A Short Guide to Being Polite in Austria
After spending over two months in Austria and being more than halfway through my study abroad experience, I thought it’d be fitting to describe some of the social norms in Austrian and Viennese society more broadly. The main underlying theme seems to be efficiency—though Austrians claim to be the most “laid-back” of German-speaking countries, and while the stereotype of precise timeliness does not quite hold up (many of my professors are happily late, some trains even don’t run quite on time!) many other of the smoothly functioning societal norms are exhibited day-to-day. An example illustrating this that immediately comes to mind would be the grocery shopping experience. Firstly, you have to remember to bring your reusable bag for your groceries; the flimsy plastic or paper bags commonly used in the U.S. do not exist. If you forget to bring your bag, you simply buy another reusable grocery bag to use that day. When you check out, you unload all your groceries on the conveyor belt, ready your change, and as the cashier scans each item quickly pile them into your bag to make way for those behind you as fast as possible. The entire transaction takes way less time than in the U.S., where I am accustomed to having a cashier and a bagger helping. Here you bag your own groceries as fast as possible to make way for the customer behind you, and if you’re not quite done move your bags to a separate “getting-you-stuff-together” area to finish so the cashier can continue with the next customer. This efficiency is regarded as fellow concern and consideration for the person waiting behind you, in contrast to the U.S. where politeness might instead be the cashier making small talk with you or taking a little more time than the streamlined, almost mechanic efficiency.
Another thing I have noticed is the cleanliness of the streets and the organized layout of the city. The small things really stick out to me as being much more thought-out. There are indented rivets in every street and U-bahn station to better aid visually-impaired citizens. There are bike paths and walking paths, clearly demarcated with green paint, and distinguishable by their respective biking and walking symbols. I quickly learned to not unwittingly walk in the bike lanes from bikers unafraid to voice their annoyance and make my mistakes clear to me. A similar social phenomenon, evident in other cities I know but quite important here, is to stand on the right side of the escalator in U-bahn stations to allow others to walk up the left side. This too, I learned quickly as Austrian are quite unafraid to say “Entschuldigung” or “excuse me” to continue the smooth flow of their commute. In that note, commuting here is a pure joy of efficient transportation. The U-bahn system is better than any public transportation I have experienced, in the United States (D.C., N.Y., Boston) or even in Berlin. The trains come exceedingly quickly. If it takes longer than 3 minutes for the next U-bahn to come in, you have a right to grumble. This summer when I interned in D.C., I think the average train took 7 minutes or so to come in, with a 15 minutes wait-time in the later evening not unusual.
The desire for smooth-functioning society even manifests itself when seeing performances, to me in a rather comical sense. My music professor explained to our class that the Viennese desire for cleanliness applies also to sound cleanliness- that when seeing a concert the Viennese will hold in their coughs, sniffles and sounds of undoing wrappers until there was a break in the performance. In classical music this can take a good half hour or so, with a pause of around 8 seconds or so between the next movement. This brief pause is filled with people coughing and sniffling and doing whatever they need to maintain the next half hour of silence. I find this respect for the music endearing, if not a little comical. But let me tell you, if you are one to make noise, i.e. have a cold and need to sniffle or unwrap a wrapper, you will get stared down with disdain. My roommate had a cold and went to a performance with me and she got stared at by a fellow concert attendee long and hard, multiple times.
In terms of general city life, people are well-dressed and bundled up. No one wears athletic clothing around, even after working out. I go to yoga classes through the university and people change before and after class into regular clothes so they don’t have to wear athletic clothes around. Wearing athletic gear is the automatic give-away of being a foreigner.
Another random observation—there are tons of dogs here. The joke is that there are more dogs than babies in Vienna and this could very well be true. I’ve sat in a restaurant before and not noticed until I’ve gotten up to leave that a dog was lying under the neighboring table the entire time. It’s allowed to bring them into so many places that wouldn’t be accepted in the States. There are dogs on the U-bahn every time I ride it, in restaurants, cafes, etc.
From walking the streets of Vienna, to shopping at grocery stores or going to concerts, aspects of Austrian culture have made themselves clear to me. Being polite involves doing different things like bagging groceries quickly or stifling coughs for a long period of time, but boiled down, it’s the same as in the U.S. – respect and consideration for other people.