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Swiss train etiquette: 'Some people treat carriages like their living room'

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Swiss train etiquette: 'Some people treat carriages like their living room'
Some commuters make themselves at home on Swiss trains. Photo: The Local
17:53 CEST+02:00
From loud telephone conversations to bags on seats, a new guide to Swiss train etiquette reveals what annoys the country's commuters the most. The Local spoke recently to the book's author.

Trains occupy a special place in the Swiss psyche and for many outsiders they represent the country's values of cleanliness, comfort and punctuality.

But as anyone who regularly travels on Swiss trains knows, they can also be a social minefield.

READ ALSO: Ten things foreigners do that make Swiss people really uncomfortable

Fortunately, help is at hand. Swiss journalist, author and self-confessed “passionate commuter” Katja Walder has put together a handy (and hilarious) guide on how to navigate the weird and wonderful world of the Switzerland's trains.

Based on regular columns written over 11 years, the Guide to Swiss commuter etiquette contains rules for train travel and covers everything from complaints about 'stinky tuna sandwiches' to reflections on the culture of what is a unique public space.

The Local spoke to Katja recently about her book and her life on the rails.

Why is etiquette so important on Swiss trains?

It's because – for better or worse – two extremes collide in a confined space. On the one hand, there are the clichéd Swiss: painfully fussy people who attach importance to respectability, order and personal space. On the other hand, you have people who view train carriages like their own personal living room and make themselves at home as soon as they get on the train.

Image:  Beobachter Edition, Daniel Müller

These people put their feet on the seats, open their Tupperware container with homemade pasta salad, have incredibly long romantic telephone conversations with their girl/boyfriends and put on their make-up because they didn't have time in the morning.

Because these two differing views of train travel are not exactly compatible, there is potential for conflict.

What complaints about train travel do you hear most often?

If you ask commuters what annoys them, you get the same answer – and one that is shocking in its radical simplicity: “people”. The simple presence of other living, breathing creatures seems to be an imposition for many people.

But there are more differentiated responses which focus on a particular complaint and which always surprise me, for example: "The sound that you hear when people scrape yoghurt out of a tub with a spoon."

In general, though, there are four overall sources of irritation: things which stink (like tuna sandwiches); noise (such as telephone calls and snoring); things which are sickening (flossing teeth or cutting finger nails); and everything which is impolite, such as taking up too much room, putting your bag on the seat next to you, or blocking the aisles and exits.

What three train etiquette tips would you give to foreign tourists in Switzerland?

We Swiss like to be alone, so we will only sit next to other people in the same compartment or seating area when everywhere else is already occupied by one or more people. If you don't want to offend anyone, you should do the same thing. If you sit next to someone in an otherwise empty train, it won't go down well.

Image:  Beobachter Edition, Daniel Müller

You should also make sure that you get advice when you buy a ticket – either at the ticket office or from a passer-by when you are using a machine. The operation of ticket machines and the choice of the right routes and zones is so difficult that even regular commuters feel like they need to have completed some kind of advance diploma.

Also: there are people from a lot of different cultures in Switzerland, which is why you should always keep Swiss commuter rule number 58 in mind: “If you are speaking in a foreign language, you should only tell things you would tell your grandmother.”

There are people in Switzerland who can understand your native language when you are talking about your relationship dramas, or your stories of your life between the sheets and doctors' visits.

Is it OK to speak to strangers on Swiss trains? Or even advisable?

Sadly, it doesn't happen often enough. If you get on a train you see a lot of people leaning over their smartphones. But I am in favour of breaking this routine of silence and getting people talking to each other again.

READ ALSO: Readers reveal: How Switzerland could improve its public transport system

A short greeting, a smile, a compliment: some people are going to be startled because of so much human contact but for other people it will brighten up the daily commute.

What annoys you most about behaviour on Swiss trains?

For me personally, it's ignorance, lack of politeness and complete lack of interest, like when people ignore a young woman who is sobbing or when nobody gives up their seat for an old lady with a walking stick, or when nobody answers after somebody asks when a seat is free.

What is the strangest train behaviour you have heard about?

Just last week, a reader of my columns told me about something which she said had been haunting her for days. A man in his mid-50s wearing sunglasses and a cap was sitting opposite her on the train. He was trying to get something out from between his teeth with his fingers. When that didn't work, he took a 100-franc note out of his wallet and tried to use it like dental floss to get a bit of food out from beneath his teeth.

While he held the note in both hands and dug around in his back teeth with the 100-franc note in both hands, my readers sent me a WhatsApp.

“I'm sorry if this gives you nightmares,” she wrote.

“But who else should I share my public transport horror stories with?”

And, of course, pain shared is pain divided.

Der Pendler-Knigge - 99 ÖV-Gebote für unterwegs is published by Beobachter-Verlag. For more information see here.

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