'The pleasure of punctuality': Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?
One of the first things a new arrival notices in Switzerland is how punctuality is a big part of local culture. Geneva-based Swiss-American journalist Helena Bachmann dives into the Swiss love affair with being on time.
From Swiss trains to Swiss watches, there are few Swiss stereotypes more ever present than punctuality.
As the saying goes, "anyone who thinks the Germans are punctual has never been to Switzerland".
And while plenty of stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, in this case the Swiss obsession with punctuality is painstakingly accurate.
In 2019, an expansion of the Deutsche Bahn lines into Switzerland met some objection not because of the additional travel possibilities, but because the Swiss were concerned those tardy Germans would mess up their intricate transport systems.
As noted by BBC Travel correspondent Eric Weiner, the Swiss not only want to be on time, but they take pleasure in being punctual. "The Swiss derive genuine joy from the fact that life unfolds on time and in a highly efficient manner."
Exploring Switzerland's love affair with punctuality
The first question that comes to mind is, why are the Swiss known for their punctuality?
Is it because they are so involved in watchmaking, or maybe they started manufacturing watches to encourage everyone to be on time?
What came first: the Swiss watch or punctuality? We won’t solve this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum right now, though it may be a story for another day.
Instead, let’s focus on the fact that punctuality is just how the Swiss tick. The often-repeated phrase here is “if you are on time, you are already late”.
Coming from the United States, the Swiss love for punctuality hit me as soon as I arrived - right on time, as it were.
This is especially true when it comes to public transportation.
Earlier this year, I witnessed this scene: A bus pulls into a stop during the morning rush hour to take people to the train station.
About a dozen people come out from the bushes surrounding the stop. They know the bus is scheduled to arrive at 7:11 am, and it is already 7:10. They are Swiss and they have the bus timetable engraved in their brains.
As the bus starts to leave, a lone person runs after it, gesturing the driver to stop. The passengers look at him through the windows with pity: he must be a foreigner who made no effort to know the schedule by heart.
The bus continues on towards its next (punctual) stop and the lone person needs to make other plans.
Admittedly, Switzerland is not the place for chronically tardy people.
Another scene, this time at the train station: The train is expected to arrive at 9:43 am and depart at 9:44. However, an announcement is made that the train will be four minutes late due to railway repair work somewhere in Switzerland.
This means it will arrive at 9:47 and leave at 9:48.
The announcement throws the entire platform full of people into disarray, as though a four-minute delay will change the entire course of their lives.
They start talking to each other in an animated manner, discussing the consequences of this tardiness and pondering “what has happened to Switzerland?”
The only people taking this news calmly are two women speaking Italian. Draw your own conclusions.
This is by no means an exaggeration - in 2014, the Swiss became aghast that their rail system was "failing" due to official reports that only 87.5 percent of the trains arrived within three minutes of their scheduled time, down from the government's 89 percent target.
Why are Swiss wound tighter than other people when it comes to punctuality?
It is likely related to their desire to organise everything — actually, “micromanage” would be a better word — in the most efficient manner. In other words, they want everything to go according to plan and their lives to run like a (Swiss) clockwork.
Knowing what to expect, and when to expect it, seems to give them a sense of comfort.
Punctuality is also synonymous with discipline — another Swiss trait.
No wonder that Swiss who venture to less pedantic nations — for instance neighbours Italy and France, though Germany and Austria are more similar — are annoyed by the more relaxed attitude to timekeeping (and everything else, for that matter).
An American friend who has lived in Switzerland long enough to adopt some of the country’s persnickety ways, recounted how irritated she was when waiting for a train at Rome’s Termini station to take her to the airport.
She discovered that the timetable displayed two times: one the official departure and arrival, and the other the actual one. “Not just one train was delayed but all of them”, she said.
But let’s not forget one important thing…
Switzerland is a multi-lingual nation and each linguistic region has its own sub-culture, often influenced to a certain degree by their nearest neighbours.
Anecdotal evidence and my own experience show that people living in the German-speaking part are strictest when it comes to punctuality, while the Swiss-French are a tad more relaxed.
In the canton of Vaud, for example, the often-used expression, “quart d'heure vaudois" means that a slight delay is tolerated.
What about the Italian-speaking region? Common wisdom has it that “Ticino is like Italy, only cleaner”.
This expression can also be applied to timekeeping: “Ticino is like Italy, only more punctual”.
But not as punctual as Zürich.
Is punctuality… timeless?
Many people see rigorous punctuality as a thing of the past.
Young people especially are less pedantic about promptness than their elders, allowing themselves some leeway and flexibility on the spectrum of tardiness.
Does this mean Switzerland will get less punctual in the future? Only time will tell.
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