How to settle into Switzerland and avoid the culture shock
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How to settle into Switzerland and avoid the culture shock

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Here is some wisdom from fellow expats and relocation experts to help you cope during your first year in Switzerland. Settling in is a process, give it time, give yourself time. 

If you need extra support, a free Guidance Call with one of our relocation experts will answer any questions you might have about what it actually means to live and work in Switzerland. 

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How to Settle into Switzerland: the Ultimate Guide

  • Avoid making comparisons between your present situation and what you have left behind.

  • Make an active effort to meet people.

  • Be patient, settling in will take time.

You've taken a tremendous step moving to Switzerland, hurray to you!

Now try to keep up your enthusiasm and explore, connect, reach out to others. You will most certainly go through a socially slow period after you move here (but hey, corona taught us how to cope),

You'll go through so many emotions in your first year in Switzerland  - wonder what you're doing here, if this is the right place for you, what will you do in a few years, do you still see yourself living here? a.s.o. Our first and most important tip is TO LET GO and just enjoy the moment. 

Have a look at our tips to ease your loneliness and culture shock. A big ***THANK YOU*** to Bruce Anderson for sharing his funny observations on life in Switzerland, with the hope of helping other foreigners in Switzerland find their bearings. 

First, there's the culture shock...

‘Look at that building. 1730!’ I said to my wife and I wasn’t looking at a clock reading 5.30pm, but the date painted between two huge wooden beams. ‘Oh that’s not old!’ she replied with a smile as she pointed to a shop door across the cobbled road. Painted upon the wooden transom were the numbers 1624. I stood temporarily flabbergasted in a state of culture shock that I had not seen coming.

It took something like six months before I was at ease and accustomed to the changes. Initially, I had felt like a lost tourist clutching a map on the wrong bus, an alien in the supermarket and an impostor in the Irish Pub which seemed void of expats. I realised that I’d casually strolled into Switzerland with several assumptions that needed some adjustment. Here was a country that had caught me by surprise!

So, how do you settle into Switzerland?

1. Keep an open mind

Learn as much as you can about your new environment, the people and their culture. Be constructive and positive. Be curious and ask questions. Be prepared to listen and learn.

Criticizing is a pitfall that is easy to fall into, but it won't help you find friends or leave you feeling positive or constructive. Try not to be too hasty in forming opinions or making judgments: things are rarely as black and white or as simple as they seem. 

Let me give you an example. I was recently in a Swiss supermarket when from out of nowhere, an old lady shoved a plate of melted cheese and bread under my noise and said, ‘Möchtest du ein Fondue?’ My reaction was not becoming of a gentleman. The smell nearly knocked me out and instead of saying thank you, I think I let out an OMG and few other superlatives. I should have been more open minded and understood why the supermarket manager was not in the least concerned that I’d been attacked on aisle three by a crazy individual armed with a hot cheese. I get it now, but at the time I was new to Switzerland. I hope she can forgive me!

2. Try not to compare everything! 

Avoid comparisons between your present situation and what you've left behind. I must admit I have done this. Within days of arriving in Switzerland, I was missing a ‘real pub’ with a pool table and an abusive barman called Dave who could get me a plate of food made for a carnivore. You know, 80% meat and 20% vegetables. Here they do this but the other way around. I can hear my friends from South Africa and Australia saying, ‘Wow – that much veg mate? – 20%! Really?’ My Swiss wife thinks this is all very hilarious and still recounts an occasion in Australia where we were served beef for dinner. Just beef!

As newcomers we tend to habitually use the expression, ‘But in Australia…’ or ‘In the UK back at home we have…’ or my personal favourite - ‘Ours are much bigger in the USA!’.

Having made numerous of mistakes when interacting with new friends, my advice is simple: place your focus on what’s in front of you and talk about that. Ask questions and try and understand why melted cheese and bread are so wonderful to share and under no circumstances compare cheese fondue to Welsh rarebit. I made that mistake once. You will be told and correctly so, that it is not the same and in any case, the locals here barely recognise cheddar as a cheese. My wife once described Colby as being closer to plastic than cheese. Ha – she may have point!

3.  Be patient, settling in will take time

A rule of thumb is to give the ‘settling in’ process at least four seasons. Be kind to yourself!

If you arrive in Switzerland during the spring or summer it is impossible not to be impressed with the country’s natural beauty. The flowering meadows and small streams, soaring snow-capped mountains, lakes and rivers you can jump into and fields strewn with cows wearing bells all make it feel like you have stepped into a jigsaw puzzle. 

Go hiking in spring and summer, discover the local traditions in autumn, learn to ski or sledge in winter - there's plenty to do and you'll love every corner of Switzerland, it truly is paradise on earth. 

 4. Make an active effort to meet people

It's not easy to go out 'hunting' for friends, but you'll get the hang of it. Start with clubs, societies, expat networks or churches - all potential sources of friends and support. 

Expat groups are a good place to start but make an effort to integrate locally as well, otherwise you will find yourself in an ‘expat bubble’ of people who are constantly troubled by the lack of good quality Earl Grey teabags, the absence of self-raising flour or the price of a can of baked beans. 

Generalisations like 'Swiss people are not friendly' are easily spread, but, like any generalisations, they're not true. We've met enough friendly Swiss people to be able to say this judgement is completely unfair.  

Remember: friendship takes time, so don't expect your new acquaintances in Switzerland to take the place of your dearest friends back home. But you'll meet a lot of interesting people and your life will be a lot richer. 

5. Focus on what you find fascinating and different

Cultivate a sense of humour, smile and occasional say, ‘May I ask your name?’ This is not a common trait here. It is easy to get to know people via a third party and after a formal introduction, but if you are one of those outgoing characters who enjoy a spontaneous moment where a stranger becomes your best friend within minutes, take a step back. Let me try to sum a cultural difference for you.

The reception that you might receive in Switzerland is not coldness, it is politeness. It’s not suspicion, it’s often surprise. Its not impersonal, but respectful and courteous.

To label the Swiss as unfriendly is simply not true and yet we keep reading this clichéd generalisation. It can take longer to break the ice. Take our local farmer for example. I pop into the farm shop once a week to purchase fresh free-range eggs. We’ve been doing this for several months. Last week I asked my wife, ‘Do you think he will ever ask “How are you?” or ask me my name or enquire from which country I hail?’ This provoked a long conversation about customer service in Switzerland and the number of times I’ve come close to causing embarrassment by interjecting in my usual overzealous, jovial and free-spirited manner.

I’ve learnt to be more patient and respectful, particularly of a rural demeanour that carries a little rigid reservedness.

Our tip: Don’t dash around with preconceptions based on the stereotyping of an entire nation. The Swiss are nice people. There is an abundance of diversity here that makes one canton so wonderfully different from the next, consequently you can expect varying degrees of warmth and congeniality.

6. Learn the local Swiss language (or at least try)

Learning the local language will help you integrate in your local community and it happens to be very good for your brain (especially my brain which needs a caffeine kickstart prior to any new input). If you have children, they will quickly pick up the local language and you will soon find it difficult to understand them. 

When attempting to speak any of the Swiss languages, don't worry about being perfect. Swiss people will appreciate you making an effort. 

You might expect Swiss people to know English, and that might be true for younger people who live in the big cities. But don't expect to find English speaking Swiss people everywhere in Switzerland. The Swiss have enough trouble learning some of their own national languages to bother with English as well. 

Our tip: Learn to speak English slowly, articulate and allow people time to adjust to your accent. Hopefully, they will do the same for you as you pick up French, German, Swiss German, Italian and Romansh! 

7. When any kind of help is offered, take it

First of all, accept when you need help, advice or information. Don’t attempt to be independent too quickly. This is the one time when you will need advice and support, so take it. Then, accept that you will be dependent on other people because you are new.

Accept their help knowing that you will be able to reciprocate by helping other newcomers (who might bring over some quality Earl Grey for you). 

8. Organize things to look forward to 

Arrange a few highlights during the year, such as holidays, outings, and dining out.

Take advantage of the excellent transport connections between Swiss cities and other European destinations. You can easily step foot in four countries in a day here. I call it border hopping and it is great fun. Take an early boat across the Bodensee or Lake Constance to an island called Lindau in Germany, hike for two hours into Austria and in Bregenz jump on a train to Vadusz, the capital city of Liechtenstein! From there it’s a fairly easy 6 km walk along the Rhine to Buchs in Switzerland. Finally, sporting your sore feet, you can facebook the news, “I’ve been in four countries today, yeey!”

Bruce's Tip: You may, if you wish to do so, present yourself in Liechtenstein and for CHF 3 they will stamp your passport. I know, it's a very silly thing to do and a waste of money, but I felt compelled to join the queue at the tourist information office. Evidently this ‘Official Stamp’ is the source of the country’s great wealth. There were rather a lot of people in that queue and a bus load more arriving behind me! Anyway – back to Switzerland!

9. Step outside of your comfort zone

Moving to Switzerland was already a big step outside your comfort zone, but that doesn't mean you can sit back and relax. Push yourself, try new things and let your taste buds delve into some new delights. It is my opinion that Swiss food is the best in the world (Editor's note: this is strictly Bruce's opinion and while fondue and raclette are quite delicious, just look up fleischkäse and cervelat. When you eat your first raw cervelat salad, consider this your official Swiss 'baptism').

Take a chance and introduce yourself to people you find interesting. Go to this or that event, even if you don't know anyone there. The more you participate, the more Switzerland will open up to you. It is worth pushing through those moments of slight discomfort (and with all honestly there’s no discomfort in chocolate fondue!). 

Bruce's tip: I’ve met heaps of wonderful Swiss people whilst watching international rugby or soccer in the pub. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed English stand-up comedy nights of which there are plenty in Zurich, Bern and Geneva. Live performances desperately need your support so jump online and book a comedy show.

10. Don’t wait until you are settled and organized before seeking contact with people

People you meet may be able to answer your questions, offer support and advice and may even become your friends. Don't assume that everyone has been here a long time: everyone seems like an old timer to a newcomer.

Our tip: Swiss people will expect you to pop over and introduce yourself as the new neighbour. If you don’t do that, they assume you don’t want to have contact, and they will respect that.

More on how to rebuild your social life in Switzerland here,

In conclusion

Let go of a few things from back home. Octopus, crayfish and snapper may not be on the menu this year and don’t get me started on meat pies!!! Adjust your expectations and keep an open mind, you're totally ready.

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About the Author:

The article was created by a team of Packimpex relocation experts and brought to comedic perfection by Bruce Anderson. Best described as a kilt-wearing British-Australian with a slight Kiwi accent who now lives in Switzerland, Bruce graduated from London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 1992 and has since visited almost 50 countries, some of which allowed him to perform on stage.  His comic writing style, which has been spotted more recently in a variety of New Zealand publications has brought several editors to tears (in a good way!).  Bruce has worked in marketing and business development for several multinational companies and was a co-founder of the European-based training and development company Dramatrix.


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