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Ten things foreigners do that make Swiss people feel really uncomfortable

From oversharing to talking about your income, here are ten sure-fire ways to make the Swiss feel awkward.

A little girl hugs a less than enthused dog in the forest
Hugs can make Swiss people uncomfortable. Photo by __ drz __ on Unsplash

Switzerland is a complicated country with three major language groups and plenty of regional differences in terms of culture and values.

But while it’s hard to generalise, there are certain guaranteed ways to make the Swiss feel awkward. Here are nine things that foreigners do that make people in Switzerland uncomfortable at best – and downright annoyed at worst.

Not paying for peoples’ drinks on your birthday

In Switzerland, if you invite people out to dinner or drinks on your birthday, you are expected to pay for everyone. In fact, the very term “invite” (einladen in German, or inviter in French) carries the meaning that you will pay.

On other social occasions, if someone offers to pay for you, the done thing is to protest and say something along the lines of “No, no, I can pay”, even if the protest is just waved away.

Dinosaur toys at a kid's birthday

If it’s your birthday, you’re expected to pay for the drinks. People might get a little cross if you don’t. Photo by Joyce Adams on Unsplash

When it comes to splitting bills, this is less common in Switzerland than in somewhere like the UK. What you are very unlikely to see, though, is people fighting over a few cents here or there in terms of who pays for what.


The Swiss tend to take a slowly-slowly approach to making friends and can appear cold and reserved when you first get to know them (although once you have built up a friendship it could well be for life).

For this reason, telling a Swiss person everything about why you broke up with your last boy/girlfriend or all your problems with your mum/brother/best friend the very first time you meet them is more likely to result in serious levels of awkwardness than instant friendship.

Be patient: remember that you are playing a long game.

Not taking your shoes off inside

In a country where extreme cleanliness is the norm, and where snow and mud make up part of the physical environment, taking your shoes off when you enter a house or apartment makes perfect sense. But for a lot of people from other countries, the idea of removing your footwear and walking into someone’s house in your tatty socks is downright strange.

READ ALSO: 20 telltale signs you have gone native in Switzerland

If you do go into a Swiss home with your shoes on, however, be prepared for some strange looks. You may even be asked to remove your shoes and put on slippers provided by your host.

Being too polite

The Swiss are bemused (and amused) by the excessive politeness of the British with their constant use of “sorry” and “excuse me” in all sorts of situations, so expect to get sideways glances or incomprehension if you apologize for bumping into someone on a busy street.

By the same token, don’t expect someone in Switzerland to automatically say sorry to you if they bump into you on, say, a crowded train, or any similar situation where minor contact is all but unavoidable. The Swiss aren’t being rude, they just have a different concept of personal space.

Turning up fashionably late

No list about the Swiss would be complete without a mention of punctuality. While being on time for informal social occasions is perhaps not quite as critical as it was in the days before mobile phones, people in Switzerland would still rather turn up somewhere early than risk being late.

And if you get an invitation to someone’s house – especially for a meal – it is best to arrive on time, or as close to on time as you can humanly manage. There really is no such thing being fashionably late in Switzerland.

Hugging strangers

When people in Switzerland meet for the first time, they generally shake hands or – rarely – kiss each other three times on the cheek (business etiquette is another matter). What they don’t do is lean in for a big hug. Doing this is likely to startle a Swiss person.

Talking about how much you earn

The topic of salaries and incomes remains taboo for many people in Switzerland and it’s not unusual to work next to someone for years without knowing how much they earn.

Although this is slowly changing – there have even been campaigns calling for people to talk about how much they earn in a bid to increase wage transparency – you could be hit with awkward silence if you bring up this subject with a Swiss person. 

Changing your plans at the last minute

While every person is different, the Swiss are basically a nation of planners and often have social calendars that get filled several weeks in advance.

The upshot is, if you do make plans with a Swiss friend for an evening three weeks into the future, it’s probably not a good idea to call up a couple of hours beforehand and suggest postponing for a day or two because you’re feeling tired.

Complaining about church (or cow) bells

For better or worse, church bells belong to the Swiss soundscape. They also have a habit of pealing loudly at all times of day, including very early in the morning – something that plenty of foreigners in Switzerland get annoyed about.

A cow in a paddock in Mürren, Switzerland.

You got a problem with my bell, pal? Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Incessant cow (or goat, or sheep) bells are also a fact of life in some areas, even in town and cities. But complaining about them can be met with looks of blank incomprehension or even hostility by Swiss people who might see whinging about these bells as an attack on Swiss traditions and culture.

Using du/tu all the time

It’s easy to mix up the formal and informal versions of “you” in German, French or Italian, especially when you first arrive in Switzerland.

Using Sie/vous/lei when it should be du/tu isn’t too much of a crime. It might make someone think you’re overly polite or formal, but you won’t do too much damage.

Making the mistake the other way around, however, and addressing a superior at work, or a stranger with an over familiar du/tu could definitely create some awkward situations.

If you are not sure, play safe and go with the more formal option.

Read also: 43 habits you pick up living in Switzerland

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For members


Reader question: What is Switzerland’s ‘Bünzli’ and how do I spot one?

In Switzerland, you might hear the term 'Bünzli' to describe someone. What does it mean?

A person wearing socks with sandals
Socks with sandals are a part of the Bünzli uniform. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

One of many cultural curiosities, a Bünzli is someone who is simultaneously very Swiss – but whom the Swiss make significant fun of. 

The term has no direct English translation, which can make it a little confusing at first to understand. 

At least in part because it is relatively difficult to translate into English, the word Bünzli itself is often used among English speakers who live in Switzerland. 

Here’s what you need to know about Bünzli, a truly Swiss phenomenon. 

What is a Bünzli? 

The term Bünzli is a Swiss German insult to describe a particular type of person who is set in their ways, has narrow mind and view of things and tries desperately hard to hang onto tradition. It is almost always used as a criticism or in a negative context. 

While the internet gives up the translation ‘philistine’ in English, there are other elements which make a Bünzli a Bünzli. 

This insult – based on a real Swiss surname – applies to those boring people who follow all the rules and make sure everyone else does too.

Other English words like fussy, fastidious, stodgy and exact also describe a Bünzli. 

A Bünzli is the sort of person who would never cross the street when the light is red, who never stays out too late and never gets too drunk.

A Bünzli will have a perfectly manicured garden and will never want to split a bill evenly, instead demanding to pay exactly what he or she had – and nothing more. 

He is also the person most likely to complain to the building president when you dare to do your washing on Sunday, or to ring the police when he sees someone parked in front of a fire hydrant.

Some say Bünzli are particularly Swiss, like a distilled, concentrated form of pure Swiss-ness, although the fact that Bünzli are usually the target of ridicule from Swiss people indicates that foreigners are not the only ones who find the behaviour weird or out of line. 

The best English translation is probably a ‘goody two-shoes’, although in this case the more likely attire is socks paired with Adiletten. Yep, you get the idea.

Wearing Adiletten with socks doesn’t make you a Buenzli…but it helps. Photo: Christian H. Flickr

Still not sure what a Bünzli is? 

If you still don’t know what a Bünzli is, it might be helpful to see a few further examples. 

The following YouTube video goes through some specifics of the Bünzli is in Swiss German (although if you already speak Swiss German, you’ll likely know what a Bünzli is). 

Switzerland’s English forum often holds debates where expats look to discover the exact meaning of the term

Swiss news site Watson lists several reader examples of their Bünzli experiences, from having the police called for a noise complaint at 10:01pm, to telling tourists who asked for directions while holding a train door open to let go of the door so the train can leave. 

How do I spot one? 

For those who still don’t exactly know what a Bünzli is, don’t fret.

It’ll often happen the other way around, i.e. the Bünzli will discover you, when you haven’t done your recycling or when your doormat is the wrong way around in front of your apartment or when you cycle across the pedestrian crossing with no cars around. 

Keep the above in mind and trust us, you’ll know one when you see one. 

Have you had any Bünzli experiences? Please let us know in the comments below.