Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oh the handshaking!

I've been showing my flat all week to potential renters. The one woman who came by a few weeks ago clearly was told to come to the wrong apartment, as the new ad for my place shows no rent increase (she'd been told 1200 CHF!). I had a little misunderstanding with my landlords--I thought they were going to choose one day to show the apartment so I gave them several to choose from. Instead, they took them all so I've had about 40 people traipsing through here over the past couple of nights. The first dude totally surprised me--I'd been expecting the landlords to call and warn me of when the showings were, but since they thought I knew, they didn't call, so this guy caught me in the middle of sorting some recycling and general chaos. He could barely get in the door, actually! And he politely didn't comment on the second surprise of the night for me (maggots in my trash can). It was a fun evening, let me tell you!

So I've been getting to practice my german a lot with all these folks. Oh joy! I have my little spiel down, though, so as long as they don't ask any weird questions I'm OK. There's also a lot of handshaking going on. The Swiss really like to shake people's hands. A couple months after I moved here I finally had to break down and ask one of my colleagues what the "rules" were about handshaking. I clearly wasn't shaking their hands every day, but I was always being taken by surprise when a hand would come flying at me from someone I already knew. Of course, my colleague couldn't really articulate the system, since he just knew how it worked instinctively. Finally we agreed that one shakes hands upon meeting someone for the first time, and then on any subsequent meeting (and departure!) if one tends to meet the person less often than once a week. This excludes daily-contact colleagues, but includes pretty much everyone else in the country.

I have to admit I'm not overly excited about shaking my doctor's hand (twice) at every visit. By definition the man is around sick people all day, right? Not what I want to be rubbing up against. But then, the viral theory of colds* doesn't really hold sway here, so spreading germs by pressing the flesh shouldn't be a problem either, I guess.

The other greeting/departure move is the cheek kissing, although when one gets upgraded to that was even less clear than the rule for handshaking frequency. Women seem to upgrade to kissing other women relatively quickly, with men less so, and men-men seems to be mostly a southern Europe thing. Here in Switzerland it's three kisses, although I still haven't figured out if you actually are supposed to make cheek-to-cheek contact or just kiss the air. I think it's really funny that the kissing thing really creeps me out--as in, it really violates my personal space--but hugging, which involves full body contact is fine with me. I guess it's all what you grew up with!

The handshake to kissing upgrade confusion is similar to the first name and informal-version-of-you confusion. It's extremely rude to use the informal version before it's been agreed upon, but I have no idea when or how that happens. With everyone in my group at work (4 people) we all started out on the first name and informal-you basis, and everyone else I've known in Switzerland has either been non Swiss (thus first name from the get go) or I've never really gotten to know them (hence we're still on formal-you and Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so). I did have one funny experience: after my knee surgery in 06 I was having a lot of muscle pain from walking all hunched up on my "sticks" (as they call crutches here), so I had several massages. At one of them, the masseuse was quite chatty and I was working really hard at making sure I used the formal-you (which definitely cut down on the "relaxation ambience" of the massage, but then since it was at a physical therapy place, there wasn't much ambience to start with), when suddenly in the middle of the massage the woman stops and sticks her hand out at me and keeps repeating "Hi, I'm Barbara". She said it about 4 times before I suddenly realized what was going on--she was introducing herself with her first name, meaning we should switch to the informal-you!


*People get colds here from drafts (even relatively hot air "drafts" in the hot summer) rather than from viruses, so fans and air conditioners (or even open windows) are very rare. I think it's similar to the idea that in the US we think we get colds from getting our feet wet in the rain....

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