Switzerland is a tiny country of some 7.7 million people surrounded by four far-larger neighbours: France, Germany, Italy and Austria. Yet despite its small size, it seems everyone has an opinion about what life is like in Switzerland. For some the mountainous country is a beautiful, pristine paradise. For others it’s uptight, conservative and downright boring.
Switzerland is most famous for its mountains, cheese, chocolate, cows, and watches. Of course these things are part of everyday life: check out the mouth-watering display of chocolate bars at any grocery store. But the Swiss and their country are far more complex.
The biggest challenge is pinning down who exactly typifies the average Swiss: there are four different cultures and languages. Some 64 per cent of Swiss speak German. (They actually use Swiss German dialects when chatting and High German for writing). About 20 per cent speak French, seven per cent speak Italian, and less than one per cent speak Romansh.
Only by living here does one learn the customs and etiquette that make the country so much more than its stereotypical image.
The Swiss, for example, pursue a policy of neutrality but also have a large army to defend the country. It’s not unusual to phone up a business acquaintance and find they have left for military service for a few weeks.
And while the Swiss love their rules and order, you still find places where chaos reigns. Try figuring out when to cross the road at the crosswalks known here as “zebra stripes”, as the cars ignore the pedestrians and fly by.
In the spirit of trying to get to know the Swiss better, here’s a cultural guide focused on the German-speaking part of the country.
This is an area you should try to get right or things could get uncomfortable. The Swiss, while not the most outgoing individuals on the planet, still like their formal greetings.
If you’re meeting someone for the first time, stretch out your hand and say grüezi (hello). If you meet a friend, then you kiss them three times: offering first your right cheek, then left, then right again. The latter exchange is for women greeting women and men greeting women. The boys stick with a handshake or maybe a man hug. Remember to not actually plant a big smacker on someone’s cheeks: think air kiss instead.
When you go into a store say grüezi to the sales people, and when you leave say adieu (goodbye). People may also greet strangers with a grüezi when passing in the street, and always on hiking trails. Bitte (please) and merci or danke (thank you) are also appreciated here.
This may be the hardest thing for North Americans and Brits to accept: the orderly Swiss do not believe in lining up. Whether it’s the cheese counter at the supermarket, the bus stop, or the ski lift, it’s every man for himself. Do not expect that the Swiss will honour or even acknowledge a line up. Instead be prepared to speak up and tell others that it’s your time to buy bread, and don’t be shy about using a little elbow to get ahead when there are hordes of people.
The Swiss also aren’t fussed about bumping into each other. Maybe it’s because there are so many people packed into a small country. If you find yourself bumped, don’t make a dirty face but instead say scho guet (that’s okay) to the bumper and move on. If you do the bumping, say sorry or äxgüsi (excuse me).
The Swiss tend to take a more arms-length approach when it comes to their personal lives. They tend to be quiet and discreet when they first meet you so don’t tell them your whole life story or ask probing questions about their family or job. It will probably require a lot of work and time before you are upgraded from an acquaintance to a friend.
“It is best to approach new people carefully and not be too forward,” according to a Canton of Zurich website aimed at promoting integration.
This can be frustrating for foreigners who are used to making instant friends, but it’s no reason to quit and only hang out with expats.
“We take friendships quite seriously once they are established,” the Canton of Zurich website says.
Keep Swiss reticence in mind if you need help, whether it’s finding an address or getting help lifting your stroller onto the train. The Swiss are usually very happy to assist someone, but often wait until they are asked before springing into action.
Rules for everyday life
The Swiss live up to their reputation when it comes to the area of punctuality. Here being late is not a way of life: it’s just rude.
Going to a business meeting? Show up early so you look organized, competent and respectful.
The same goes with playdates in the sandbox: meeting up with your friend and her child an hour after the agreed time likely won’t go down well.
People are also expected to show up on time for social outings, whether it’s dinner at someone’s house, drinks at a bar, or a party. The Swiss aren’t asking a lot: if the trains and buses can run on time, why can’t you?
When meeting friends for a drink, there are strict rules when it comes to how the toasting unfolds. Wait until everyone has their beverage, look your toasting partner in the eye, clink your glasses, and say zum Wohl or prost (cheers). Repeat the same ritual with everyone in the group. Then let the drinking begin.
You don’t get this squeaky clean and organized without rules, and the Swiss have many to ensure life keeps running smoothly.
For example, you can’t just throw your trash into any old bag: instead you must pay for special garbage bags. There are also strict rules for recycling: paper must be bound with a string and put out in a special collection spot on the anointed day. Glass and aluminum are taken to a recycling depot, though it’s forbidden to do so during the evenings and on weekends. Plastic bottles are returned to the store, along with coffee capsules.
Another area abiding by the rules is crucial is the laundry room, according to the Zurich website. Many Swiss live in apartments, sharing their washers and dryers. Each unit is typically given a certain day when they may use the laundry facilities. Straying from the plan can get you into hot water.
“You should stick to the day and leave everything clean when you leave, otherwise you have to face the wrath of irritable neighbours,” the website advises.
The Swiss take a decidedly hands-off approach when it comes to raising kids. No helicopter dads and moms here. Instead, toddlers are encouraged to zoom around on balance bikes (without pedals), go to playgroups in the forest, and climb to their hearts' content in the playground. School-age kids are encouraged to walk or bike to school by themselves, and play outside with friends on their own.
Switzerland has a unique education system. Children typically enter kindergarten at the age of 4 or 5. After grade 6 or 9, they can try an exam to enter Gymnasium, the school that allows them to go on to university.
Many Swiss children, however, go through a stream that incorporates education with vocational training. Don’t be alarmed if you have an extremely young nurse, mechanic or childcare worker: they have been training for years.
If there’s one dish the Swiss are most famous for, it’s cheese fondue. They have their own rituals for this rich and indulgent dish that must be observed.
When at a restaurant or visiting Swiss friends, you will be offered the following drinks to accompany fondue: wine, schnapps or tea. Beer is definitely frowned upon as a friend of mine learned when his waitress refused to serve him a lager with his fondue. The Swiss aren’t being difficult: they just believe that some drinks help you digest the melted cheese better.
When eating fondue, diners are not supposed to take a dainty little swirl with their fork to avoid germs (as recommended by a US website). Instead, start stirring vigorously as soon as the fondue pot is put on the heater to prevent the cheese from burning.
The Swiss tend to be pretty traditional with their fondue, sticking with domestic favourites like Emmentaler, Gruyère and Vacherin rather than mixing things up with foreign varieties like cheddar. And don’t throw the fondue pot into the sink as soon as all the melted cheese is consumed: the Swiss like to eat the crust that forms at the bottom, which they call the religieuse.
The last tip for fondue etiquette: don’t ask for chocolate fondue here. This is not a traditional Swiss dish, but a modern invention from New York (albeit reportedly from a Swiss restaurant).