Little people, big world

Sep 252008

With only 8 million countrymen and -women, Austrians take close relationships into account when making decisions.

Austria can be a mysterious place. Sometimes things just happen and I’m not sure why. People decide things behind the scenes and by the time I find out, it’s out of my hands.

That’s not specifically malicious or even necessarily negative. It just makes me feel like a little person in a big world. Austria is a small place, with a population of 8.3 million. People here seem to take relationships into account to a much greater extent than I'm accustomed to seeing. It reminds me very much of Japan in that respect.

The comparison first occurred to me yesterday, for a different reason. My colleague Corinna, a very competent political reporter, told me she had never before met a native English speaker with whom she could converse naturally in German. That felt like a tremendous compliment. I told her that I’ve found this surprisingly easy to do here in Austria. People speak German with me until I request otherwise, on the somewhat rare occasion when the subject is beyond my abilities, and then they switch over to English, sometimes perfect English, sometimes good, sometimes merely understandable. It’s very comfortable. They just want to make themselves understood, and that’s all they expect out of me. The decisions-out-of-view and the mysterious-happenings side of it occurred to me yesterday during a conversation with the editor of the magazine where I’m working. I handed in an assigned one-page opinion piece only to discover that something else had been lined up in its place. That package of four shorter op-eds was very good, so I’m not second-guessing.

Corinna suggested that I pitch the article to a newspaper. So I did. I called the op-ed editor at a national newspaper this morning. He told me the piece sounded interesting, and gave me his e-mail address. I sent it to him, and five hours later, he was asking me for my bank account number so he could wire me an honorarium. He turned out not to be able to publish it after all. Ah, well. The other mysterious incident was also yesterday. I’m investigating a fairly prominent business in Vienna, following complaints by several of its customers, who are also prominent businesspeople. It’s nothing illegal, just a matter of customer complaints. I talked to one of those customers Monday, and one called me back Tuesday morning. At noon, I got a call from PR representative who works with the business, whom I had met just a couple of weeks ago. He said he had heard that I was asking questions, so we arranged to meet at noon, at a cafe down the street from my office, at 12:30. Vienna is a small world. Several people have told me “Everybody knows everybody.”