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EXPLAINED: Why the Swiss love to stare

A squirrel stares directly into the camera
What are you staring at? The 'Swiss stare' is not just limited to humans, as this squirrel illustrates. Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash
Staring is so common place in Switzerland, the phenomenon actually has a name. We get to the bottom of the 'Swiss stare'.

Of all the cultural norms in Switzerland – from an almost unhealthy infatuation with punctuality to a penchant for asking direct, honest questions “why would you do that to your hair?” – perhaps the one which hits you hardest at first is the staring. 

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

Whether you are on public transport or walking through a crowded market, you might suddenly get the feeling that eyes are on you – because they are. 

No, you’re not paranoid, you’ve been hit with the ‘Swiss stare’, the name given to the phenomenon of socially acceptable staring in Switzerland. 

It has also been acknowledged by the Swiss, although the exact reasons for it are a little unclear. 

What is the Swiss stare?

Like many cultural quirks, there is no hard and fast definition, but you definitely know when you’re the target of a Swiss stare. 

It will usually be in the direction of your face and eyes, although it can be directed at your body or at something you are wearing. 

And while extensive research has not yet been completed into the nature of the Swiss stare, there does not seem to be any specific niche or target of these fixed eyes. 

READ MORE: Eight unwritten rules that explain how Switzerland works

Men, women, the old and the young, casually dressed and those clad in formal attire have all reported a glance, look, peek, goggle, ogle or leer which went on a little too long. 

Sheep staring directly at the camera

Hey, what are you looking at? Don’t you know it’s rude to stare. Photo by Anne Zwagers on Unsplash

How common is it?

Indicating how common staring is in Swiss culture, there are several forums, sites and pages dedicated to the phenomenon among internationals living in the Alpine nation.

Some ask whether anyone else has noticed it and wonder if they are paranoid, while others have experienced the stare long enough that they can describe it specifically. 

Cchase asked on Reddit in 2014 if anyone else had experienced the phenomenon.

“This may sound weird, but I feel like a lot of people are staring at me. It seems to be mostly middle-aged women.”

“They were right in front of me! One meter! I pass people on the street and I feel like they are watching me longer than is appropriate. Is this a Swiss thing?”

Doug Jackson, an American living in Switzerland, wrote on Quora in 2017 that “people will just look you up and down as if they were studying a menu of meals made out of dog food.”

Jackson points out that Germans are also fond of a longer than expected glance, something which was covered by our sister site in 2020.

READ MORE: 10 reasons why a German might be staring at you

What do the Swiss say? 

While the ‘Swiss stare’ has been covered in a number of publications targeted at foreign residents and tourists, the Swiss media has also recognised this particular cultural quirk. 

Swiss news outlets 20 Minutes, Watson and Blick have written articles about it, while German magazine Spiegel has also commented on the phenomenon (albeit with a German focus). 

Far from defending the behaviour, the Swiss media has been critical and a little perplexed. Watson said the Swiss staring phenomenon is “indecent” while Blick said it is a “Swiss peculiarity”. 

“Nowhere is one safe from the “Swiss Stare”. In the restaurant, on the train, on the street, in shops, in the indoor swimming pool and even at an after-work beer with work colleagues – it hits you everywhere,” wrote the tabloid in 2019. 

In an article in leading Swiss broadsheet Tages Anzeiger, journalist David Hesse said the Swiss stare is somewhat out of character for a country known for its inhibitions. 

Hesse, acknowledging that foreigners have a case to make, writes “we stare at each other often and without shame.”

“Swiss (people) stare, men and women (do it), both young and old. They stare at your face, at your body and into your eyes. Switzerland might be a relatively shy society when it comes to other areas of life (speaking and singing for example), but when it comes to staring, they have no restraint.”

READ MORE: Nine stereotypes about Switzerland that just aren’t true

While it is usually spoken about as a nation-wide trend, most incidents seem to take place in German and French-speaking Switzerland, so it might be a cultural norm that didn’t make it south of the Alps – although we encourage Ticino readers to get in touch if they’ve experienced it. 

Why do they do it? 

So staring might take place in Switzerland because it is a Swiss cultural norm, but that doesn’t explain exactly why it became a cultural norm in the first place. 

Swiss-based English writer Diccon Bewes told 20 Minutes he feels it’s a simple matter of curiosity. Unlike in English-speaking cultures however where the curious person (i.e. the starer) might start a conversation with the target (i.e. the staree), this random small talk is replaced with a stare.

“I always saw it as curiosity and interest on the part of the Swiss. Many are not used to someone speaking English. After eleven years I got used to the looks.”

“Maybe they don’t dare to smile or say hello. It may also have an irritating effect on foreigners, because although the look comes, there is no smile or no conversation. 

“In England we often talk to the person sitting next to us on the train or at least smile. The Swiss prefer to look, also in other situations.”

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

Blick agrees. 

“In North America you look, but then you pay a compliment. In South America, people smile at those who are being stared at. For us, on the other hand, it’s not about exchanging niceties.”

Hesse goes a level deeper, saying that staring is rooted in the Swiss culture of preparation, a consequence of needing to remain alert despite a commitment to neutrality. 

“Staring is an indication that, as a small country amidst stronger neighbours, Switzerland has agreed on a kind of collective early warning system,” he writes. 

“By keeping an eye on everything, the Swiss ensure that everything is right in their world. In other countries, people look when someone has cornflakes on their cheek, so something has already happened. 

“In Switzerland, however, staring is preventive.”

How do you make it stop? 

Probably the most important question for people who are feeling uncomfortable getting the old Swiss stare is how to make it stop. 

Keep in mind that it is such a part of Swiss culture that people will not realise they are doing it, even if they have a sassy or dirty look on their face. 

As noted by Jackson, the Swiss may stare “often with a frown or scowl on their face, which is just the default face for them and does not necessarily reflect what they are thinking at that moment.”

If that doesn’t work, a simple “Alles in ordnung?” or “Tu vas bien?” – loosely ’is everything OK?’ – might do the trick. 

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

Mathieu Clément, a Swiss who lives in the US, said you might need to get a little gruffer to get the point across. 

“Willst du ein Foto von mir?” or “Tu veux ma photo?” – basically “why don’t you take a picture?” might get those eyes off you and pointed towards the floor, although that is likely to make you very few friends on your evening commute in a relatively short period of time. 

The best approach is to simply keep in mind that cultural norms are different and that staring is not as rude in Switzerland as it might be elsewhere. 

Bewes recommends a simple smile to end the staring session there and then, which is the approach least likely to cause a scene, which will of course lead to a whole lot more staring… 


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