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  • Sylvia Gonner

What Rules? I'm Driving!

To learn about different cultures around the world, look no further than the way people drive. I recently spent a month traveling in Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg before returning to the States. While there aren’t any physical borders in Europe, the moment you enter a new country you have to adjust not only to different rules of the road, but also to the drastically different behaviors of drivers. From speed limits, passing protocols, and pedestrian etiquette, each country reminded me how much cultural values permeate all behaviors; and how vital it is –in business as in traffic– to learn to navigate these differences to avoid serious damage.

Italy - where you question the rules

Take Italy for example, where red lights, car lanes, and designated parking spots are considered mere suggestions. As my good friend Beppe Severgnini observes in his book La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, merely accepting general and arbitrary rules would be an insult to Italians’ intelligence. “Obedience is boring; we have to examine the case. We want to decide if the offending rule actually applies to each individual situation. Here. Now.” he writes. Italians bend rules because they see nuances in everything, they analyze situations in their context, and use their common sense to adapt and make decisions. Sure, they will respect a red light at a busy intersection, but might take the liberty to ignore a stop sign on a less traveled road at night. Beware that as a pedestrian, you should never consider a green light as a safe sign to cross the street in Italy … unless of course you don’t mind losing a toe!

Italians are strong communicators so don’t expect vagueness or things left unsaid. They are talkative and demonstrative people who on the road will blow their horn, gesture, and shout out their car window to be heard. They have the uncanny ability to navigate their way through chaos with incredible ease. How else do all the cars, scooters, and pedestrians whizz so closely past each other in those tiny alleys? Italians are sure to impress you with their creative ways to solve problems –like that tiny Fiat 500 parked sideways in the tight spot left between yours and another parked car! But more than anything, count on Italians to always be flexible and friendly. When I was short of coins to feed the parking meter, the nearby policeman happily granted me 30 free minutes, even suggesting his favorite gelateria around the corner as a place to make change. To return the favor, I offered to bring him back an ice-cream!

Germany - where you count on the rules

The German culture on the other hand is overwhelmingly conformists, something that’s very comforting while driving in Germany. Germans dutifully follow instructions including the number 1 rule on the Autobahn: to never pass a car on the right, ever! Here, rules are viewed as a way to create order and efficiency, and reinforce Germans’ strong respect for punctuality, discipline, and accountability. When I drove up to an accident (that in other countries would have created a major gridlock and delay) I didn’t see any red or orange warning on my GPS indicating a slow-down. Instead, traffic continued to flow as German drivers politely merged in perfect order, one by one, in the most disciplined manner.

At times, when my small car wasn’t keeping up with the speed of traffic in Germany, I noticed being tailgated, often by a large Mercedes driving rather closely behind me. Yet, there was no honking, flashing headlights, or rude gestures from the drivers. Remembering that Germans above all respect order, I pressed the gas pedal and increased my speed to fit in. On the road as in business in Germany it’s important not to be too rigid but rather go with the flow. If you run into a conflict, look for common ground with your counterparts as the best approach to making progress.

Belgium - where compromise rules

Culture is learned at a young age from those around us who influence our values and beliefs, and in turn our everyday actions. In a country where the value of compromise and collaboration is taught at every opportunity and in every aspect of their lives, it’s not surprising Belgians are adapting quite well to drastic new rules of the road introduced in 2021. With the goals to increase road safety, reduce noise pollution, and move towards low-carbon mobility, Brussels implemented a city-wide speed limit of 30 km/h (20 mph), with only a few axis roads allowing speeds up to 50 km/h (31 mph). Yes you read that correctly, 20mph! This effort is part of the Streets for Life #love30 movement sweeping several cities in the world.

As I was preparing for my trip, I couldn’t imagine cars driving at such low speeds in this large, booming capital (the city where I grew up) of 1 million people. Yet I instantly found it easy to adapt, cautious to stay out of the paths of the tramways and busses that crisscross Brussels’ numerous squares, and concerned for the safety of bicyclists who constantly lunged in front of my car having the right of way on many streets. But more than anything, I frequently stopped to let pedestrians cross the road feeling empathy as they were braving the non-stop rain that, as usual, had greeted me in Brussels!

I was reminded that Belgians are pragmatic people who strive to find solutions to fix their issues. They are eager to show results and proud of their accomplishments considering the small size of the country. There’s a predominant culture of collaboration in this multicultural, multilingual country, and in its capital (the seat of the EU), where many think like true Europeans who understand the importance of blending interests. The compromises Belgians have to make aren’t always easy, but they know that working together to get from point A to B is essential –in traffic as everywhere else.

Luxembourg - where you can’t let others rule

We’re generally unaware of our own culture until we observe people in other countries behaving in bizarre ways we’re not used to. Such a culture clash is a way of life in the small country of Luxembourg (where my parents grew up and much of my family resides). There, a third of the country’s half million people are non-natives; and almost 50% of the workforce are cross-border workers (also called Frontaliers) who enter the country every morning from neighboring France, Germany, and Belgium to work in Luxembourg before returning to their home country at night.

One way for Luxembourg to maintain its national identity and distinct culture has been through its long-standing motto: “We will remain what we are” which can be seen posted on the side of buildings as well as on restaurant menus. Upholding its core values such as national pride, trustworthiness, respect, as well as social and collective responsibility is important in all aspects of Luxembourgers’ life.

I was impressed that Luxembourgers follow an honor system when it comes to paying for gas/petrol. In many places you pump first, then go inside the station to pay. Granted, there are cameras to deter any theft but these seem unnecessary. When I questioned this process as rather tedious, I was astonished people had no issues with it, good-natured even while standing in line behind someone also buying flowers, fresh pastries, and snacks for their kids. I was even more startled when a cashier left the station unattended to run after me outside when I’d forgotten to sign the credit card slip! What isn’t surprising, however, are the long lines of foreigners patiently waiting to fuel up at gas stations along the borders as gas and cigarettes prices in Luxembourg are much lower than in neighboring countries where they’re heavily taxed.

I couldn’t help notice that even the road signs were polite and friendly in the small villages of Luxembourg, thanking those who observe the speed limits with flashing green smiley faces. What a positive message compared to other countries where you only get scolded when speeding and ordered to slow down. And while Uber doesn’t operate here, congratulations to Luxembourg for switching all buses and trams to electric energy, and for making all public transportation totally free for everybody! A great example of the country’s collectivist culture and fundamental belief in environmental and social responsibility.

United States - Where everyone makes their own rules

When returning to the United States, I was instantly reminded how American values and beliefs also dominate driving habits here. Americans see their cars as a symbol of their freedom and independence, and consider the roads as place to express their fierce culture of individualism. Not surprisingly in the state of Florida where I currently reside, people pretty much do as they please, fully prepared to pay the consequences of their choices. Some swerve at high speeds in and out of heavy traffic like NASCAR drivers, while others –seemingly unaware of their surroundings– cruise painfully slowly in the “fast” lane with a forgotten blinking turn-signal left on for miles.

In America, you’ll appreciate driving a large SUV when on regular basis you fear for your life on the open highway getting squeezed between two massive 18-wheeler trucks passing each other at high speeds, their drivers blowing their loud horns and flashing a big smile at you. And of course, expect to get stuck at a traffic light where everyone’s busy texting. You’ll have time to read the 47 stickers on the back of the pickup in front of you, while the guy next to you is eating his burger, and the girl behind you is taking selfies for her next Instagram post!

Driving around the world is a good reminder that, just like conducting business across borders, it’s best to be prepared and learn how to navigate among other people’s cultural norms. That’s if you want to avoid misunderstandings, frustrations, and any serious head-on collision!

CultureWiz offers intercultural training, coaching, and consulting services to help you succeed in our interconnected world in the office, boardroom … and on the road.

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