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Nine stereotypes about Switzerland that just aren’t true

Whatever country you grew up in, you probably had an image of Switzerland which at least in part turned out to be false once you came here. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about this country and its people.

Swiss footballer Xherdan Shaqiri in a pair of Lederhosen during his time with Bayern Munich.
This might be one of the few acceptable occasions when you see a Swiss person wearing Lederhosen. Swiss footballer Xherdan Shaqiri during his time with Bayern Munich. CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP

Switzerland lends itself to lots of clichés, many of which are indeed true (think chocolate, cheese, watches, cows and punctuality).

But when it comes to certain stereotypes and widely held beliefs, they are as full of holes as… Emmental.

When I was growing up in the USA, I once heard someone say that, aside from being clean enough to eat off of, Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse is paved with gold.

Imagine my surprise when I first came to Switzerland many moons ago and discovered no gold underfoot – let alone anything you’d want to eat off, on or near. 

To this day I meet people who believe a number of things about Switzerland — the kind of things that would make the Swiss shudder and roll their eyes.

These are some. 

You can hide your money in anonymous Swiss bank accounts

This belief comes from Hollywood movies where each villain has a secret account and a vault in a Zurich bank (undoubtedly on a street paved with gold).

In fact, anonymous accounts are a thing of the past, ever since Switzerland passed a series of laws in the last two decades making money laundering illegal, requiring any suspicious deposits be reported to the authorities, and basically laying the notion of banking secrecy to rest. 

No secret accounts here — anymore. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

In fact, if you are a foreigner – particularly an American – it might in fact be difficult to get a Swiss bank account at all. 

READ MORE: Why are Americans being turned away from Swiss banks?

Heidi is a (stereo)typical Swiss girl

Well, no.

While the 19th – century novel was written by a Swiss author Johanna Spyri, and her fictional heroine Heidi lived in the Swiss Alps, the orphaned girl was born in Frankfurt.

So the quintessential “Swiss” girl was actually an immigrant, way before Switzerland had become home to approximately 2.1 million foreign nationals — many of them from Germany.

You’re also very unlikely to meet anyone named Heidi in Switzerland, no matter how much yodelling you plan on doing. 

READ MORE: What are the most popular names for adults in Switzerland?

All the cuckoo clocks come from Switzerland

Again, no.

Just as Heidi was German, so are the cuckoo clocks that originally came from the Black Forest in Germany.

Now, however, many are manufactured in Asia; either way, very few, if any, are hatched in Switzerland.

OK, but those Swiss do love their lederhosen…

Quite a few foreigners associate lederhosen with Switzerland.

Maybe it’s because they confuse Switzerland with Austria (the two countries do look alike, especially in the dark), but lederhosen is not a Swiss garb.

A man with an unusually large pipe on a lake in Switzerland. Image: Pexels.

A man with an unusually large pipe on a lake in Switzerland – wearing sensible pants. Image: Pexels.

They are, however, worn men in Austria and in the Bavaria region of Germany.

Swiss-German men prefer not to be typecast as lederhosen wearers, preferring make a fashion statement of their own by wearing socks with their sandals.

The Swiss are serious, staid and humourless

This image probably comes from the same source as the tidbit about anonymous bank accounts — Hollywood (not surprisingly many of those sedate individuals featured in movies are Swiss bankers who, because of the heavy secrets they carry, must be tight-lipped, and tight-lipped people can’t smile).

Some Swiss people, and not just bankers, are likely unfunny. But as The Local reported in an article earlier this year, there really is such a thing as a Swiss joke and Swiss people love to laugh at their own expense. 

In fact, they can laugh all the way to the bank.

READ MORE: Swiss wit: 9 jokes that prove the Swiss are actually funny

Swiss babies are born with skis on their feet

This is another stereotype that is far from truth.

It’s true that Switzerland is a nation of avid skiers. Kids are put on skis even before they learn to walk properly, fearlessly dashing down snowy slopes sucking on their dummies.

But not everyone skis. Some people, like me, want to keep all their limbs intact, yet others, like me, hate the white, slippery stuff that covers the ground in winter.

It’s like — literally and figuratively — skating on thin ice.

Covid-19: What will the ski season look like in Switzerland this year?

Each soldier carries an army knife

Some might, but there is no evidence, either scientific or anecdotal, that troops actually carry those handy little gadgets in their pockets — although there is a joke about it that goes like this: Two members of the Swiss army got into a knife fight…then a corkscrew fight, then a tweezer fight, then a bottle opener fight…

Not exactly useful in a battle…Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

All Swiss are wealthy

Just because there are plenty of banks and tight-lipped bankers, doesn’t mean everyone is rich.

Given the high cost of living here, it would be nice if all residents of Switzerland lived up to their stereotypical image of wealth. However, 6.6 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, according to some studies.

These statistics may be misleading because Swiss “poverty line” is well above that of other countries’ and a big chunk of the population enjoys a higher standard of living than most other nations.

So the stereotype of “wealthy Swiss” is true to some extent, but not totally.

READ MORE: 16 things that only happen in Switzerland

Swiss food is bland and uninteresting

There is a common saying which goes “only boring people get bored” and so the same goes for Swiss food. 

If you believe Swiss food has no ‘kick’ to it, just try Cenovis.

This brown sandwich paste made of yeast, invented in 1931 in the canton of Aargau, is so salty, it can only be eaten when a thick layer of butter is spread on a slice of bread.

For those who have never tried it, according to the bastion of knowledge that is Wikipedia, Cenovis “is similar to English Marmite, Brazilian Cenovit, and Australian Vegemite”. 

READ MORE: Six common myths about Swiss food you need to stop believing

The Swiss do however value practicality, efficiency and cost effectiveness in their cuisine – which perhaps explains why it took the Swiss to invent instant coffee

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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.