The Horn. Or, Swiss vs American Cultural Values

September 17, 2018


A month or two ago, J and I started watching a new Netflix series called The Horn. It's all about a search and rescue team on the Matterhorn. After three or four episodes we had to stop watching it because it made us painfully homesick and nostalgic for Switzerland. Although the show itself is excellent, interesting and gripping, we couldn't deal with hearing the accents and the ring of the telephone; or seeing the familiar doorknobs and office furniture. Such little things stood out so much! The familiarity drew us in and made us feel closer to Switzerland somehow - right at a time when we're making a concerted effort to enjoy where we are now and be present. It made it impossible to watch. 

But, I still haven't stopped thinking about the show and the people in it since! It took me a few days of mulling it over to put my finger on what was so remarkable about it and then it struck me: The fundamental cultural differences between Switzerland, a country that is very much a collectivist society as far as Western Democracies go, and the United States, a country which is very much the quintessential individualist society among Western Democracies. 

So what does that mean? Well, it affects everything in a large over-arching way. In the show, there were three key things that stood out to me. 

1 // The doctors, pilots and EMTs in The Horn repeatedly express a profound understanding of nature's strength and power.  They are humbled by nature and regard it with a deep level of respect. This includes both the power and strength of the mountain, but also a humility and respect for the fragility and limits of the human body. 
I love this and find it very inspiring because all of these things align with my instincts and worldview and make sense to me. But I can't help but think that an American version of the same show would be much different. Instead of bowing down in reverence before Mother Nature and respecting her strength and divine power, I imagine that the American version would name nature as Enemy No. 1 and set out to conquer and dominate the forces of nature. We know that this could never happen, of course, because nature cannot be tamed. And yet, in order to make the show appealing to an American audience, I believe this would be the angle chosen - complete with ultra-manly music and intense sound effects. Since returning from life abroad, I can't stop noticing that the typical American mindset seems to hold true the idea that in life we must have an enemy or something we're fighting against. Is this a hangover from our days opposing British rule and fighting for our hard-won independence? Could be. I can't say exactly, but it's there. Freedom is hands-down the most highly prized facet of American life and the definition is very much tied up in the absence of an oppressor because we've taken them down! 

2 // In the interviews with pilots and paramedics and doctors, each of them keeps saying things like, "I care about helping people," or "For me, it's knowing I helped that makes me feel good."
Americans like winning. They like guts and glory. Make no mistake, the people in The Horn are doing very gutsy things when they go on rescue missions. But because they prioritize safety and minimize risk and don't do it for the glory in the first place, it's not likely to impress Americans.

3 // A huge emphasis is made on how important it is to listen to one's teammates, to trust one another and to recognize the small ways each of them contributes to create a valuable and effective whole.
In general, I think it is safe to say that Americans do not like this way of thinking. In American culture, one way to describe a disappointing failure is someone who winds up "just a cog in the wheel" instead of a stand out superstar. When someone is a cog in the wheel, they "hold a minor but necessary post in a larger organization" and by definition, that is not a good thing. Americans want to be the hero. They want to save the day. Alone.

This is not meant to be a characterization of every single American. These are generalizations and broad ones at that. But, I maintain that these larger American undercurrents are there and they are real. These attitudes and beliefs seem imprinted on our national identity and play out in interesting ways politically (on both sides of the aisle!), inter-personally in workplace hierarchies, and most certainly across the media in movies, books, TV etc. These are some of America's shared cultural values. It actually makes me quite sad to think that not only do I not embrace these cultural values, but I find them quite barbaric and despicable.

Probably the most interesting thing about this is that these cultural undercurrents are just that; they do not mirror what happens in everyday experiences and interactions in these two places. Americans are very talkative, helpful and warm in passing. By contrast, the Swiss can be openly critical and intolerant and downright cold in everyday life. That is a topic for an entirely separate post!

What do you think? Have you seen The Horn? Would you agree with my observations or do you feel that I am coming at this from a position of major bias and prejudice? I'm always open to discussion and would love to hear your point of view. 

Join the conversation!

  1. Thank you for this recommendation! We watched the first episode last night and loved it; I never would have found it without your blog. I agree with you about the differences between American culture and...many others, really. I found this show moving and emotionally comforting, in a way.

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    1. I agree 100%. It is moving and emotionally comforting somehow. That feeling is what living in Switzerland felt like pretty much all the time. I miss it. The US feels completely unstable and chaotic to me. Take me back to Switzerland! ;) xx

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  2. I just finished this and though of you lots. Although Swiss and German culture can be quite different I understand and agree with a lot of what you are saying Another thought I had is how much professionalism is valued here. Precision, training, ORDNUNG! You see it in the show and in everyday life. I always grin when I catch a glimpse inside a mechanic's van here for example Everything sorted and organized.

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    1. You know that J lived in Germany on several different occasions for extended periods of time and worked there, right? He LOVED the German doctor in the show because he was just "so German" which I know you get! ;) It's true that the Swiss and Germans are different, but they're also quite alike. I miss the ORDNUNG. I miss it so much! Something about that organization makes me feel so safe and secure. It's a good feeling. Thanks for sharing that - it's so true!

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  3. I know this a bit off topic but I was watching this video the other day (4 years old mind you) and thought that it kind of played into what you've said. Even the public transport system is set up for the collective group rather than for individuals. In Australia, it's all about cars....even in bigger cities with limited space. Compared to Australia, there is definitely a difference in appreciation for our planet and innovation.

    That being said, there are some negatives. I find Australian's far more likely to chat away with someone they don't know and generally more upbeat haha!

    https://vimeo.com/108884155

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