Details, details

by Eszter Hargittai on September 9, 2007

Recently in Geneva, I was filling out this visitor card in a hotel. Notice anything peculiar?

Hotel registration card

If you don’t then click on the image to be taken to the Flickr page where a specific portion of the photo is highlighted.

So what does this mean? Only men and lesbians are assumed to be heads of household in Switzerland? (Given the list and order of languages, this is most likely a card specific to Switzerland, possibly just this one hotel.) If you’re travelling as a husband-wife-child(ren) combo, only the man could possibly be the one filling out the form? And how about other travel/family arrangements?

People who know a bit about Swiss history won’t be surprised by all this. For example, Swiss women didn’t get voting rights until 1971 (!), many decades later than in numerous other countries that are relevant comparisons.

All that said, to be fair, I don’t recall the wording on hotel cards in neighboring countries so perhaps they make similarly ridiculous statements. Next time you’re filling out such a card, do you mind checking and reporting back? (If comments are closed here, feel free to just email me.) I’m curious to know how widespread this is.



abb1 09.09.07 at 11:02 am

I understand that there’s still one canton that, technically, hasn’t recognized women’s right to vote.


abb1 09.09.07 at 11:17 am

Yeah, Appenzell Innerroden. Here’s the story; excellent conclusion in the article, btw.


Mike 09.09.07 at 12:11 pm

If a majority of the population is well accustomed to certain basic rules and if these rules work reasonably well common people even tend to stick more to these reliable rules than members of parliament and government would do – even if these rules are very unjust for some individuals or even major groups.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.


Alison 09.09.07 at 12:15 pm

Somehow I don’t think they intended to include lesbians. Most old school public servants designing forms for situations such as this one would see lesbians travelling together as members of two households, even if they share a domicile and children.


eszter 09.09.07 at 1:35 pm

Alison, I agree. I said that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, precisely because it is extremely unlikely anyone who’d write this would be thinking about that. But I think it’s an amusing result that it could be interpreted as such.


Cranky Observer 09.09.07 at 2:44 pm

I have never really understood the reasoning behind the large amount of intrusive personal information demanded by European hotel registration forms. Can someone explain this? Is it related to tracking down illegal immigrants? But the US and Canada also have problems with illegal immigration and all you need to register at a hotel is a signature and some cash (preferably a credit card, but generally cash will do if you don’t look too scruffy).



Eszter 09.09.07 at 2:56 pm

Actually, Cranky, some US hotels have become stricter about this as well often asking for an ID and/or credit card.


central texas 09.09.07 at 3:11 pm

Also, Cranky,

You should think about just what information a merchant can get with just that credit card. All nicely automated with electronic copies to whatever entity might be interested in knowing your whereabouts. But then, your cellphone is already providing that information continuously. “Papers please” is now pretty much superfluous except as a direct physical reminder of your relationship to the authorities.


richard 09.09.07 at 5:00 pm

Well, now: I had a similar reaction when I entered the US for the first time and was confronted by a customs form that was to be filled out only by the head of the family… it was a small reminder that I was going to a place that had rather old-fashioned ideas about how society might conceivably be arranged.

…but yes, Switzerland is a long way, culturally, from the Netherlands.


JH 09.09.07 at 5:01 pm

“I have never really understood the reasoning behind the large amount of intrusive personal information demanded by European hotel registration forms”

What large amount of intrusive information?


Mrs Tilton 09.09.07 at 6:46 pm

Switzerland being as heavily regulated as it is, I am wondering whether this is really the idiosyncrasy of a single hotel. I am very frequently in Switzerland, and have seen this in more than one hotel. Indeed, though I can’t say I’ve paid too much attention to these forms before, I’m pretty sure this line item is always there; and I’ve noticed the very thing Eszter is pointing to, and thought it odd. I assume, though, that it is something called for by (say) the Eidgenössische Hotel Check-in Information Act of 1887. The false assumption of this line item might have been just as wrong then, but less surprising.

BTW, Cranky @ 6, most Swiss hotels don’t really make you fill in all those line items. I am usually asked to give name and address, and occasionally passport number. Of course, I am usually travelling alone. I have stayed in a Swiss hotel with the brood only once (an overnight in Lugano, so we could drive through the Gotthard Tunnel the next day at crack o’). But even then, they didn’t ask us to fill in the numero dei congiunti. Perhaps, being so close to the Italian border, the Luganesi are infected ever so slightly with the charming lawlessness of their cousins to the south.


Eszter 09.09.07 at 6:47 pm

But Richard, couldn’t you argue that any one person can be considered the head of family, even if said family has just one member, that one person? I don’t recall US forms ever stating or assuming that head of family would be a particular gender.


Chris Waigl 09.09.07 at 7:26 pm

Only men and lesbians are assumed to be heads of household in Switzerland?

I know you said this tongue-in-cheek, but I have family members (in Bavaria) who’d find this to be an entirely reasonable way to determine the “head of household”: If there’s a man around, it’s him; if not, well, we have to make do with one of the women. (If there’s two men, well they’re “Manns genug” (“enough of a man”) to sort it out.


richard 09.09.07 at 7:50 pm

Eszter: you’re right, they don’t make gender assumptions, but they do assume family relations, which may not always be appropriate. The first exception that springs to mind is a school group with some adults and some minors that have no family relation, but there are plenty of others, quite apart from the now-canonical case of same-sex partners with or without minors who have to confront whether they are considered to be valid families by the authorities.

I’m thinking right now about why the nation state tolerates families and individuals but no other social units, so this is much on my mind.


Marco 09.09.07 at 9:16 pm

This isn’t limited to hotel forms. Even worse, Swiss tax forms still use “Ehemann/Einzelperson” (Husband/Individual) for the person filling out the taxes, indicating spousal information with “Ehefrau” (wife). It doesn’t get any more official than that.


vivian 09.10.07 at 12:48 am

So how do the Swiss compare on practical social support for women-in-families? Is there a correlation between sexist unofficial forms and sexist wider society, a reverse effect, or “it’s more complicated than that”?


dd 09.10.07 at 2:57 am

Also, none of the questions were in French! Why would that be?


Anon 09.10.07 at 3:38 am

The most peculiar thing about that visitor card is that there’s a shadow across it cast by some dude having a wank. Rorschach!


Thomas 09.10.07 at 5:54 am

This reminds me of the trouble couples from Iceland can have when checking i to hotels in some countries. In Iceland women keep their own surname after marriage, and to make things more confusing the children have surnames based on the given name of the father. So it can be hard explaining that they are married and that these are their children despite all of them having different surnames.


Phil 09.10.07 at 8:53 am

I don’t get why there has to be a head of household at all, and why government wants to know. The first time I saw it on a form(when I was a teenager) I immediately thought BOTH my parents, but just put down my Dad so I could complete the thing.


ejh 09.10.07 at 9:55 am

Notice anything peculiar?

Yes, it’s only in three of Switzerland’s four official languages.


Katherine 09.10.07 at 10:08 am

#17 – as a married English woman I didn’t change my name (I refuse to use the word “keep”) and you perhaps wouldn’t be surprised at the number of times this has confused people, or the inability of various people to simply accept that my name is my name. Lots of people try to double-barrel me, or simply refuse to acknowledge that I am not the name combination they assume I should be. It’s astonishing.


eyja 09.10.07 at 11:38 am

To cover all bases: Icelandic men also keep their surnames after marriage (why take that for granted?). Oh, and some Icelandic children (and adults) have surnames derived from the given name of their *mother*.

As a married Icelandic woman with three children, I can’t say I’ve run into name-related trouble at hotels. However, that could be because we haven’t, as a family, traveled much to countries in which hotel staff is concerned with marital status. But while living in the US all of us became quite accustomed to being somewhat randomly assigned one or the other of the four different surnames in the family.

Regarding the hotel form in Switzerland, I’d be tempted to fill it out and cross over “wife” and replace with “husband” (or some other word striking my fancy at the moment).


Katherine 09.10.07 at 12:08 pm

Comment #20 was meant to be a response to comment #17, by the way.


Ginger Yellow 09.10.07 at 12:49 pm

Is there some technical definition of “head of household” that applies universally? What if the couple want to be considered co-equal? I’m not just talking about Switzerland here. It’s always struck me as a bizarrely outdated concept.


ejh 09.10.07 at 12:55 pm

Comment #20 was meant to be a response to comment #17, by the way.

We guessed that from the way it started “#17″…


Tracy W 09.10.07 at 12:56 pm

I’m thinking right now about why the nation state tolerates families and individuals but no other social units, so this is much on my mind.

What happened to the company form? Or the school? Or the club? The Department of Conservation has always been able to deal with tramping clubs as units when it comes to huts on conservation land.


eszter 09.10.07 at 2:31 pm

Yes, it’s only in three of Switzerland’s four official languages.

Switzerland has three official languages (German, French, Italian), while there is a fourth national language, Romansh.


Mary Catherine 09.10.07 at 2:54 pm

As a married woman, I also kept “my own” name. The name I got from my father. Which he got from his father, who got it from his father, and so on back through the mists of time. Which doesn’t quite do the trick of smashing the patriarchy, after all. I suppose I could have given myself an entirely new name, but I’ll confess I was not prepared to make such a radical departure.

I understand what everyone finds so objectionable about this head of household business, and I share those objections. At the same time, there’s something about the tendency of this discussion that irks me a little bit. The assumption of radically autonomous individuality, maybe, which expresses itself as an intolerance for any sort of acknowledgement of social embeddedness.

As I understand it, the US Census form is now fully up-to-date in these matters. No more assumptions about gender and family and household economy. It’s Person 1, followed by Persons 2, 3, and etc. Which is as it should be, of course, and I certainly can’t think of a better alternative. But there’s something curiously bloodless and disembodied about that numbering of Persons. Also, it makes me think of Thing 1 and Thing 2.


Katherine 09.10.07 at 4:03 pm

Well, Mary Catherine – your husband also got his name from his father, but society thinks of that as his name. Your name is yours because it’s been yours for your whole life, just like your husband. Sure there is the history of the fact that, prior to our generation, chances are the name went down the male line, but there’s not much we can do about that now.


Mrs Tilton 09.10.07 at 4:39 pm

In the future, of course, we shall all have double-barrelled surnames: [sequence of mitochondrial DNA]-[sequence of father’s Y chromosome].

Spaniards might wish to reverse the order.


Mary Catherine 09.10.07 at 4:50 pm

Yes, of course my name is in one sense my own, in the way that you describe it. But I don’t see myself as the sole and unique possessor of “my” name, any more than I see my husband as sole and unique proprietor of “his” name. I haven’t quite shaken the habit of understanding names in terms of kinship relations over time.

We could dispense with surnames altogether, and assign to each child at birth a unique alpha-numerical ID, or maybe a barcode label. Sound silly? Of course. But so long as we continue with names, we are continuing with something that still speaks of family and kinship, and that still defines and places people in terms of some entity that is larger than merely the individual unit.


Glenn 09.11.07 at 12:21 am

Switzerland is the toughest country in europe to become a citizen of. Switz. is proposing a law whereby the families of minors who commit crimes can be automatically deported. Yes, group punishment.

So, the fact that one card is incompetently written (and probably hasn’t been changed since the turn of the last century), is a minor crime by comparison.


Martha Bridegam 09.11.07 at 4:54 am

U.S. tax forms leave one blank for the earner’s name at the top, so a married couple who are both earners have to bifurcate the space in a way that always feels jury-rigged and vaguely improper. Since, out of trained politeness and deference to convention, women tend to put their names second, the next year’s tax forms tend to arrive addressed to the male partner. One more contribution to the overall picture that makes the female the auxiliary member of her partnership, or perhaps I mean the private member while the husband presents the household’s public face to the world.


abb1 09.11.07 at 7:51 am

Ve haf vays of making you fill ze hotel kart. Ja.


Eszter 09.11.07 at 10:15 am

Glenn, my impression was (thirteen years ago when I lived there for a year) that it’s easier to become a permanent resident in Switzerland than it is in the US. If you’d studied in the country for a certain number of years (seven, I think) you automatically got a Permit C, the equivalent of a US Green Card. In contrast, about ten years of legal student status in the US gave me the same amount of right to a Green Card as no such years: none.

The law you cite, however, sounds baffling. You forgot to mention that it seems it would only apply (it seems?) to immigrant families.

link to poster about suggested law


David Moles 09.11.07 at 10:16 am

abb1, for Geneva that should be “carte” and “oui.”

I just filled out a similar card in Luzern. Same problem, although I was more concerned with whether my traveling companion / recently-ex-girlfriend counted as “family member”.

(Oddly, no such card in Lausanne, though possibly the staff filled it out themselves.)


abb1 09.11.07 at 10:46 am

Calvinism failed to conquer Lausanne completely. There are still signs of life there in that city.


Mrs Tilton 09.11.07 at 1:01 pm

Eszter @36,

you’re right, the proposed law would impose Sippenhaft only on foreigners (of which Switzerland has many). And the absolutely disgusting poster you link to makes it clear that the Blocherites are not thinking primarily of the Norwegian expat community.


eszter 09.11.07 at 9:02 pm

Yeah, I think that or another article I read about this says 20% of the population is foreign, I’m not sure how they came up with that figure.

I’m assuming you’re referring to the racist aspect of the poster. What’s interesting, however, is that I think a lot of the immigrants people find troublesome come from the former Yugoslavia, which means that they tend to be white.


Mrs Tilton 09.11.07 at 9:24 pm

Eszter @40,

the figures are pretty easy to come up with, as foreigners are required to register (and not only in CH).

Yes, the ex-Yugoslav expats are “white”, whatever that means. The Blocherites’ stock in trade, though, isn’t anything rational. It is fear of the Dark Other. Serbs etc. are quite dark enough for their purposes. If there were no Serbs available, I have no doubt the Swiss klansmen would press the Germans into service, for all that there is essentially no genetic difference between Deutschschwyzer (the primary vector of the illness) and, say, Swabians.

(For those unfamiliar with the history of the Germanic peoples: the German-speaking Swiss and the Swabians descend from the same early Germanic group. As a result, of course, they hate each other. The standard German Swiss expression for a German — any German, even the unrelated Prussians — is “chaibe Schwob” — or, very roughly, “Swabian shite”.)


abb1 09.11.07 at 10:04 pm

I only know a few Swiss from the German part. Still, I object to stereotyping; certainly ‘they’ do not hate each other. Those I know don’t seem to hate anybody.

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