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SWISS TRADITIONS

Living in Switzerland: An expert’s guide on how to behave and what to expect

Switzerland is rich in customs and traditions. The Swiss pride themselves on being "punctual, reliable, diligent and modest" - as stated on Swiss National Day by president Ueli Maurer.

Navigating Swiss life can seem confusing.
Navigating Swiss life can seem confusing. File Photo: Seventyfour/depositphotos.com

Swiss core values dictate the daily life and behaviour of Swiss locals. For foreigners living in Switzerland, this can make dealings with the locals challenging to navigate. Many newcomers to Switzerland often report feelings confused about why they’re shot looks of disapproval for being late or for being addressed bluntly about a problem.

Peter Nielsen, an experienced cross-cultural trainer, specializes in intercultural communication. He believes misunderstandings happen when foreigners are not aware of local customs and culturally acceptable behaviour.

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

Based in Basel since 2002, Peter has been working to help foreigners settle into Swiss life. He shares his best tips for understanding Swiss local customs, some of which foreigners might find surprising.

Below is Peter’s practical advice on how to adjust to everyday life in Switzerland:

1. The Swiss are solution orientated, don’t take it personally

In Switzerland, people have little patience with long and complicated explanations. The Swiss generally like to keep information short and to the point. If they need more context, they will ask.

When addressing you with a problem, a local Swiss person who knows you will not lead into the topic slowly, but speak rather bluntly and expect you to do the same. The matter is perceived as an ‘issue,’ one to be fixed, so keep it solution-oriented and don’t take it personally. Once resolved, the Swiss move on and leave the past in the past.

Photo: Londondeposit/Depositphoto.com

However, if a Swiss person does not know you well, they will not be so direct. For example, a neighbour will not directly tell you what you are doing wrong. If there are issues regarding garbage disposal, noise and parking a Swiss person may call the police or appropriate authorities. They may even contact a landlord, or slip a note under your door. If your behaviour changes, or the problem is solved, then all is left in the past.

2. When receiving instructions, expect information overload   

When receiving insight and instruction, say from a landlord to tenant, then the information will be extremely detailed and explicit. Expect comprehensive written or oral information on most things, from how the washing machine works through to what you are allowed to do in the garden.

3. The Swiss will address issues directly and not sugar-coat anything

If we look at feedback, Anglo Saxon cultures will appreciate the sandwich method of feedback ( i.e. a pleasant statement, constructive criticism, followed by another pleasing statement). In Switzerland, this will often confuse the receiver. A correctional and only useful criticism approach will work better.

A scenario:

A parent and child are taking part in an activity together, and a local Swiss person sees a danger with/risk to the child. The Swiss will often immediately interfere. A Swiss person might approach the parent and state what is going on is not safe, or will move the child out of harm’s way.

For a Swiss person, this is meant to be a helping hand, a way of explaining that this particular situation is unsafe. It is NOT intended to be understood by the parent that he/she does not take care of a child well enough. It is NOT about the people involved; it is about the situation. The Swiss believe they have a responsibility towards one another when in the public sphere. Not addressing danger would be seen as neglecting or not adhering to a Swiss core value. 

4. Children are expected to be autonomous from an early age

Children are expected to take responsibility early on. A child in kindergarten will be expected to walk to and from kindergarten on their own after 2-3 weeks. In school one is expected to treat the others with respect and understanding, help one another, while having an academic focus at the same time.

READ ALSO: Parenting- should you raise independent children the ‘Swiss way’?

5. Greeting people in Switzerland

Photo: koldunova_anna/depoistphotos.com

When communicating with the Swiss, remember to use courtesy phrases. But the Swiss will have and use more than you – at least in their language which contradicts the “get to the point” Swiss way.

When initially meeting a Swiss person, you must shake hands (or kiss twice on the cheek if you know them socially). Then, say: “good to meet you.”

6. The Swiss goodbye

When the Swiss say goodbye, a mere farewell will not do. Translated into English it will be something like:

Swiss person: “Goodbye” – followed by your response
Swiss person: “Thank you” – followed by your response
Swiss person: “Have a good week” – followed by your response
Swiss person: “See you next Monday” – followed by your response
Swiss person: “Thank you (again)” and “Goodbye” (again)

A general rule is if the first goodbye was in German, the second might be in French (adieu – pronounced “Ade” or in Italian “ciao”) – followed by your response.

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

7. Eye-contact is good but the Swiss value personal space

Eye contact is essential when dealing with Swiss people; it relays trust. Gestures are not excessive. A wave with the hand, a nod of the head, a raised eyebrow is all that is needed. No, or little touching – never touch colleagues or anyone in a business setting. Silence is okay, used, and appreciated. Personal space is generally an arm’s length in a 90-degree angle from your nose.

Photo: VitalikRadko/Depositphoto.com

8. No need to queue in everyday situations

There is also no queuing culture; it is every man or woman for themselves. There is an exception to this rule when getting on/off the lift. Men generally will let women in first, and then enter. When exiting, there will be a bit of shuffling to get everyone moved around so that the ladies can get out first.

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For members

UKRAINE

Ukraine war drives sudden demand for bomb shelters in Switzerland

Companies that build and repair bomb shelters in Switzerland are being overwhelmed with enquiries since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Demand is so high that raw materials for the shelters are in short supply.

Ukraine war drives sudden demand for bomb shelters in Switzerland

Residents of Switzerland or even visitors will have noticed the yellow nuclear shelter signs that dot the country’s homes and buildings. 

This is not only due to a Swiss sense of preparation and pragmatism, but actually has its origins in a law which mandated nuclear shelters across the country (discussed below). 

In the six weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, companies have reported a dramatic increase in enquiries and requests for nuclear shelters to be built or renovated. 

Reader question: Where is my nearest nuclear shelter in Switzerland?

Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes reports that companies have been “overwhelmed with enquiries”. 

Mengeu AG, a shelter company in the canton of Zurich, told 20 Minutes there had been a “massive increase” since the start of the war, with customers wanting to make sure their shelters are ready and effective should they be needed. 

“People notice that they have a shelter in the house and want to have it repaired so that it would be ready to move into again in an emergency,” Managing Director Christoph Singer told 20 Minutes. 

“But some customers also wanted to know what they would have to take with them to the shelter and whether they could take their pets with them,” says Singer.

Thomas Kull, who heads up shelter company Lunor, said people want to know if their shelters have any defects. 

“Many of these small shelters in single-family homes were built in the 1960s to 1980s and are therefore 40 to 60 years old. From a technical point of view, these systems have reached the end of their lifetime.”

READ MORE: Inside Switzerland’s largest nuclear bunker – 40 years on

A result was a surge in demand for raw materials, some of which came from areas now swept up in the war. 

“In addition to the already tense situation due to the corona pandemic, we now need raw materials in Europe that were previously supplied from Ukraine and/or Russia.”

Liliane Staub, from G. Bühler GmbH in Bern, said the war had led to a dramatic change in attitudes. 

“Just a month ago we were smiled at during the shelter checks. Now people are beating down our doors” she told 20 Minutes. 

What are the rules for nuclear shelters in Switzerland? 

50 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the government saw nuclear war and invasion as possible scenarios — so much so, that it passed a legislation in 1963 requiring nuclear shelters in all residential buildings. 

They were to be used “during an armed conflict, especially one involving weapons of mass destruction”, according to the Federal Office of Civil Protection (FOCP), which added that these bunkers “provide a basic form of protection against a wide range of direct and indirect arms impact”. 

READ MORE: What are Switzerland’s nuclear bunkers and does each home need one?

At present these structures are no longer compulsory in single-family houses, though the law stipulates that each resident “should be guaranteed a shelter in the vicinity of her/his place of residence”.

Today, Switzerland has 360,000 communal shelters able to accommodate the entire population in case of need.

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