Austria, how are you? Lifestyle & Culture
What are the views of Austrians on life in general? What and how do they think, interact, socialise, what are their priorities in life? What is "typically Austrian"?
It is difficult to answer such questions without generalising excessively and there is also a problem with me being Austrian. If you have grown up in a place, you perceive many things differently than foreigners would and on the other hand, don′t notice things foreigners might consider strikingly odd.
So keep in mind that this article is particularly subjective and based on my experiences and things I have learned through non-Austrian friends (such as Germans there - great observers of the Austrian soul with the advantage of speaking the language! But also through American friends who have travelled in Austria without speaking German).
Baroque & Catholic legacy...
The Austrian society is strongly influenced by a baroque, Catholic tradition that is fairly subtle in terms of actual religious life (only about 7 percent of all Austrians attend a weekly service, which is Western-European standard; in Poland it is 20 percent, in the United States 40 percent). Nevertheless, the tradition of strong family ties, opulent architecture, food and feasts, as well as celebrations and ceremonies is something I see as concerned with the Catholic legacy of the country.
Formality and certain ways in which you engage with people socially is very hierarchical and much stricter regulated than in English speaking countries. Most Austrians eat at home, with the family. A running TV is a cultural "no-no" during meals. Families receive significant public benefits for staying with newborn babies for two years and employees are required to secure a mother′s (or father′s, but that is still very uncommon in Austria) job for three years. This leads directly to the second very shaping factor in Austria.
...with a socialist tradition...
The socialist tradition of the country is mostly based on the reforms of the 1970ies. Education is more or less free from primary school to university (when a conservative government started charging about 700 Euros in fees per year, there were many demonstrations all over Austria). Health care is public. Transportation, culture and arts, libraries and other infrastructure is heavily funded by the public.
That has significant social implications: Austria′s university graduates are among the oldest in Europe (in 2005, the average age of receiving the first degree was 27) and its retirement age is among the lowest. For several years, the political trend is to cut the social system down and liberalise the country economically. Many Austrians find the sheer thought of responsibility and initiative distressing, though. Talk to people about the extent to which the public cares for individuals - you will be surprised.
...a dash of rude- or openness...
Austrians also have a reputation for being conservative and xenophobic, especially Germans like to think of us as a hostile, grumpy bunch (which we might well be with respect to Germans). The political spectrum of Austria is in fact shifted slightly to the right compared to Germany: The German conservatives are the "rightest" party, whereas Austrian populists standing clearly right of the conservatives have pioneered populist political movements in Europe.
To understand this, I think it is necessary to distinguish between political contents on one hand and political style on the other. In terms of actual content, the rightwing populists of Austria (and of other European countries) are not necessarily more radical than the Tories in the UK or even the democrats in the US. In terms of style, Austrians have very little constraints when it comes to being straight-forward and public statements are often made by Austrians that would be regarded as being highly politically incorrect in many other countries, despite of being wide-spread views.
...original views on foreign things...
I think that there are several reasons for this. Partly it′s the Austrian mentality to rant openly about whatever bothers you. Partly - especially with rightwing issues - it is also that Austria defined itself with the aid of Western nations as the first victim of Nazi Germany, completely failing to acknowledge the role as a major culprit, which it also had, until well into the 1980ies.
There was much less of a progressive turnover than in Germany after the war. But the key-question remains: Are Austrians more xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic than the rest of Europe? Drawn from own experiences and those of (partly non-white) friends, I would say "most likely not". As everywhere, cities are more open and cosmopolitan than rural communities.
As everywhere, education makes people more tolerant. But just because it is quite likely to hear from an Austrian a grumpy complaint about Eastern-European burglars, Turkish youngsters molesting people on the street or Nigerian asylum seekers selling drugs does not mean that such stereotypes don′t exist in other countries. Enforcing political correctness (socially or legally) fights symptoms, not causes.
In terms of causes of intolerance, I don′t think that Austria is doing significantly better or worse than other Western countries. And the openness in talking about pretty much anything will at least allow you to listen to people and get a direct handle on what they honestly think (be it rubbish or not).
...and deeply domestic desires. That's Austria!
Another important aspect of the Austrian soul is the priority of domestic life. Austrians love to built, repair, extend, maintain, refurbish or modernise their houses. They also love gardening and spend hours in garden centres. Houses and gardens are important social stages for dinner parties, BBQs or occasionally just staying in and watch TV.
Garden-culture is something you find everywhere in Europe, the obsession with house-building and fixing is a more continental or even Germanic manner (a variation of the same principle is "washing the car"). The priority that homes and families have for Austrians might contribute to the stereotype of the bourgeois mountain people.
Speaking of mountains: The natural beauty of the country gave rise to a pronounced outdoors culture. Mountaineering, skiing, rock climbing, skiing, paragliding, skiing, cycling, skiing, camping, skiing, swimming, skiing, just strolling and - of course - skiing are really big in Austria and we love to spend our weekends climbing pretty much any hill-resembling thing pointing out of the landscape.
Then we sit on top of it, drink beer and watch the valleys. There′s no rational reason why we are doing this. A colleague of mine once tried to explain it with a nation-wide UV light addiction; others think it′s coffee and Red Bull that drive us up the hills. All rubbish. In the end we climb mountains simply because we can.
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