SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

MEMBERS

Are the Swiss really unfriendly – or are foreigners to blame?

Many foreigners who live in Switzerland say locals are unfriendly toward them. But could the foreign nationals themselves be at least partially to blame for getting the cold shoulder?

Are the Swiss really unfriendly - or are foreigners to blame?
You might need to learn a few local words to fit in with these yodellers. Photo by VALERIANO DI DOMENICO / AFP

Recently, a Zurich daily newspaper, Tages-Anzeiger, ran an editorial complaining about many of the canton’s international residents who “don’t speak German even after years [of living] in Switzerland – and then complain about how unfriendly the country is”.

The newspaper notes that “it is irritating when you are spoken to in English” all the time, especially, when responses in English are also expected.

“Why do many of them not even try to speak a few words in the local language when they move to another country? Anyone who is still unwilling to speak a word in the national language after several years should not be surprised to be treated like a foreigner”, Tages-Anzeiger added.

It is true that many foreigners find it difficult to make friends with the Swiss — not just in Zurich or the Swiss-German part, but elsewhere in the country as well.

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

In a 2018 poll by the The Local, readers overwhelmingly agreed that making friends is hard for internationals in Switzerland, attributing this to the locals’ “closed-mindedness” when it comes to expanding their social circles. 

But could the inability and / or unwillingness to speak the local language be a factor — as the Tages-Anzeiger suggests — in the lack of openness toward foreigners?

On Monday, The Local again asked its readers on Facebook to share their experiences regarding language and integration.

One respondent pointed out that English is actually well accepted in Switzerland and many people see it as an opportunity to practice their language skills. 

MJ MJ wrote “The younger generation loves English and practicing it. They saw it as an opportunity to practice their language skills.”

One person added that while they know German, “everyone automatically speaks to me in English”. 

‘It’s a lonely country to live in’: What you think about life in Switzerland

Whether that helps with integration is however another question. 

Australian Mel Mallam, who lives in Zurich, told The Local that in many cases even learning German wasn’t sufficient – with the best integrated foreigners “those who had properly learned Swiss German”.

Those who spoke high German would often receive replies in English, Mallam said.  

Jarrod Cooke, an Australian who lives on Lake Zurich, said learning Swiss German was “no question for him” and added that he had no problems integrating into Swiss society.

Laurent Biehly wrote on Facebook that people who use dialect as an excuse shouldn’t be surprised if they have trouble integrating. 

“I learned Züridutch and have no issue understanding other dialekts (sic) or being understood. The excuse of (it) being a dialect is not an excuse. And at the end of the day that is what my fellow Swiss speak, it is their way of communicating.”

The experience seems similar in French-speaking Switzerland, where one reader who wished to remain nameless told The Local that people would switch to English immediately upon hearing his accent. 

“The moment I say one sentence, they respond in English. They think they are doing me a great favour”.

So is it possible to make Swiss friends if you don’t speak the local language?

Basically, it depends – although almost all of our respondents agreed that a little effort goes a long way. 

It seems that the young generation is more open-minded in this regard than their older counterparts.

“When we first came here, my son, who was 19 at the time, had no problem making friends though he only spoke English then”, Lisa, an American, told The Local. 

But her more conservative contemporaries were less accepting.

“An acquaintance told me that knowledge of German is necessary not only to communicate with other people, but most of all to be able to understand ‘Swiss ways and values’, and it’s a sign of respect toward the locals”.

“I think the problems arise when foreigners expect us to adopt to them and speak their language rather than the other way around. To me, it smacks of arrogance, and I would not be friends with a person like that”, Yolande, a Swiss, told The Local. 

As for Lisa, when she mastered German well enough to communicate in it, she did make some friends.

“Although I still make mistakes, they told me they appreciate the effort — even though I never learned any local dialects and only speak high German”, she said.

Philip, a Swiss who has many international friends, told The Local that English speakers seemed to be particularly unique when it came to integration. 

“The unwillingness to learn a local language seems to be particularly prevalent among English speakers. I’ve never seen a Swede or a Greek expecting people in Switzerland to speak their language”.

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

Member comments

  1. True.
    I can speak 2 languages unfortunately not the language in the part of Switzerland I live in.
    It is true that it must be very annoying for the locals.
    If the country wants to attract talent(not for languages but other key skills) from other countries there is a price to pay.
    If not then stop attracting foreigns, who most likely speak English.
    It is annoying for sure but 39 – 45 could have had a very different outcome had it not been for those annoying English speakers.

  2. It’s more than just the language, in my opinion.

    I’ve lived in several different cities through my working life, and it’s always a bit difficult to make friends with locals that have grown up in the place. They have their own friend and family networks developed as far back as their childhood. Just because someone new shows up in the neighborhood doesn’t mean they need or have time for a new friend!

    Participating in clubs or groups with similar interests are a great way to make friends, as they have interest in new insights about their interest. Just trying to make friends with the cashier at the grocery store is unlikely to meet success!

  3. When you learn German you learn High German and then you go into the street and can not understand Swiss German,so actually you have to learn 2 languages to read ans speak here and after working on average 11 hours a day and 1 or 2 weekends travelling abroad on business who has time to do this,especially when you have a wife and 3 kids waiting at home for you?
    My company moved to Zug to save taxes and for no other reason.The kanton was happy to get our revenue and staff to tax.It seemed to be a good deal for both sides.However Swiss people who are employees in Swiss companies dealing with Swiss customers find it hard to understand that we did not need Swiss German because all our customers were where they always were ie outside Switzerland.
    Now lets look at the maths : English is spoke worldwide by about 1.3 billion people (first and second languages combined).Swiss German is spoken by maybe 3 million people.
    I can understand that it is very annoying for Swiss people being spoken to in English but on the other hand there are understandable reasons why many foreigners don’t learn their language : its too time consuming,its not actually necessary if you work in an international company that re-located here and the effort/reward is arguably not justified for many people who work long hours.
    With over 2 million auslanders out of a total population of just over 8 million in Switzerland today English will continue to be spoken more and more widely in the years to come. Already today English is spoken by more people than Italian and by almost as many as French in Switzerland (@ 30%).We all need to realise we are all very different from each other but we all need each other.But remember as The Local pointed out a beer is just a beer here……

  4. I have seen on many occasions when people from another part of Switzerland for example Ticino people speaking to each other in Italian and the reaction of the German-speaking part of Switzerland. It is one of derision, contempt, and the usual superiority complex.
    The issue is, it is more the rule rather than the exception.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?

SHOW COMMENTS