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The social taboos you should never break in Switzerland

The social taboos you should never break in Switzerland
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash/wisegie/flickr
Like any set of rules, there are always exceptions. While some of these taboos are embedded strongly in Swiss society, other Swiss will rebel against them - particularly when hanging out with internationals.

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Younger people are also more likely to be open minded in this area, so remember that it’s always important to read the room. But if you’re in doubt, err on the side of caution. 

Shhhhhh

While it might be a social and cultural norm to yak away on the phone loudly in cafes or on public transport in other countries – yup, we’re looking at you, Americans – nothing will get under a Swiss’ skin more. 

Keep in mind the volume of the conversations around you – if there are any – and try and match it. The Swiss are also very good at speaking different languages, so don’t assume that they won’t understand you. They can. 

If in doubt, treat public places like libraries – and libraries like, well, libraries. 

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

Say my name, say my name

It feels like being back at high school again, but the Swiss are notoriously formal when it comes to their preferred nomenclature. 

In a business context or elsewhere, such as visiting the doctor or even talking with colleagues, first names are a real taboo. 

Not only should surnames be preferred, but titles as well – at least until you’ve been given permission to use a first name. 

Know your formal from your informal

While this is relevant to the above point, this is more important when speaking one of Switzerland’s three main languages: German, French or Italian. 

Each of these languages – unlike English – have formal and informal variants. In Switzerland, it’s important to stick with these the first time you meet someone – and often well into knowing them. 

In a business context these are important, but also with bartenders and shopkeepers. Although your accent may save you, jumping to a du, tu or tu when a Sie, vous or Lei was appropriate, can stifle a conversation before it begins. 

While it won’t matter as much for younger people – in urban centres they may rib you for doing so – older people may take it as a direct sign of disrespect. 

Overshare – or ask too many questions

In Switzerland, private life remains private – particularly in a work context. It’s definitely a taboo to overshare about your own private life, as it is to ask too many questions of others. 

If the conversation veers that way, then you’re usually in the clear – but otherwise just stick to sports or the weather. 

The same rule goes for politics. It’s rare – even when you think you’re closer with someone – to discuss political views or political support. 

READ: 20 telltale signs you have gone native in Switzerland 

Money matters matter

This has a lot to do with the above point, but deserves its own heading – don’t talk about how much you earn or ask others about their wages. 

Although chatting about how much basic items cost – like flights or groceries or how a membership saves you a certain amount per year and you’d be foolish not to do it just think about how much you’re saving! – is a huge part of Swiss society, less trivial money matters are important, and very private. 

'Show us your wages': Swiss campaign aims to smash income taboo 

It’s NOT rude to stare

Although public behaviour seems comparatively more regulated in Switzerland, that doesn’t include what can be the oddest experience for internationals in Switzerland – the Swiss stare. 

At least in English-speaking countries, the phrase ‘it’s rude to stare’ is relatively common. Not so in Switzerland. 

When entering a room or sitting on public transport, don’t be surprised to feel several sets of eyes on you. 

Although your first instinct might be that you’ve done something wrong, or maybe that you’re looking pretty damn good today. 

While that might totally be the case – quick check for food in the teeth – Swiss people will often just stare at you for no reason, other than the fact you’re there. 

When staring isn’t just not rude, but where it’s required

So staring in public places is not a taboo, but a real taboo is failing to stare at certain moments – particularly when a toast is proposed. 

Look at each person in the eye when you clink glasses with them. Also one toast per meal or meeting will not be enough. Each new round of drinks brings with it another toast – and the only thing ruder than failing to look someone in the eyes is to say “oh not again!” when someone starts cheers-ing. 

As a side note, when clinking glasses, never, ever put your glass down after clinking without taking a drink. Even if you just mime a sip, doing so will prevent your host from casting you out suspiciously. 

Don’t be late. Just don’t 

The importance of punctuality can’t be overstated. Even being new in town and not having your way around the roads or public transport yet will not suffice as an excuse. 

The Swiss, particularly in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, assume that the time you arrive is the time you intended to arrive. 

If you get there at five past, they will genuinely assume you’ve decided to get there at this time on purpose – and that their five minutes is less important to you than yours. 

So aim to get there early and mill around until it’s time. 

Also don’t assume that a set time for a party means ‘approximately’. While in plenty of Anglo countries, turning up to a house party right at the suggested time might make you seem like a bit of a weirdo, an invitation to someone’s house at 8pm on Saturday means 8pm on Saturday. 

Don't be a show-off

The Swiss — especially the older generation — value discretion, particularly when wealth is concerned. That's why flaunting your possessions, or behaving in an ostentatious and pretentious manner is a no-no. The more you have, the less you show it (or boast about it).

Don't turn the other cheek

Whether you have known someone for a while or for five minutes, you should not dodge the three-cheek peck. The Swiss are very attached to this ritual; trying to avoid it is a definite faux-pas!

Although some regions the etiquette is more like two kisses, but the advice is when in doubt go for three.

Disagree about our list of social taboos or want to add something to the list? Get in touch below. 

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