Etiquette: A Universal Question?

Is etiquette – and by this I mean the trappings of polite behavior as well as demonstrations of mutual respect – universal or does it change from country to country? culture to culture? family to family?

In considering this question, I naturally turn to my experiences between the United States and Austria and there are some wild differences in polite culture that chronically surprise me. For example, standing in a line has never seemed quite as taxing to me as it does here in Vienna where order does not appear to be valued, rather, it’s every man for him/herself. Similarly, etiquette concerning smoking also appears to operate under a different set of rules. Whereas smoking has long been banned in restaurants and public spaces in the United States, a smoking culture not only thrives but insists on the importance and necessity of cigarettes here in Austria.

On a more positive note, I find that etiquette exerts itself in other more subtle ways in Austria. For example, interactions between people – be they friends or strangers – are monitored by a polite code of speech and behavior in which people are routinely greeted and bid farewell. It is always delightful to me when an exiting patron of a restaurant encourages me to enjoy my meal as it arrives and he/she takes his/her leave. This is not the case in the United States where such an action is more likely to be deemed an interruption or simply an oddity.

With this in my mind, I was very intrigued to see the following headline in the newspaper:

Foto Vienna: 50 Euro fine for kanoodling in public transportation

Vienna is overhauling its public transportation system and, apparently, the landscape of Austrian etiquette. I thought that perhaps this headline was a joke but the article reassures its readers that Vienna’s public transportation system will be cleaned up – both literally and figuratively. Days later I was reminded of this policy at the movie theater where a brief advertisement for the new reaches of Viennese public transportation played before the previews. In it, behavior such as nose-picking, kissing, eating, tagging, and kicking up your feet was deemed unacceptable and the target of this new campaign to clean up the behavior in the public transportation system.

I am not sure how to understand this new strategy. Who gets to decide on the presiding code of etiquette considering all of its contradictions? How will it be enforced? and does this presuppose that etiquette is a shared system of values located at the cultural level? If so, how will the public transportation authority account for the myriad of paying, non-Austrian riders? and finally, is this campaign indicative of a greater societal problem/deficit?

Something that I would certainly like to see less of is people relieving themselves on U-Bahn platforms. Hey Wiener Linien, does that fall under your jurisdiction?


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