Chronicles of a writer abroad

On how Canadians can be backward, too


I realize that in many of my entries I’m hard on the Swiss, making them out to be pretty provincial. In this post, therefore, I’d like to flip the script, and tell you about how I, as a Canadian, sometimes am left feeling uncouth in Swiss society. There are a number of ways that this happens, actually, but one stands out for me.

It’s pretty simple: I’m accustomed to not acknowledging the presence of other human beings.

Generally, in the world that I grew up in, unless someone is your friend/family member/acquaintance, or unless you need to have some kind of transaction with them, it’s acceptable not to greet each other. This means that if you find yourself riding an elevator with strangers, for example, or sitting in a waiting room with them, you don’t have to say anything to them.

Here it is different. For example, last week I went to the doctor’s office (relating to my anemia issues, which I’m still “ironing out” — ha, ha) and, after checking in at the front desk, I went to the waiting area, where everyone looked up at me. I took a seat, thinking, why are you all staring at me? In the course of my 1o-minute wait, other people arrived, and none of them failed to offer a “Grüezi, mitenand” (how the Swiss greet more than one person) to the group, which made me realize my faux pas. As we continued to sit, a nurse came to ask one man if he’d eaten anything yet that day. “I had a coffee with sugar,” the man said. “Oh, this is no good,” replied the nurse. “The doctor wants to take your blood on an empty stomach. We’ll have to reschedule for tomorrow morning.” The man was understandably annoyed, and went on a mini-rant about how he wouldn’t have wasted his time if someone had communicated this to him in advance. Then, even in his worked-up state, he turned to those assembled and offered a polite “Ade, mitenand” (how the Swiss say goodbye to more than one person).

I was impressed.

Of course, the Swiss don’t feel compelled to offer a greeting to everyone when they ride buses or enter supermarkets, or in other situations where it would be impractical. But they do it when they’re in close quarters with other human beings. And doesn’t that just make sense?


5 thoughts on “On how Canadians can be backward, too

  1. I’ve encountered the same thing in waiting rooms, and I still never remember to do it.

  2. See, now, that would just make me uncomfortable. I’m not a people hater or anything, but neither am I keen to make contact with all my fellow humans. I like my space, and left to my own devices would rather keep my silence. Shy or something like. On the other hand, I can’t count the number of times when I’ve been with Boppy and he’ll make direct eye contact with a stranger, even if the stranger doesn’t initiate, and more often than not, strike up a pleasant conversation. You know… on the subway, or at the ferry terminal…the young woman with a deeply plunging neckline, or the foreigner who is muttering to himself, or the businessman who is brusque and rushed… Boppy will track them with his eagle eye, and engage them. Me, I’m just looking for a book to read!

    Ade, mitenand.

  3. Well, here is my theory: if you live in a small town/city, it is much more likely that you will greet people you meet on the street, even if it is just a smile to acknowledge their presence. Certainly, it is not unusual to strike up a conversation in the doctor’s waiting room in Sidney, so Kristen, maybe you will have to pretend to live in a village where everyone knows everyone else 🙂 and Paul, you may come by your reticence honestly (from your Mother) but even I have been known to say “good morning” to passersby on the street!

  4. Boppy in defence….even though the main target might be the young lass with the DPN I am civil enough to mask it by casting a wandering eye on the rest of the population. Fair is fair!!

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