Kathrin Passig on abnormality

Only the ice cream is normal

For the most part, normality reigns supreme in our world. That’s also the beauty of it: availability in abundance. People only really encounter exceptions in two contexts: either something unusual happens outside our front doors or we take a trip abroad. If we are Austrian, “abroad” – as defined as the realm of diminishing normality – might begin about 100 kilometers from our homes. If we live in Switzerland, however, it can be just ten kilometers down the road in the next canton. And in Berlin entering “foreign terrain” entails no more than crossing the S-Bahn Ring, the rapid transit rail line that encircles the city center.

If something appears outside people’s front doors that wasn’t there the previous week, it often sparks resentment. Signposts, street lamps and cycles have all caused annoyance when new, even if we now appreciate their practical perks. Over time they have all been normalized. But what isn’t normal yet? Bikes for hire (possibly from Chinese providers). E-scooters (possibly from the same source). Pedestrians glued to their cellphones as they meander past.

What isn’t normal is inherently bad – initially. It must be bad because it is used by shady, suspicious characters, by hipsters and dandies. What really wealthy people do hardly impacts our streets at all because they live elsewhere and are a small minority anyway. Their heli-skiing adventures, hunting lodges and thousand-meter luxury yachts aren’t constantly in our faces. But these young people, with their weird beards, hairstyles, fashions and views, who evidently have too much money and time on their hands, go about their business in those very places where the nurturers of normality encounter it daily.

(Image: Stocksy / Giada Canu)

The mere sight of the abnormal
A publication celebrating the history of the Vienna Cycling Club describes the early days of the organization, which was founded in 1883. “The people, young and old, in the towns and in the country, regarded the cyclist as a fool, a public hazard to respectable members of society, a creature who startled the plodding homestead horses. He was thus fair game and they treated him accordingly, bombarding him with stones and throwing obstacles into his path to make him crash. Sometimes the only way to make progress through villages or along roads was to engage in fistfights with the angriest antagonists.”

This aggressive behavior towards ‘bicyclists’ – and decades earlier the ‘velocipedists’ – is driven by the very same questions: what is the “normal” use of roads and sidewalks and who is entitled to use them? But the outlandish clothing and mere existence of those who advocate this bizarre form of transportation also provokes criticism.

The fact that cycling is practiced by hipsters and dandies is one reason why this abnormal behavior seems wrong. The other is that it challenges the legitimacy of what is normal. When, the publication argues, young men or even young ladies ride around on bicycles, it looks as if the previous alternatives – horse, carriage, staying at home – aren’t good enough for them. These people are implicitly rejecting things which others find satisfactory. The mere sight of the abnormal implies a reproach to those who shrink from its practice.

In most cases the outrage subsides over time – as a result of familiarization. This can be actively fostered by software manufacturers, for computer programs can be updated in the background and progressively modified without people noticing. A button gets moved from left to right, a color changes, a minor option disappears and, a few years later, an app designed to play music has mutated into online banking software that produces personal tax returns. And, unless they have compared it with old screenshots, nobody notices what has happened. Ideally the same technique could be applied to physical objects. Manufacturers could start populating the streets with tiny, virtually invisible e-scooters and rental bikes and then gradually introduce larger versions.

Familiarizing occurs faster when even less normal things come along. The moment air taxis appear in the sky or self-driving delivery vehicles on the sidewalks, scooters will cease to be an issue. Soon nobody will remember how they once found the current normal strange.

(Image: Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos / agentur focus)

The other quirks of life abroad
At the of official residence of everything abnormal – i.e. abroad – the situation is slightly different. Absolutely nothing there is normal bar the ice cream flavors. They are, unfortunately, exactly the same as at home, which inconveniently also sparks resentment about the negative impacts of globalization. But then there are the power sockets! The faucets! The toilets! The windows! The construction and coloring of milk containers! The water that tastes of chlorine! Hardly anything is where you expect it in supermarkets and even the units of measurement might be different.

The chlorine taste soon disappears by itself, like the musty air in college classrooms. Only the newcomers turn up their noses. This is why tourists in foreign countries will often hear their hosts proclaiming that their tap water doesn’t taste of chlorine at all. A single gulp then suffices to dispel any doubts – often followed by a bemused standoff in which the guests from abroad wonder if the locals have taste buds, and the locals suspect their guests of being snowflakes.

There are no such in-built mechanisms for adjusting to the other quirks of life abroad. We need to make a real effort not to view the normality of others as an inferior facsimile of our own. Because, if we look closely, the exotic solutions to life’s problems elsewhere are not the product of ignorance or ineptitude. British plumbers are perfectly aware of the existence of mixer taps, and know that it is quite possible to build showers whose construction and efficacy do not recall old-fashioned telephone booths. Electrical manufacturers are familiar with more than one type of power socket. The French know that beds can also be made without nailing the blankets to the footboard. And EU visitors’ surprise at the mosaic of black holes that masquerades as Germany’s cellular network is not due to a lack of technological expertise or the residents’ disdain for their cellphones.

The existence of so many forms of normality is above all due to a phenomenon known as path dependence. At an unspecified point in time, somebody makes a selection from a list of multiple options, e.g. the design of a power socket. Within a few years, consumers will have bought billions of electrical devices whose plugs fit these sockets. The irresistible force of wanting to survive without adapters abroad then meets an immovable object: a stubborn resistance to replacing all the plugs and power sockets at home. The outcome is a world that simply is what it is, one shaped by events rather than logic. A world that might occasionally require some adapting and even prompt indignation. That will remain the case until the first aliens arrive on Earth. But from that day onwards everything on our planet will suddenly be absolutely normal. Even British faucets.

Kathrin Passig devotes her time to dreaming things up; she works in Berlin as a journalist, author and translator.

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