interpret diversity’s true value. Anyone a story to share?