Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Serb POV: Laws Are Just "Suggestions"

I was riding with my brother this weekend in his huge, shiny, thoroughly American pick-up truck when he suddenly slammed on the brakes. WTF? "Green light just turned yellow", he explained. Wow. It was incredibly strange to be with a driver who stops for yellow.

If there's a Serb on this earth who has stopped at the hint of a new yellow, I have yet to meet them. My brother is shocked. "But, it's the law!"

I am caught in a Serb-American culture gap. My US family and indeed most of my US friends never go in through the "out" door or heaven forbid, smoke where there is a no smoking sign. If there is a posted rule, or even an implied rule such as a paved path through the woods, then you Stay On It. Anything else is irresponsible, dishonest and slightly stupid. Rules are there for your own good and all our common welfare. The US is a big and complex place, with hundreds of millions of people from thousands of cultures, creeds and ethnicities. Obeying the rules is good sense, it keeps us all safe and makes it possible for all of us to live together. Breaking rules is bad citizenship, and more than slightly adolescent.

My Serbian family, on the other hand, think that anyone who obeys the rules is a conformist idiot. Rules and laws, even when posted on large signs, are "just suggestions." It's smart to make rules and laws, but each member of the population should independently decide whether to obey them. This explains both why Serbia has great, public non-smoking laws on the books and why no one in history has ever obeyed or enforced them.

During the past two-three generations, if you had obeyed the letter of the law all the time in Serbia/Yugoslavia, you would not only have been mocked and jeered by your compatriots, you'd also be broke, starved and possibly dead. During economic sanctions, for example, it was impossible to live without the black market.

The most frustrating thing for both cultures, I think, is how attitudes toward rules change quite radically in the larger context. The US thinks nothing of disobeying international law, and even gets quite self righteous about its actitivities when doing so. And Serbia tries to obey contracts only to be denied what it sees as justice for doing so (ie. Kosovo agreements broken.)

I've also found this to be the case for corruption. Petty corruption is common enough in Serbia. For example, we've been pulled over for non-existent traffic violations by police who just wanted to collect enough bribe money to go out for a good night's drinking. That sort of thing is unheardof in the US; I can't begin to imagine paying off a government official in everyday life. On the other hand, the highest echelons of US corporations can be immoral to the extreme. For example, tobacco companies hiding scientific evidence in the 1950s and 60s, and now targeting brands to appeal to teens.

Neither country is less corrupt, more moral, or more intelligent than the other. They are just really different. And I'm caught in the middle, riding along in a huge pleasure truck than would make everyone in Sombor stare with their mouths open.


Peregrine said...

I enjoy your blog, but I have to disagree with this post. It is nice to seek the good in everyone, but you really cannot say that corruption and respect for the rule of law in the US and in Serbia is anywhere near comparable.

Sure there is corruption etc in the US. But in Serbia you get the top level corruption AND the petty everyday corruption. As a businesswoman you must be particularly aware how damaging that is for the business environment.

When you have to fear the police and approach them the same way you would petty criminals... it is straight out damaging to imply that it's ok, developed Western liberal democracies transgress too.

Anonymous said...

this was very funny! my family lives in australia and my mother once stood under a "no smoking" sign smoking. had to laugh! :)