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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!