‘Suspicious of the unknown’: Is it difficult to make friends in Switzerland?

Surveys suggest that international residents in Switzerland find it difficult to make friends with local people. What do our readers say?

‘Suspicious of the unknown’: Is it difficult to make friends in Switzerland?
Making friends in Switzerland may not be easy, but it's not impossible. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez/ Unsplash

Among the many culture shocks among people moving to Switzerland relates to making friends. 

A common perception of typical Swiss (if such a stereotype actually exists) is that they are aloof and unfriendly, especially toward foreigners.

The Local Switzerland has often polled its readers to ask about culture shocks, with a common response being that the Swiss tend to be cold. 

One of the of polls carried out to find out how easy or difficult it is to make friends in Switzerland indicates that the “Swiss really do remain neutral when it comes to striking up new friendships”. You can see other surveys on this subject here and here.

Is it actually true?

The Local Switzerland reached out to readers to ask about their integration experiences – and whether they found making friends to be difficult. 

One longtime resident of Geneva, who is originally from the United States, found that most Swiss are not unfriendly or suspicious of foreigners.

Rather, they approach friendships the same way they do everything else: slowly and cautiously.

“It’s not in their nature to make friends immediately, like Americans do”, she told The Local, based on her own experience.

“The Swiss have the innate sense of privacy — their own and other people’s. That’s why it takes them longer to befriend someone and trust them”.

She added that this is more the case with the older generation accustomed to rules of social etiquette; “young people are more open and spontaneous in this regard”.

READ: Eight ways to make sure you get along with your Swiss neighbours

The Local asked its readers on Facebook on June 4th, 2021, to share their opinions and experiences of making friends in Switzerland.

We received 32 comments, many of which confirmed the stereotypes – while other people said they had fewer difficulties. 

Some of the comments negate the popular perception of Swiss people as being unfriendly toward foreigners.

“I never had a problem making Swiss friends. In fact, some of my closest friends are Swiss. I find them friendlier than some other nationalities who live here”, said Kathryn Moll-Bland.

Pakkaorn Chueachan seconds this opinion. “I live in a small city. The people here are really nice to me and supportive. I make new friends almost every day”, she said.

For others, it is more a matter of being patient and not expecting friendships to happen overnight.

“It seems to take a lot longer to develop a deeper friendship with them, kind of like peeling through layers of an onion”, according to Ashley Molloy. “But once you do get closer, they are highly reliable and trustworthy friends to have”.

No friends and sky-high costs: The downsides of Switzerland for expats

But for some internationals, making Swiss friends is challenging.

Peter Donker found several reasons why this is so: the family-oriented culture and language.  

“With regards to the former, I was struck by how much time people spend with their extended family on the weekends instead of with friends. The Swiss do not easily move from region to region, so they remain close to siblings, cousins, etc. And this means there is a tendency to hang out with them in free time, which makes it more difficult for others to ‘intrude’”.

As far as language is concerned,  “to make a friends you need to share a language thoroughly. This also means that the Swiss have a hard time making good friends across language divides. It impacts everyone”,  Donker said.

He also made another important point: “The friends one makes in adolescence are “special” in the sense that you have lived formative years with them. It is hard to make similar friendships later in life, regardless of which country you move to. I am willing to bet that quite a few people complaining about the Swiss being difficult to make friends with would have the same feeling had they migrated to another country”.

Interestingly, the most scathing view of friendships in Switzerland came from a Swiss person, who pointed out that it is not easy to make friends even for a local.

“There is a natural distance in our character that makes us respect boundaries. Maybe we are somewhat suspicious of the ‘unknown’?” noted Laurent Biehly.

“I remember going to bars where I would see people I knew who would just greet me but not come sit close by. The biggest compliment I ever received is: you are so not Swiss”, he added.

So how can a foreigner make friends with the Swiss?

There is a joke that it takes 254 steps to befriend a Swiss, but we will sum it up in six.

Master the language

This is a ‘must’ not just to establish friendships, but also to be able to communicate with the locals in general.

Plus, this shows people that you are willing to integrate and not expect everyone else to speak to you in your language (this is the case of some foreigners whose nationality we shall not mention).

READ MORE: How to improve your social life in Switzerland

Learn about Switzerland

Learn as much as you can about Switzerland; if you don’t know something, ask

This will show people you are truly and genuinely interested in their country. They will appreciate it.

Don’t criticise

The Swiss are proud of their country and they hate it when foreigners who settle here start criticising local culture, customs and traditions.

Instead of telling people what is wrong in Switzerland and how it could be improved, focus on all the positive aspects of living here.

By the same token, don’t tell locals how much better your own country is. This will create resentment and hostility, not friendship.

Go for drinks

If your co-workers are in a habit of going for drinks after work, join them.  Wine drinking is a big part of Swiss culture and you won’t win any points for refusing to participate in this social custom.

Readers tips: How to make friends in Switzerland

Join sports activities

The Swiss are pretty athletic and often participate in various sports activities on the weekends. In you get involved in any group / team activity that interests you, you will boost your chances of making friends.

Last but not least: be friendly yourself

If you want to be accepted (after fulfilling all the above points), become the kind of person people want to befriend: open, outgoing, fun (at least some of the time), trustworthy, and reliable.

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Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”