Why Austrians Struggle so Much with Self-Isolation

Self-isolation goes against Austrian culture. Viennese society is built around interaction, which is a big part of what has won the city best Quality of Life for 10 years running.

Sunday morning, in an attempt to break out of the monotony of self-isolation in our living room, we went outside to the terrace for breakfast. Our upstairs neighbors were welcoming visitors. They have their apartment entrance outside and when the guests arrived we heard, “Ah, servas! Komm lass Dich drücken.” (“Hey, how you doing? Common, gimme a hug.”) They proceeded to hug and kiss their friends. It was all I could do to stop myself from yelling up at them. “What are you doing? Don’t you realize what’s going on?”

I didn’t say anything. Maybe that was wrong. What a time to be alive. 

Privacy & intimacy

I’ve lived in Austria for over 20 years and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the culture it’s that they love intimacy. While privacy and data privacy is very important to Austrians, the social fabric requires constant interaction. Even in a small circle of friends, Austrian and particularly Viennese society depends on it. From the Kaffehaus to the Heuriger, from Red Vienna to the social partnership, doing things together and bringing people together is part of what gives Vienna the strong character it has. 

That’s the secret to Vienna’s owning the highest “Quality of Life.”

Privacy is not the same as isolation. The first is integral to how Austrian business and social circles operate: on a need to know basis, with plenty of speculation and gossip. The second – in particular self-isolation – is a crippling anathema to the way Austrian social life and business functions. The term “Handschlagqualität” – literally “hand-shake quality” – signifies the highest form of trust you can assign to a person. When someone’s solid you call them “a guade Haut” – literally “a good skin.” Even the metaphor requires touching one another. Social intimacy can mean switching from “Sie” to “Du,” moving from a handshake to Bussis on the cheeks.

Simply put, Vienna just isn’t the same when people aren’t touching each other.

The term “Handschlagqualität” – literally meaning “hand-shake quality” – signifies the highest form of trust you can assign to a person. Even when someone’s a good person you call them “a guarde Haut” – literally “a good skin.”

It’s a safe guess that 80% of Viennese leisure time and social interaction takes place in cafes, restaurants and bars. In fact, I like to highlight the pull of the Shanigarten in spring as the signifier of “Happy Vienna”. 

Of course, when it comes to business we can’t forget that tourism and gastronomy make us a huge part of Austrian wealth. Tourism and restaurants alone make up 20% of GDP and then come event organizers, transportation companies and the like. As a country, we’re not equipped for self-isolation.

The two Viennas

There are really two Viennas: There’s the one with the unfriendly waiters and the shop staff that finds customers a necessary evil; the neighbors with no sense of humor; the people who glare at you if you cross an empty street when the light is red. There’s that Vienna. 

Then there’s the Vienna in which the driver of the U4 U-Bahn train cracks jokes over the loudspeaker. The one where teenagers help a grandma carry her groceries upstairs. Or where an opera singer belts out an aria on Kärtnerstraße at 2:00 am. And, my favorite, in spring when people spill out onto the streets as soon as the first rays of sunlight peer through the clouds and the thermometer hits 15°C, they flock to the parks and Shanigärten (outdoor seating) to bask in the sunshine and join in the ultimate urban pastime: people watching. 

As the sun shines through my living room window, I know that under any other circumstances, the restaurants and cafes would be full of people. I’d probably be one of them – brunching with friends, sipping mimosas and/or bloody marys. Vienna’s really good at bringing people together. 

So how do we deal when circumstances keep us apart?

A joke to impress your Austrian friends

“Im Grunde kann sich Corona in Österreich gar nicht verbreiten.
Bei uns wäscht ja immer schon eine Hand dei Andere.”

“In Austria, the coronavirus can’t spread too quickly.
Here, one hand has always washed the other.”

-“Boarding,” a.k.a. person in the comment section on derstandard.at

Besides the obvious, how can we benefit from self-isolation?

Takeaways from the self-isolation in three areas.

  • First, we learn to use our tools. Whether it’s video calling with grandparents or automizing remote-work reminders in your calendar. The fact that we’re not physically next to each other forces us to use these tools correctly and with respect to avoiding miscommunication. 
  • Second, we go inwards. As an introverted extrovert (whatever that means) I relish the time to spend sorting my tax files and cleaning out my medicine cabinet or wardrobe. Sometimes forced isolation can be a great time to go inwards and do those things you’ve been putting off for so long.
  • Third, we start to think more globally. Despite Austria’s geographical position at the center of Europe, bordering on eight (yes, eight) different countries, we’re still in our wealthy social-democratic bubble. Self-isolation, as well as having eyes on how other countries are coping, has given us insight into how other countries deal with the spread of the virus and the measures we take reminds the whole world of what it means to work together. 

We’d like to hear your thoughts on what we can gain from all this to avoid losing the society we love.

Thanks, stay safe and don’t be a stranger,

Maggie Childs

PS: If you’re looking for updates on the measures to combat the spread of coronavirus in Vienna and Austria, check out our Coronavirus Update page.

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Maggie Childs
Margaret (Maggie) Childs is the CEO and Publisher of METROPOLE. Originally from New York, Vienna has been her home since high school. She is known for non-stop enthusiasm, talking too fast, inhaling coffee and being a board member of AustrianStartups, where she helps entrepreneurs internationalize. Follow her on Instagram @maggie_childs and twitter @mtmchilds.

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