Swiss Saturday: The Passive Aggressive Note

A couple of days ago, a neighbor placed the above note in our mailbox. Here’s a rough translation (as I’m not a professional translator).

Dear Lucas Family,

Is it too difficult to walk through the house before you go to bed (and turn all the lights off)?

Neighbors, animals, and the environment (subject light pollution!) thank you! 🙂

And more money will stay in your wallet.

Electricity is not infinitely available. Your son will also need energy in 50 years.

Friendly greetings

[unintelligible signature]

Now, the unintelligible signature isn’t an accident. It’s part of the Swiss art of passive aggressiveness. You see, there’s nothing the Swiss like better than rules, and if there isn’t a rule about something and they want there to be, they’ll pretend there is and shame you for not following it. We’re foreigners, so obviously we need to be told what to do at all times. But, they don’t actually want confrontation, so the note works!

Now, if our light was actually bothering someone, they could have knocked on our door and spoken to us directly, but that defeats the purpose, because they might find out there was a reason for the light being on in the night. (There is.)

Many expats share stories of their Swiss neighbors doing the same to them. Not parked right? Anonymous note. Laundry not done to the proper Swiss sensibilities? Anonymous note. Child’s toy left in the back yard “too” long? Anonymous note.

Passive aggressive anonymous notes aren’t unique to Swiss culture, of course. As far as I know, lots of cultures engage in this, and it’s a terrible thing to do. Don’t try to manipulate people into behaving the way you want (are you so lazy you can’t walk through your house and turn out the lights?). Just be direct and straight foward. “Your light bothers me at night. Can you please turn it off?”

The same thing applies at work. “Can you run your emails through spell checker before sending them out?” is a lot better than, “I know you went to a state university, but many of our clients are Ivy Leaguers who expect better quality emails.”

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26 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday: The Passive Aggressive Note

  1. I’m a Californian who spent several years in South Carolina. There, everyone over the age of 15, regardless of race or perceived social class, is “ma’am” or “sir”.

    It serves as a sort of social lubricant that smooths even potentially difficult situations. There’s a good deal of passive aggression there too. “Bless his heart,” can mean anything from, “I’m sincerely sorry,” to, “He’s a few bricks shy of a load,” to, “What a flaming idiot!” But I think the belief is that passive aggression is better than naked aggression.

      1. The problem (as I’ve experienced it) is that so many people interpret a straightforward statement as aggression. So many people hear a simple statement of fact (in a friendly tone of voice) as aggressive, or as a challenge of some sort.

  2. This note is awful in so many ways. The implication that you guys are bad people who don’t care about the environment is laughable when you consider the tiny amount of electricity lighting uses.

    I have family in Switzerland and while I think it’s a wonderful country, I don’t love this aspect of the culture. Swiss people are far too involved in analyzing and policing the way other people behave. In my grandmother’s apartment building they had this unwritten rule that no noise was allowed after 21:30 and people would get really upset if they heard the slightest noise later than that. It’s a shame because I pretty much like everything else about Switzerland.

    1. There are some thing that are traditional but not actual laws and they really get upset about it.

      My neighbor once told me that I shouldn’t do laundry after 5;00. I pointed out that the posted building rules said 10:00. She said, but you’re a stay at home mom, so you need to be done by 5:00.

      I ignored her.

      1. My power company advises us to do laundry at night, as that is when there is less stress on the power grid. It actually is a money saver as rates are lower in the evenings.

    2. I grew up in small town USA where analyzing and policing other people’s actions and behavior is a hobby. I’ll have to cross Switzerland off my places to live list. Ugh!!!

    3. FYI, “no-noise” is not an actual rule, but the preponderant part of swiss municipalities have ordonnances outlining the night-time during which you have to reduce noise.

  3. I’m a big believer in anonymous notes. Once upon a time there was a Home Owners Association (HOA); the board members all lived beside the community lake, while 90% of homeowners had to drive 1-5 blocks to the single community access point– and even to *glimpse* the lake due to hedges and fences. Nonetheless, the board proposed a special levy to dredge the lake, assessing all homeowners equally (say, $1000), scheduling a vote for the next meeting of the HOA (normally only board members bothered to attend meetings).

    A certain anonymous notewriter pointed out the discrepancy in benefits-versus-costs to everyone (including the Self-Hallucinating Rich). The board reconvened, and revised the proposal, this time assessing lakeside owners $3000, and others $500. It passed handily at a well-rounded HOA meeting.

    And the anonymous notewriter remained on good terms throughout with all his neighbors.

  4. I wonder if this cultural quirk is strongly tied to the historically politically neutral stance that the country has adopted.

    1. Believe me, it was difficult to turn them off! We’re going out of town in March and I’m totally tempted to turn evry light in the house on for a week while we’re gone. 🙂

      I won’t, though.

  5. That kind of passive note is very similar to posting on social media where a comment meant to be a constructive viewpoint is taken out of content because of an implied insult (like in this case, you the foreigner don’t know better).
    I mention this because I am guilty of trying to be anonymous and left a note on a car (unfortunately wrong car) that jammed parked behind my son’s car and dented the back bumper. Found this out from the owner of whose car I had mistakenly posted note that the other owner/driver of the right car has done this repeatedly to most cars on the block who park near where he wants to park and everyone was afraid of him. After an apology and a conversation, he realized I was just trying to be neighborly, which is rather difficult in my area since most people avoid talking to one another. (That’s what happens when you live in a USA sanctuary city, the non- citizens avoid being known.)
    Yes, a better method of approach could be used besides leaving a note, but perhaps it may be the only way is to leave a note, however, the wording.

    1. > That’s what happens when you live in a USA sanctuary city, the non- citizens avoid being known

      Nope, it’s just a city thing. (Think about the stereotype of NYC.) I’ve lived in large cities my whole 57 years and this is just how people are: even next-door neighbors avoid much contact unless they have specifically made friends.

      1. Nope indeed. I live in a sanctuary city too, and it’s the most neighborly place I’ve ever lived.

  6. Expat in Switzerland, though in French speaking area. You were lucky: my neighbor left a tray of turds in front of my door because she was convinced that I was burying my dog’s excrements in her garden (what?!). It was simply the cats that are roaming our neighborhood, but she was having none of it. After multiple attempts to convince her that it was not me, I had to involve the police to stop the harrassment!

  7. Is this the old-school version of Facebook shaming? I belonged to a neighborhood Facebook group where it was acceptable to shame neighbors (being sarcastic) because of the dreaded Dog Poop Gate 2017.

    Set up a timer to go off at random times all throughout the night while you are on vacation. 🙂

  8. Oh God, I would have so much fun with this.

    A proposed answer:
    Dear Friendly Neighbor,

    I received with gladness your note highlighting my light pollution and energy consumption.

    I find that keeping the lights on to prevent my child who has night blindness from bumping into things and creating noise to be the price I have to pay to keep them safe.

    But just for you, I’ll install blocking curtains so as not to pollute your darkness with my noxious light.

    And to assauge your concerns of my consumption, I’m opting to buy green electricity to compensate for my selfish consumption.

    I hope this meets your moral standards.

    Nun-Yabiz Neighbor

  9. I am not surprised. I am a Canadian who lived in Germany for many years. The social control/passive agressive/I know it all attitude is over the top, especially in the smaller cities. I once dared clean my car on my driveway on a Sunday and got nasty looks. Then I started sweeping the street (not the sidewalk, the actual street) in front of my house and got many looks of approval. Of course this was not on a Sunday the day we must all rest.

  10. This story made me chuckle.

    Here in Paris I have a German neighbor in the apartment below, regularly knocking on the door or calling any time I have people over. I don’t play loud rock music but almost any music seems to be too much (and sometimes even no music). Now, it’s true that Parisian buildings don’t have very good soundproofing or any at all, but everyone who chooses to live in Paris knows that. I took the mini-subwoofer off the floor, then turned it off, then turned the volume down… each step seems to quiet her down for a time and then when an “adaptation phase” is done she’ll try to get it turned down even more.

    I know it’s not just me or my [American] cultural habits, because this is an apartment [French] owned by a friend, and three of my [French] friends successively occupied this apartment before I did, and they all had the same problems. At one point she apparently started railing to one of these previous friend-occupants doing repair work DURING THE DAY and finally he told her off. “Why does she even live in Paris?” he grumbled.

    The French themselves, on the other hand, usually will either put up and grumble behind your back, or come see you if it’s really and truly severe. In France some rules can be broken and some can’t and it’s really not cut-and-dry which is which. It’s a bit of a headgame compared to a place like Switzerland where all the rules apply all the time to everyone, or to a place like Italy where no one ever follows any of the rules. But while it has its downsides (most French cities save around Bordeaux are way less clean than their Swiss counterparts) the “game” is part of classic French charm.

    Every culture has its ups and downs. I’m not sure at what point in life one becomes incapable of adapting perennially to the idiosyncrasies of the “other”: I’ve heard age 30 but I suspect it’s different for everyone. But as a general rule that might often hold true.

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