The rule vs the exception


Downtown Zurich, Switzerland, 3 am. A group of local and international students are walking outside a discotheque right after closing time. They are on their way home, and for that they need to cross a major street. The traffic light is on red for pedestrians. But it is 3 am, remember? No traffic at that time of night, so all the international students readily cross the street after a last quick check if no cars are coming. The locals, the Swiss, automatically stay on the sidewalk as a group, waiting for the light to turn green. Meanwhile all the internationals who’d already crossed the street yell at the Swiss to also cross it and “not just stupidly wait because there’re no cars anyway”! But they don’t, and stoically wait 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, 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 3 am 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 3 am), 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 the breakers have.

A story to share

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 other cars, and third then just go’. 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. So dear reader, do you also have a story to share?

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