Discussion of the potential offending and frustrating character of a conversation on the topic of the Swiss banks’ role in the WWII.
In summer 2000 I left Switzerland for three months with the aim to take a film course in New York. Even though I was used travelling with others, this time I went alone which gave the trip a somehow adventurous flair. I had organised myself a place to live before I left home, but didn’t know at all how it would be or look like. As I arrived at the airport I took a cab to Avenue C, in the East Village of downtown Manhattan and was somehow shocked when the cabdriver stopped in front of a totally battered door in a dark street. It looked like one of this muddy gutters in the Bronx that I had seen on television. A little bit unconfident I took my luggage and went to the door. There was no doorbell therefore I knocked. The door was opened by a Peruvian man, who turned out to be Carlos, the landlord of the house. I was welcomed warmly into the spacious living room, in which at least eight young people sat, having a small party. The house turned out to be a very warm and friendly place where many international students were renting their rooms. A middle-aged actor out of engagement was living there, too. His name was Philippe, half Swiss half British, who had been living in New York already for several years.
I swiftly adapted to that house and I started to love the East Village immediately. It is a very international part of the city, a truly cross-cultural place. Most of the inhabitants come from Puerto Rico, but also a lot of African Americans and in addition, many people with an extraordinary lifestyle, artists, musicians and actors are living there. For me, who was used to very well organised and tidy Swiss mentality, it was a totally different way of life.
In the house, we cooked together many times and it was after one of these meals when Philippe, the actor, started to bring the discussion to Switzerland. Being half Swiss he was very interested in everything that concerned the country and he was happy to have me there to talk to. At the time, the big discussion in the media about Switzerland’s behaviour in the Second World War was an ongoing issue. Ed Fagan, an American reparations lawyer, had sued the Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust victims. The Swiss banks settled the claims outside of the court, agreeing in a payout of 1,25 billion US-Dollars for the Jewish descendants. Since New York is known for having a big Jewish community and because of the numerous reports in the US-media, the issue was an ongoing discussion in the City.
Philippe started the conversation with the focus on the dubious role of the Swiss banks. He argued that the banks were to blame for the destiny of many Jewish descendants who had to start a new life in the United States without any money. In his point of view, the banks had deliberately avoided any confrontation and had wanted to hog insurable values for themselves. Since at that time the discussion in Switzerland had already turned into an overflow, I was not very much interested in a profound conversation. However, I tried to explain my point of view and made the mistake not to admit immediately the guilt of the banks. I actually wanted to make clear that there were many other factors that led to this behaviour. Of course, Philippe just wanted to make his point clear but he actually started to blame the whole Swiss society for being very greedy for money. I felt deeply offended by that and finally committed myself to the argument. But at this point a normal discussion was not possible any more. The two of us got really angry at each other. I tried to vindicate my country like a defence lawyer standing in front of a court. At one point Philippe asked why I was feeling so offended by that discussion and at that point I stopped and went angrily into my room. Laying on my bed, I still felt very insulted and sad. But after a while I started to reconsider the issue. Actually, Philippe was right asking why I felt offended, because I couldn’t find a reason myself. In fact, I didn’t agree at all with the behaviour of the Swiss banks concerning the insurable values from the time of the Second World War. What made me angry was the fact that the whole international press was picking at Switzerland like it was the only country who ever did something wrong. At the time, Switzerland had reacted already on the international critics. The Swiss government had installed the Independent Commission of Experts to bring light into the Swiss past. But this fact hadn’t made it into the headlines of the international press.
Choice of topic
As I was trying to find the right topic for this paper, the conversation in New York came back to my mind and I still didn’t understand perfectly why I had felt so deeply insulted. Usually, I don’t identify with my country so profoundly. I like being Swiss, but there are a lot of things in our culture that I don’t like. I was always convinced that one day I would move to another place where people are not so narrow-minded as in Switzerland. There, I found out, that maybe I’m more Swiss than I thought.
The argument described above took place seven years ago, and even now, I still don’t know exactly how this could have happened to me. Having this in mind, I thought it would be a perfect example for the case study. Analysing the issue with the instruments that were given to us in class, I might find new aspects that will make my reaction clearer to myself.
Analysis of the case
For the analysis, I will rely on the model ‘12c’ of intercultural communication1 that takes into account individual and cultural configuration as well as the social framework of each interlocutor. In addition, I will integrate the basic model of the communication process that distinguishes between Sender, Message and Receiver. It is also important to look at the psychological factors closely since the differences of understanding are not obvious with two conversational partners both from a western background.
1. Individual identity
As mentioned by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (Sen, 2006), every person feels many different affiliations. We belong to various groups and build our personal identity out of them. As for the two interlocutors in the case mentioned, this seems very important to me.
Philippe is a person, who just sails through life trying to be successful as an actor. He has learned how to adjust to almost any situation. Financial security or having a regulated live with a secure job doesn’t mean anything to him. Everything he owns fits in his one suitcase, for the reason to be able to move anywhere whenever he feels like it. In addition, he is proud of being literate and well informed about political issues. I could truly call Philippe a master in the art of living, a true individualist.
Considering myself, I originated in a country where a secure job and a regulated life mean everything. Growing up in a labourer family with little money, I have learned from childhood on how hard it can be getting through life. My mother taught us, kids, soon, how to arrange our own financial security. We were taught that a secure job is crucially important in order to be able to have an enjoyable life. In addition, I am a person who is very open to other cultures, have never felt any aggression towards foreigners and have always considered all human beings equal. The cruelties that were done to a lot of Jewish people in the Second World War, seems to me one of the biggest inhumanities that have ever happened in history.
2. Cultural configuration
Philippe has a Swiss-British nationality but he has never lived in Switzerland. He grew up in Great Britain and went through education there. Philippe’s parents got divorced in an early stage of his childhood, and he never felt very much attached to his family. He finished school in Great Britain and then left for Australia where he was working for a while. After going to an actor school in London, he moved to the United States. It seems to me that he doesn’t feel attached to any form of national culture and he confines his values to having as much freedom as possible.
As mentioned above, the family I come from has taught me a certain philosophy of life. This safety thinking is still very strong within me. I have a regulated job and a secure income. Because of that, I was never in a situation where money became a big problem to me. Other than that, there are certain values that are important to me. Firstly, I feel a very strong family bond. Secondly, I’m a person who shows a distinct sense of justice.
3. Social framework
Living in Switzerland as one of the most democratic places, I feel a strong responsibility to take part in political life. This doesn’t mean that I am a member of a political party, but I think it is our duty to be informed about political issues and take part in the national votes. Basically, I believe in our system and I am proud in a way, that the Swiss nationals have a direct impact on political decisions.
In addition, my job has become a crucial part of my life. At the time when I went to New York City, I had already worked in the media as a journalist for several years. Therefore, I was familiar with the issue of the discussion and was aware of how this subject had been pushed by the US-media.
Philippe’s social affiliations were never strong at any stage of his life. The only bond he feels is certain solidarity with artists and other individuals. In addition, he shows a strong sympathy towards everybody who is financially poor or to whom injustice was done. However, he doesn’t believe in any institutional or organisational structure.
4. Process of communication
To analyse the process of communication I will divide the argument Philippe and I had into two parts as shown in Figure 1. The first step demonstrates the point where Philippe acts as the Sender, and the second step illustrates my reaction in the conversation.
The communicational setting is casual. Philippe and I are talking after a meal in the kitchen while doing the dishwashing. There is neither an official background for the conversation nor are the interlocutors prepared. Each just mentions what he knows according to the public discussion created by the media.
Sender: The aim of the conversation is not an argument, but a general talk about the issue of Switzerland’s behaviour in the Second World War. There is no intention of a personal insult towards the Receiver, but a friendly asking for a point of view. Since the Sender shows a strong empathy with the victims of Holocaust, he considers the Swiss banks consequentially as the vicious. He sees the situation as a clear conflict between the rich and the poor. Availing themselves of the misery of the Jews makes the banks the dubious profiteer of the War. The general stereotype of Switzerland as a rich financial stronghold plays its part, too.
Message: The nature of the message is the accusation of the Swiss banks in the first place. In addition, it includes the message that not only the banks are guilty, but also the country, who didn’t control the banks. The statement is clear that Switzerland has done something wrong. As the conversation goes on, Philippe is also implying the greediness of the Swiss nationals in general.
Receiver: As the discussion starts, the first reaction is a rejection. The Receiver is not willed to discuss the issue profoundly since there is a certain feeling of overflow. As a Swiss national, I feel responsible for explaining my point of view. As soon as I hear the accusation of the Swiss in general, a strong emotion of feeling offended appears. In addition, the Sender, who represents a totally different lifestyle, challenges my background as Swiss national and my bearing of strong security thinking.
Filters: At the time of the conversation, my English language skills were not yet very sophisticated. Indeed, I understood everything Philippe was saying, but I had problems to express my points of view in a differentiated manner.
Sender: The offence on the Swiss mentality brings the discussion to an emotional level. The feeling of being insulted provokes an angry reaction. I want to make clear, that not all the Swiss are greedy for money, but at the same time I know, that the Swiss culture indeed is based on financial security thinking.
Message: The nature of the message is a defence of the Swiss nationals and in particular of myself. Firstly, I want to make clear that my country is not guilty of what the banks did. Secondly, I want to stress out that not all the Swiss are greedy for money.
Receiver: Philippe is feeling confused about my strong reaction. He cannot comprehend, how somebody can feel so strongly attached to his country. Legitimately, he wants to know, what made me so angry.
Filters: In this second step my insufficient knowledge of English is a crucial challenge to pursue the argument. I have indeed a considerable knowledge of the topic, but cannot express myself clearly enough. The strong points that would defence the Swiss (e.g. that the Swiss government has installed the Independent Commission of Experts) are too difficult to translate. But also a second filter occurs in this part of the discussion. It is the incertitude within myself, if my life on the base of security thinking is sufficiently reasonable or if a life like the one Philippe bears would maybe be more straightforward.
The analysis above has brought light to a crucial point of the communicational process. Not only I felt offended by the blaming of the Swiss nationals, but also I had the feeling that the construction of my own cultural values is being attacked. The message Philippe transported to me was not at any time a deliberate insult. The fact that I saw an affront in the message can be traced back whether to my own imagination or to the fact that the Sender had transported an implicit code. As Friedemann Schulz von Thun has pointed out, every message contains explicit and implicit codes. Explicit means; the message is specifically formulated. Implicit implies that something else lays between the lines or, at least, an additional meaning can be interpreted. “We could be tempted to believe that the explicit code is the essential part of a message, while the implicit code takes a less important role. But this is not the case. On the contrary, the true code is often sent implicitly.”
However, another psychological factor can be detected within my behaviour. As soon as it comes to feelings, the reaction can become emotionally very strong. Schulz von Thun names this phenomenon „psycho-chemical reaction‟: “In chemistry there exists the strange phenomenon, that two in itself harmless substances can, if they coincide, become a highly explosive compound.” To make himself clearer, Schulz von Thun provides another picture: “The inner reaction to a message turns out to be a product of an interaction between the seed (sent message) and the psychological ground, on which the seed falls on the side of the Receiver.” It is, therefore, due to my psychological condition that my reaction has turned out to be so emotional.
6. Interference: the role of the media
As shown in Figure 1 there is another important part of the structure of the argument. The conversation is vitally influenced by the fact that all that is said is second-hand information. None of the interlocutors is personally involved. We both rely on what we have read and heard in media reports. It has to be mentioned here that the media coverage concerning the Swiss behaviour during the Second World War did not correspond in the two countries. The reporting in the United States was affected by a strong accusation towards Switzerland. The issue was reduced to the fight between the good (descendants of the victims of Holocaust) and the evil (Switzerland as the financial stronghold). In contrast, the Swiss media reporting included more differentiated views.
To sum up the results of this case study, two main problems can be detected within the communicational process. Firstly, my own psychological constitution has let to an overreaction within the argument. Coming from a traditional Swiss background, I had learned how to rely on financial security. Suddenly, with the experience of living in a totally different environment, my view of how to live should be had become instable. The emotionally strong reaction can finally be traced back to my own inner insecurity.
In addition, my lack of knowledge considering the English language must be taken into account, too. The inability to express oneself clearly can be a crucial handicap within a discussion. On top of that, it is very frustrating not to be able to communicate in a differentiated manner.
However, the case above might not be the best example for intercultural communication with its typical difficulties, since the main problems are located on a psychological level. Anyhow, the aspects mentioned are vitally important. In each communicational process, psychological factors can turn into a dominant part of the argument with the result that a rational discussion becomes impossible. On the level of intercultural communication, the interlocutors should always take into account the power of psychology in order to bring a negotiation to a satisfying end.