What life in Switzerland is like
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Swiss culture & living in Switzerland

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If you're reading this, then you're probably thinking about moving to Switzerland or you're already here, puzzled about the Swiss, their culture and social etiquette. Let's clear the air a bit and find out what makes the Swiss tick. 


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Main preconceptions about Switzerland

When we delve into a culture, we tend to grasp at preconceptions and in Switzerland these tend to fall upon snowy mountains, skiing, cheese, chocolate, banks, watches, impeccable infrastructure, cleanliness, cows or a Grand St. Bernard called Barry

The Swiss are also known for their reserved, extremely organised nature and strict adherence to a set of unwritten social rules for daily life, which for extroverted foreigners seem cold and rejecting. In this article we'll go beyond some of these preconceptions and try to understand the Swiss and their culture better.

So... what makes the Swiss tick? Firstly, it's their obsession with time.

If God was Swiss, the universe would have been created in exactly seven days and not a minute longer

Everything runs on time in Switzerland. You've probably heard that about Switzerland, but you won't actually realise it until you're here. The Swiss love to be on time. Shakespeare probably wrote this line ‘Better three hours too soon than a minute too late' whilst on holiday in Switzerland. While being late more than one minute to a meeting will make people frown, being early is just as disagreeable. Five minutes at a push is acceptable. Other than that, punctuality is precise.

Why do the Swiss like punctuality?

Punctuality and being punctual is a trust building mechanism which shows that you are reliable. This is essential when building your network. The more people you know that think you are reliable the more chances you will have to be recommended for jobs, houses, apartments, medical specialists, getting into schools. 

Röstigraben is a thing

Röstigraben is a term used to refer to the line (and cultural differences) between the German-speaking and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. There is also the Polentagraben, which describes the cultural boundary separating the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. The amusement here, is that each term hints at the main choice of food or preference in each area - Polenta and Rösti.


Social etiquette

Homes are considered very private and the Swiss don’t easily organize dinner invitations or coffee with people they don’t know well or that aren’t part of their family. Neighbors often prefer to gather in neutral commonly owned areas such as the shared garden, parking spaces, basement.

As a newcomer, you are expected to make the first move and invite your neighbours over to introduce yourself. An introduction over a glass of wine and snacks is sufficient. The Swiss are reserved and generally limit their invitations to trusted circles. This is a sign of respect for your privacy and not intended to cause offence. They are usually delighted to be invited as a way of getting to know you better. Don't expect barriers to break down immediately: this will take time. Once you do get to know the Swiss better, there is great potential for lifelong friendship.

The behavior, expectations and interactions with Neighbors, Colleagues, Friends and Family are not the same. The Swiss tend to be long term oriented and it takes time to become a friend. 

Below is a very basic survival guide for Swiss social courtesies:

Common Swiss social courtesies

  • Bring a small gift such as flowers, chocolate or a gift for the children when invited for a meal.

  • Be on time (or even 5 minutes early) for appointments or cancel in time.

  • When offered a glass of wine, wait for the host to make a toast before drinking.

  • Before beginning a meal say 'bon appétit' / 'guten Appetit' ('enjoy your meal').

  • Call before dropping in for a visit.

  • Sunday is a day of rest, and noisy activities are not appreciated.

  • If you're planning a party, neighbours appreciate being informed or even invited.

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The Swiss are huge fans of hiking

Most Swiss are huge fans of sports and any kind of outdoors activities, especially hiking. With so many well marked hiking and biking routes all over the country, it would be a pity not to take advantage. This is a country where older people keep fit by walking. Not the kind of walking we know, like a nice Sunday afternoon stroll in the countryside to the nearest country pub for a pint, but serious stuff, involving mountains, glaciers and dangerous goats. 


In conclusion, how to be more Swiss

Swiss culture revolves around highly active and healthy people, politely pursuing, in a timely manner the most quintessential elements of life. To join in, it’s quite simple. Turn off your television, don’t potter around aimlessly in the garden. Get organised. Prepare a list. Buy some sturdy hiking boots, pack a picnic (don’t forget the wine) and hope that given time you will develop a Swiss level of fitness to match that of your 70 year old neighbours. Grab two of those funny looking walking sticks they always carry around and your camera and explore Switzerland’s stunning scenery.


Do you have questions about what it means to live in Switzerland?

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