For members


Eight unwritten rules that explain how Switzerland works

Having trouble understanding Switzerland and the Swiss? These unwritten rules - some of which are more important than those on the books - may help.

Eight unwritten rules that explain how Switzerland works
Sit down to pee and win friends. Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

While complying with the laws is a must in Switzerland, for anyone who truly wants to ‘get’ the Swiss, they’ll need to understand these unwritten rules. 

Anyone who has moved to a different country – or who has even holidayed somewhere for an extended period – will be confronted with “unwritten rules”. 

These rules are sometimes more important to the locals than actual laws or regulations, but will often be difficult or impossible to discern. 

In fact, you’ll probably never really feel as if you fit in until you are not only aware of these rules, but comply with them without even thinking about it. 

Here are eight unwritten rules that explain how Switzerland ticks. 

Off before on/out before in

This is a rule held so dearly by the Swiss that it will boggle their mind if you ask them to explain it to you. 

But that’s probably because it makes complete sense, thereby satisfying the Swiss test of being logical. 

When waiting for a train or an elevator, wait for those on the train/elevator to get off or out before you try and get in. 

The same applies for restaurants, rooms and in toilet cubicles. 

While in many Asian countries, boarding a train will feel like trying to get to the front of a Pearl Jam mosh pit, in Switzerland this is governed by an unwritten rule. 

Breaking this rule is a major faux pas and could risk your social ostracism before you’ve even settled in. 

Please wait for everyone to get out first before getting on the train (or elevator).

Drop the ‘pop in’

It’s perhaps no surprise that a country which prioritises planning does not like surprises, no matter how small they are. 

While a surprise ‘pop in’ visit might be a nice way to remind your friends that they are on your mind, in Switzerland it will not be welcomed. 

According to the authorities in the canton of Aargau, if you want to show someone you care through a spontaneous visit to show just how important they are to you, make an appointment in advance. 

Politicians should be seen and not heard

This rule might sound like an absolute dream to people from 100 percent of countries on earth and it still remains one of Switzerland’s most controversial “unwritten rules”. 

In Swiss parliament, new members of the Council of States (Switzerland’s upper house) are not allowed to speak or engage in debate for the first month or so of their tenure. 

The idea is that they use the time to get to know the rules (written and unwritten) and etiquette of the senate before they start blabbing their big mouths off. 

This has been a problem recently, for example in 2019 when 22 of the 46 members of the senate were new – thereby meaning that half of the house was not allowed to talk. 

Call in sick

So this one might have been driven home elsewhere due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a rule held in high esteem in Switzerland is staying home if you feel even slightly sick. 

In English-speaking countries, studies have shown that workers believe there is an expectation to “suck it up” and push through their illness to come to work.

Workers have said they fear they’ll be deemed to be “chucking a sickie”, even when they’re genuinely sick. 

In Switzerland “sucking it up” and pushing through the symptoms will be seen as irresponsible, both for your own health and for the health of others. 

These days, anyone with flu symptoms should stay home for fear of spreading Covid throughout the staff room in almost every country, but in Switzerland this has been the norm for some time. 

Escalator etiquette 

From shopping centres to public transport, Switzerland loves an escalator. 

Switzerland also knows just how to stand on an escalator to avoid escalating social conflicts. 

Whether going up or down – or even straight ahead on the travelator/moving walkway at the airport – you must always stand on the right, or move forward on the left. 

Stand on the right. Good advice. Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

This is especially prescient for people from Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries, the opposite is done as a consequence of driving on the right. 

If you’re unsure, remember to go with what everyone else is doing – usually a good idea with almost everything on this list – and you’ll be fine. 

Pissoir protocol 

The Swiss love their privacy – and this is particularly the case in the private arena. 

While in some countries it might be normal to start up a conversation while standing next to another person at the pissoir, in Switzerland that is heavily frowned upon. 

Small talk is out at the best of times, but in the bathroom in Switzerland it’s a real no go. 

Oh, and if you can, always leave at least one free pissoir between you and anyone who’s already there. Just do it. 

Don’t stand so close to me…. pissoir protocol is very important in Switzerland.

Sitting down to pee

While we’re on the topic of number ones, a sure fire way to alienate your housemates or your partner is to pee standing up while at home. 

No matter how good you think your aim is, if you stand up to pee, every bad smell and odd discolouration in the bathroom will be blamed on you for all of eternity. 

In fact, sitting down to pee is so important to the Swiss that it is mandated after 10pm in some cantons, SRF reports. 

While this is primarily for noise reasons – “because it disturbs the nocturnal peace and quiet by splashing around” – sitting down to pee will show your in- laws that you respect them and that you are not a savage. 

READ MORE: The ten strange laws in Switzerland you need to know

Cancel reservations if you don’t need them – but call if you’ll be late

Switzerland runs on punctuality, preparation and predictability – and that’s not just the public transport network. 

If you can’t make a reservation at a restaurant, be sure to call and cancel. If you don’t, they’re likely to remember the fact they held the table for an hour under your name and lost business. 

And if you can make it but you’ll be late, then call to let them know. It’s not unheard of that they’d give away your table after 15 minutes if the place is busy. 

On that note, just try and be punctual all the time. And if you are late, even if it’s just five minutes, let the person know. 

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

Member comments

  1. These are all so common sense! I wouldn’t dream of having it any other way. Maybe me Scandinavian sensibilities coming into play.

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For members


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.”