Monday, 6 July 2009

The Uncivil Society: Pushing and Shoving on the Mean Streets of Cologne

This post is really a request for advice from those of you who may have more insight than I on the following phenomenon: the intense and usually totally unnecessary pushing and shoving that occurs in public places in Cologne, such as on the sidewalks and on the U-Bahn. The word unnecessary is important here, because whenever I experience or observe this happening, the people doing the shoving and pushing always have plenty of room already: to get where they want to go, they merely need to take a step or two to the right or left, to avoid running into other people who stand between them and their intended destination. It's a simple thing that most of us are taught at such an early age that we don't even remember learning how to share the sidewalk or other crowded spaces with other people. But somehow most people around the world master this "dance" of getting where they need to go without even touching other people, let alone hurting them by shoving them out of the way.

Not here, however. If you're in someone's way, you get shoved aside, often rather violently. I find this surprising and unusual, even though I've lived and worked in crowded cities all my adult life (New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and London, to name the top four). I've also travelled to places like Dehli and Beijing, which have much more of the tiny, ancient streets that can make it difficult to get around in Cologne, but which also have much, much higher population densities than Cologne does. But while those cities cram far larger numbers of people into spaces as small (or smaller) as those of Cologne's Altstadt, Cologne's special brand of aggressive, openly hostile pushing and shoving doesn't happen with anywhere near the same frequency. Somehow, the people of Dehli and Beijing (even in the extra-crowded "old city" areas) manage to accomplish the social feat of sharing extremely limited public space in a far more civil and gracious manner than the Koelners do.

This isn't just my perception--check out this 2006 description of a visit to the market in the old town quarter of Bangalore, from the blog of a German man who was living in India at the time:
    Daya leads me through narrow, overcrowded alleys to the lower floor of a giant market hall, where only blossoms, flowers, material and dyes are sold. The air is heavy with a sweetish perfume. The hall is full of people walking in every direction, but there is no pushing and shoving, they manage to wind nimbly past each other. With my European gross motor skills, I have my difficulties following.

Yet at least once a day, I get shoved, pushed and nearly knocked off my feet by people who have lots more room to move than the denizens of Bangalore...provided, that is, that I leave the house, which I'm starting to do less and less for reasons I explain below. It's a shame, because I adore my workplace, and feel incredibly fortunate to work with such smart, friendly and helpful people--90 percent of whom are German! Really: of all the workplaces I've ever had, from San Francisco to Boston to London, this one in Cologne has been the very best ever. If my life consisted entirely of my home and my office, I would have nothing but praise for this city.

But sometimes I have to go out in public, like to get to the U-Bahn by walking a few blocks from my front door, or riding the Linie 15 or 3 a few stops. (Unfortunately, I do not have a car or the financial means to buy one.) Those few short minutes each day involve encounters ranging from anxiety-provoking near-misses to really traumatic altercations. It's like running a gauntlet of Hobbesian "war of all against all." By the time I get to work, I have often been bruised and flipped off by at least one person. It's emotionally traumatic to someone who comes from a culture in which this kind of behavior--which definitely does occur in the US--is regarded as not just rude, but totally unacceptable.**

Contrast this with the following observation from Ann Marie Sabath's International Business Etiquette (2005):

Yep. A very diplomatic description of an ugly situation.

If you don't recognize any of what I (or Ann Marie) has just described, then please ignore this whole post--it won't be of any interest. But if you're like me, and have been literally bruised and nearly knocked to the ground on the streets of Cologne--always by Germans*, and often by people who look to be in their late 50s and up, oddly enough--then I'd be very interested to get your perspective on why this happens and what to do about it.

I've been thinking for months about posting on this subject, but was finally moved to action by an event that occurred yesterday, on a trip to Maastricht for "shopping Sunday:" a German* woman who looked to be in her 60s went way out of her way to shove me (who was standing still, looking into a shop window from a few inches away) aside. It was also an interesting case, because it occurred *outside* of Germany (just), which tells me that it's a matter of culture rather than context.

So today, out of real desperation and feeling as though I couldn't take another day of this bodily assault, I did a kind of "hail Mary" Google search on the phrase: "why do Germans push and shove in public?" To my surprise, this brought up a news story from the Munich area in May 2008, in which a retired German man pushed a teenaged girl on a U-Bahn platform so hard that she could easily have been killed. The girl fell into the gap between two train cars, onto the U-Bahn tracks; the man (and his wife, who witnessed the whole thing and did nothing--not a surprise to those of us who have had similar experiences, but still shocking) walked away from the hurt girl, cool as cucumbers. The only comment the pair made to acknowledge the event? The wife said, "It was the girl's own fault." ("Da ist sie selber schuld.")

Yup: the girl made the man push her. Funnily enough, this is exactly the same reaction I've gotten when I've cried out in pain (elbow punches to the bum really hurt, in case you were wondering, and they leave big purple bruises) or said "koennen sie nicht aufpassen" when Germans have hit and shoved me in public: "it's your own fault." Apparently my grave error was occupying a spot they wanted in the space-time continuum. It seems that in their minds, I should have known better and dematerialized the moment I sensed (telepathically?) that they wanted to occupy my space.

And indeed, from the CC-TV footage, it appears that the man shoved the girl just because he thought she was in his way. Police who viewed the tape said that the attacker apparently "felt cramped" ("eingeengt gef├╝hlt") by the girl's presence, but there was otherwise no evidence that they had any contact, verbal or otherwise, prior to the attack (not that any interaction they might have had would have justified his shoving her onto the tracks). In other words, the girl was in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the attacker's lights, and so he felt entitled to shove her out of the way. Naturally, the words "excuse me" or "could I get by" were never spoken; he just pushed her instead.

The image of the man and his wife leaving the scene of the crime was captured on closed-circuit television; they were eventually identified by someone from Leverkusen (a few km across the Rhine from here), who identified the retired, 69-year-old attacker as his former neighbor. Does this mean that Koelners specialize in recreational public violence? I don't know. But they certainly better at it than any other population I've ever encountered.

Here's a summary of the story in English:

Here's the detailed story in German:

When I read this story, I felt a surge of recognition on many levels. I haven't (yet) had a near-death experience, but I have had the same bizarre hostility and unprovoked physical violence directed at me. And like the girl in Munich, the attackers have followed up these assaults with blame. Of me. For being so rudely in their way.

After almost three years here in Cologne, I've gone from being horrified and being puzzled and occasionally angry at these pointless acts of violence. I wonder what the hell could be going on with these people, who seem to have pretty comfortable lives, that they feel the need to be so incredibly nasty to strangers. They seem to get a kick out of it--a little light sadism by way of recreation.

But now I have a new factor to consider when I prepare myself to run the gauntlet from home to office: I'm pregnant. Eleven weeks. Because of my age, I'm at high risk for miscarriage, so getting pushed and shoved, especially around the midsection really terrifies me. For the past few weeks, I have been making that home-to-work trip with both arms crossed over my belly like armor; I have seriously considered buying an old beer barrel (size extra-large), attaching some shoulder straps and wearing as protective outerwear--perhaps with a stencilled-on sign like "Bin schwanger--bitte nicht schubsen."

But until I find a barrel, I find myself scared to go out in public. Have any of you had this experience, and if so, have you found a way to eliminate or reduce this unpleasantness?

* Careful readers might be wondering, "How do you know they're Germans?" Several ways. First, I speak German to them (for example, I might say "koennen Sie nicht aufpassen?") and they respond in German (usually to tell me to f-off)--while my language skills are far from fluent, I am able to distinguish accents between native and non-native German speakers, and among regional groups of native German speakers (say Koelners vs. people from Berlin, or Germans vs. Austrians). Second, and this is the really telling part from an experimental point of view, I have actually had this same experience of being pushed and shoved by Germans in cities just over the border in neighboring Holland and Belgium. Yesterday, for example, in the tiny, crowded alleyways of Maastricht, Holland on a sunny "Kaufsonntag," everyone managed to make room for one another except the Germans--the only people who pushed and shoved me were Germans. Which I knew, because I spoke to them and got the usual "f-off" response...without any Dutch accent either. That's important because many Dutch people speak German. But they have a distinctive, if slight, accent. Perhaps even more telling was the response of the mostly-Dutch passers-by to my being nearly knocked off my feet by a lady of 60+ who felt utterly entitled and compelled to shove her body into the 4" space between me and a shop window (without so much as saying "excuse me" or in any way acknowledging that she was going to have to get up close and personal with me to pass through): people stopped, stared, and shook their heads at her. I had the impression they had seen this sort of scene before, and that it was recognized as not acceptable in the local culture.

** I'm aware that there are rude, physically aggressive people everywhere in the world, including the US. What's different about Germany, in my opinion and confirmed by the small sample of German friends I've asked, is the widespread public acceptance of this behavior as normal. In the US, and everywhere else I've lived, when such behavior occurs, it is definitely not accepted or treated as normal. I find that ordinarily, when someone bumps into you in the States, you will get at least a brief acknowledgement that the other person screwed up: they'll say "sorry" or "pardon me." And the same is expected of you. When people fail to acknowledge their error in this way, social sanctions kick in: you will often see third parties, totally uninvolved in your encounter with the "shover," step in to chide the latter. That contributes to most people feeling mostly safe from being knocked around in public.