Berlin Perspectives Blog
Berlin Perspectives Blog
Posted by Torben
Prejudices are useful; they save time. If we can attribute behavior to notions we have about a group of people, if behavior conforms to cliché, then we are spared the effort of having to consider the countless variables that inform individual action in a complex world. And it is of course undeniable that cultural distinctions exist. Every traveler experiences the sense of insecurity, often unanticipated, that comes with cultural displacement: Do I shake hands or is a kiss on the cheek in order? Do I tip the waiter and how much? Is the cashier being rude or is his brusqueness just the way things are done here?
And once we begin to get a sense of a foreign society's cultural norms, it is terribly tempting to see them as symptomatic of a broader national character, as providing insights into the psychology of an entire people: The price Germans pay for their efficiency is humorlessness, American friendliness is a manifestation of superficiality.
The problem is that this form of cultural stereotyping inevitably leads to gross generalizations and simplifications: Germans are all mindless rule-followers. Americans are all ignorant. Isn't the sheer ease with which we make such judgments just a little arrogant? Don't these prejudices have at least a little to do with a desire to reaffirm a sense of our own superiority or that of the culture to which we belong?
Cultural stereotypes are self-reenforcing. When we step off a train in Paris that arrives on time, we don't think twice about it. When we step off a train in Frankfurt that arrives on time (which, by the way, is less likely), it's Germany's vaunted punctuality. When a Los Angelite is rude to us, we'll say, "What a jerk;" when a Berliner is rude to us, we'll say, "How German!"
Jaywalking is a case in point. On countless occasions I have heard it remarked, by expats and tour guides, in newspapers and guide books, that "in Berlin you can even be fined for jaywalking!" And inevitably the speaker or writer will proceed to cite this fact as clear evidence of Germany's obsession with rules. A casual Google search reveals a host of articles published in the British and American press on the behavior of Germans at a red light and how it is a manifestation of the nation's psyche: "The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer," London's Telegraph newspaper declaims, quoting Victorian writer Jerome K. Jerome (cultural traits, in this case German militancy, are frequently and matter-of-factly presented as immutable and everlasting).1 The Wall Street Journal asks (perish the thought!), "Would Germans Ever Cross the Street on a Red Light?"2 But of course, as anyone who has spent any time in Berlin can attest, they do. They just don't do it nearly as frequently as Londoners or New Yorkers.
This begs the question: Is reluctance to cross at a red light and the threat of police sanction a uniquely German phenomenon? In the UK, as many Brits have taken great pride in telling me (a prejudice of my own, perhaps?), jaywalking is not an offense. In my own experience, I have been threatened with a citation for jaywalking only once and that was in Washington D.C. But that is admittedly anecdotal. What do the numbers say? It is remarkably difficult to find jaywalking statistics for Berlin. A German web search on the subject doesn't reveal much. The first two hits provide information on the fines you can incur (all of €5; €10 if you cause an accident), while the third takes you to an internet forum that addresses whether jaywalking is a punishable offense at all. (It is perhaps surprising that there would be any uncertainty about this: If following the rules is so important, everyone ought to know what they are.)
The only statistical figure I could find comes again from the Wall Street Journal. In fourteen months between August of 2014 and October of 2015, Berlin's pedestrians were fined a grand total of €7,861 for crossing the street at a red light. Considering how low the fines are for this infraction, that amounts to a fair number of rule-shunning delinquents. Assuming that the fine levied was in every case €5 (not the €10 assessed when an accident is caused), that would mean that close to 1,600 jaywalkers were written up in this time period or almost four per day. That's quite a few, but is it really tantamount to a crackdown by authorities representing the interests of a society desperate to see its rules relentlessly enforced? (I don't think the argument that only four people jaywalk in Berlin every day holds much water; even though Berliners tend to respect the red light, there are always at least a couple of offenders at an intersection.)
Admittedly I am making a rather grand extrapolation from very limited data. Let's take a different tack and see if citations for jaywalking happen elsewhere. What about easygoing Los Angeles, for example, Berlin's sister city. First, fines for jaywalking are a lot higher in LA, $197 in 2015 according to the New York Times.3 And those fines aren't just for show, either. According to the Los Angeles Times, in a four year period through the spring of 2015, 17,000 pedestrian citations had been issued in downtown Los Angeles alone,4 an area boasting fewer than 60,000 residents, although hundreds of thousands more work there. That averages to 4,250 citations per year or close to 12 each day, three times the number I came up with for Berlin. And Los Angelites express frustration at the pedantry of LA cops, who even issue tickets when people cross the street when the "Don't Walk" light has only just begun blinking red or if pedestrians step off the curb before the light turns green, even if they make no attempt to cross.
Oh, and in jaywalking paradise New York? According to the Village Voice, "The NYPD Enforces Jaywalking When It Damn Well Feels Like It,"5 issuing close to 2,000 jaywalking citations in 2014 and more than 1,000 in 2015.
Still, Los Angeles and New York do not have the reputation Germany does as a place where rules are rigidly and strictly enforced. Instead, the LAPD's jaywalking crusade is framed in entirely different terms (although the interpretations are not necessarily sympathetic): Is it a money-making scheme? Another symptom of an overbearing police culture? An attempt to get the high rate of pedestrian-related accidents in LA under control? My own interpretation hews to another cliché: Is it perhaps just the deserved punishment for someone in Los Angeles having had the audacity to walk somewhere in the first place?
But even if jaywalking isn't officially sanctioned in Germany at the rate we might expect, that doesn't mean there isn't a different, a social deterrent. Rules are to be followed and in breaking them you incur the ire of your peers. I certainly have experienced my share of disapproving looks at Berlin crosswalks. But is it because I'm breaking the rules?
I doubt it. Germans who shake their heads at jaywalkers are doing so because the latter are setting a bad example for children. Studies find that fewer people ignore the red man when kids are present. Although it's almost unheard of in the US, in Germany children will often -- at a young age and unaccompanied -- walk or take public transport to school. There is a widespread belief that if they see people jaywalking, they may be tempted to do so, too, and thereby risk injury or worse.
Whether this perception makes sense is a different question. You are more likely to be killed in a traffic accident in Germany than in the UK, due in large part to the fact that you don't have a speed limit on large stretches of the Autobahn. And fines for speeding are much lower in Germany than elsewhere in Europe, specifically because Germans want the leeway to drive over the speed limit occasionally without it breaking them financially. Though speed limits save lives, most German drivers aren't willing to make that trade, children be damned.
But where did we ever get the idea that people are consistent in what they choose to care about?
Another rule in Berlin -- one that is almost never enforced -- is that you are not allowed to consume alcohol on the subway, although no one, despite ample opportunity, has ever looked at me askance for doing so. Would we even think to open a bottle of beer on the train in the States? (And what kind of calamitous event do we think would befall us if we did?) We are much more reluctant to consider running a red light in a car, even if it's late at night and there's no traffic. We wouldn't be endangering anyone, so is it just a function of mindless rule-following?
Do Germans tend to adhere to the rules? Sure. Do they do so more adamantly than Americans or Brits? I don't know, but I don't think their behavior at a red light is any indication. And if they do, I'm not sure we should glibly present this as an obvious symptom of a deep-seated psychological desire to respect authority.
Perhaps, instead, we can choose to be a little more modest. Perhaps we can ask ourselves, does this observation have as much to do with us as it does with them? And what are the ramifications of distinguishing so sharply between us and them in the first place? We neither can nor should ignore cultural differences, but maybe we can be a little more careful in drawing conclusions from them. I think we'll learn more that way.