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French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Fitting in and integrating into Swiss life is not easy, especially understanding the complex differences between how the locals tick in various linguistic regions. This is what you should know if live in or visit la Suisse Romande — i.e. French-speaking Switzerland.

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local
Le bisou. Photo by Tony Mucci on Unsplash

As you know if you have lived in Switzerland for a while (and this is possibly new information for you if you are a new arrival), there is a cultural divide between the German and French speaking regions, called the Röstigraben (for Ticino, the applicable word is “Polentagraben”).

The word “Rösti” refers to the Swiss German name for a potato dish which (somewhat) resembles hash browns. 

The dish is popular in German-speaking Switzerland but is almost non-existent in the French-speaking part. 

“Graben” means border, gap or rift. 

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss-Germans and Romands could be from two different planets.

And it is not only because they speak different languages, have a different culture – and because Swiss-French men don’t wear socks with sandals like their Swiss-German counterparts.

But let’s focus on the people living in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, otherwise known as Romandie. 

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

Here are seven life hacks to make your Swiss-French experience smoother. 

Don’t tell the locals that they are “French”

This is the worst thing you can tell a Romand, or, in French – and is a complete faux-pas. They may be speaking French but they are first and foremost Swiss, and most Swiss look down on foreigners.

Genevans, for instance, don’t much care for their French neighbours, even though without them, the canton’s economy would be in shambles.

If you are really French, don’t volunteer this information.

Tell the Romands you are Belgian. Or better yet, French-Canadian.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

Speak French (even poorly) but never German

While the Romands tolerate their Swiss-German neighbours (certainly more than they tolerate the French), they will not want to speak their language.

One reason is that they don’t like the sound of it and another that, while they all learned it in school (though under duress), they didn’t learn it well.

You will have to look far and wide to find a Romand who speaks Swiss-German fluently, without an accent and enjoys it. Even President Guy Parmelin and Health Minister Alain Berset, the two Romands on the Federal Council, speak it with a French accent.

They speak it because their job demands it. For other Romands, it is an unnecessary burden.

However, speaking English with a Romand is fine (although they might speak back to you in French).

READ MORE: Eight ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

Remember that the Swiss attitude to punctuality is universal

Newcomers to Switzerland might assume that the Swiss fascination with punctuality is a Swiss German phenomenon.

While the attitude to lateness in a personal context might be slightly more relaxed in Romandie – unlike in German-speaking Switzerland you’re unlikely to get a text from a friend if you’re three minutes late asking where you are – Swiss people all over the country are proud of their country’s strong record on punctuality. 

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

While the Röstigraben definitely exists, Swiss trains will be punctual on both sides of the border.

So if you’re visiting Romandie, try to do the same. 

Be on time wherever you are in Switzerland. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

Master the three-cheek kiss

You will never fit in if you don’t master the art of a three-cheek-kiss.

It’s true that other cultures have some variation of this custom, but in the Suisse Romande it is taken to the extreme.

It doesn’t matter whether you know someone for a long time or for five minutes — you will not fit in if you don’t practice the right cheek-left cheek-right cheek ritual with everyone you meet.

It is not so bad if you are meeting only one person, but if you attend a large event and have to three-kiss many cheeks you haven’t been properly introduced to when you arrive and then again when you leave, that can take hours.

Thankfully, this custom has fallen victim to the pandemic and nobody can predict whether it will ever re-emerge but, at least for now, there is a reprieve.

Small talk (especially about the weather)

New arrivals to Switzerland are often told to avoid small talk.

This is something that can be particularly difficult, especially for arrivals from English-speaking countries where the compulsion to fill up uncomfortable silences outweighs the desire to actually talk about something interesting. 

While avoiding small talk in German-speaking Switzerland is good practice (unless you want to be treated like an undercover cop), the French-speaking Swiss have a more relaxed attitude to small talk. 

Of course, French-speaking Swiss are still Swiss and some topics will be off limits for small talk – particularly if they are too personal – but if you want to fill those uncomfortable silences, you can always talk about the weather. 

Eat (and enjoy) local specialties

Okay, this may not be easy, as some foods might not be to your taste.

But if you learn to prepare (and stomach) la saucisse aux choux (pork sausage stuffed with cabbage),  le papet (pork sausage served with boiled potatoes and leeks), or Malakoff (a fried cheese ball, NOT to be confused with a molotov cocktail) you are probably good to go.

Le papet vaudois. Photo by Vaud Tourisme

Drink (and converse about) local wines

Food is good but knowledge of wines is even better.

All the French-speaking regions grow their own grapes and produce wines, and they are mighty proud of them.

Depending on the canton or even a commune where you are, learn all you can about these local wines and share your knowledge with the people you meet.

Wines are a huge social connector in this part of  Switzerland and will help you fit in like a local —unless, of course, you start talking about the virtue of French wines, which is the ultimate faux pas. 

Just remember not to assume that all French-speaking Swiss are drunks, as Italian-speaking Swiss consume far more wine per capita (a fun fact to bust out whenever you find yourself on the other side of the alps). 

Voilà, now you are ready to conquer La Suisse Romande. Bonne chance!

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

Foreigners living in Switzerland may be wondering what their basic rights are compared to Swiss citizens. The answer depends on several factors.

Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

There are currently 2.2 million foreign nationals living in Switzerland — roughly 25 percent of the population.

Simply put, everyone residing in the country legally, regardless of nationality, has the same basic constitutional rights as Swiss citizens do — for instance, the right to human dignity, free expression, equality, protection against discrimination, and freedom of religion, among other rights.

They also have the right to fair and equitable treatment in the workplace, in terms of wages, work hours, and other employment-related matters.

As the law states, cantons and municipalities “shall create favourable regulatory conditions for equal opportunities and for the participation of the foreign population in public life”. 

If they are arrested or imprisoned, foreigners also have the right to fair trial and to the same treatment as their Swiss-citizen counterparts, including legal representation and due process of the law.

Even those who are subject to deportation have the right to be represented by a lawyer.

And the Swiss legal system doesn’t necessarily favour Swiss litigants over foreign ones. For instance, in some cases, foreign nationals whose request for naturalisation was denied but who then appealed the decision, eventually won.

The most recent example is a man in the canton of Schwyz whose application for citizenship was rejected due to a minor car accident, but a Swiss court overturned the decision, ordering that the man be naturalised this year.

READ MORE : Foreigner wins appeal after being denied Swiss citizenship due to car accident

Where the rights and privileges differ between foreigners and Swiss, as well as among foreigners themselves, is when it comes to work and residency rights.

 EU / EFTA nationals

People from these countries, who have B or C permanent residence status have sweeping rights in terms of residence, employment (including self-employment), and home ownership.

The only right that is denied them is the vote, though some cantons and communes grant their resident foreigners the right to vote on local issues and to elect local politicians. 

READ MORE : Where in Switzerland can foreigners vote?

Apart from the limit on political participation, EU / EFTA nationals can live in Switzerland in pretty much the same way as their Swiss counterparts.

There are, however, some groups of foreigners whose rights are curtailed by the Swiss government.

Third country nationals

They are people from countries outside Europe, for whom various restrictions are in place in terms of entry, employment and residency.

For instance, their “future employer must prove that there is no suitable person to fill the job vacancy from Switzerland or from an EU/EFTA state”, according to State Secretariat for Migration. This could be seen as a discrimination of sorts, but that’s what the law says.

Once employed, however, “their salary, social security contributions and the terms of employment must be in accordance with conditions customary to the region, the profession and the particular sector” — in other words, no discrimination is allowed.

Another area where non-European foreigners are disadvantaged in comparison with their EU / EFTA counterparts is home ownership. While third-nation B-permit holders can buy a property to live in (but not rent out), they can’t purchase a holiday or second home without a special permission.

To sum up, all foreigners in Switzerland, regardless of their status, are entitled to fundamental “human” rights, including freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from discrimination in life and employment.

They also have the right to legal protection and representation during litigation or other court actions.

However they don’t have the right to participate in the country’s political process and, depending on their status, have equal access to residency and employment.

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