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

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
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?

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. 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.

  2. 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……

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

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