I was once on a bus in Geneva, suffering from morning sickness on that particular day, on my way out to Cern for an interview. A man sitting across from me started to talk. Under the guise of striking up a friendly conversation, he kept asking me questions about myself. ‘Where do you live? Where are you going? Are you a student?’
It doesn’t happen to me anymore but young women will recognise this scenario. I felt cornered and it got the point where I had to tell him to stop quizzing me. ‘Typical Swiss,’ he snapped back at me. ‘Cold and unfriendly.’
It’s an easy accusation to throw around, based as it is on a well-known cliché. At the time I was not Swiss. I had only lived here for a few years having moved from Ireland, a nation famed for its friendliness.
The extra irony is, I do chat to strangers on public transport, when it happens naturally and without an agenda. I’ve had interesting conversations in this way over the years. I became a Swiss citizen in 2015. Am I a friendly Swiss person or a friendly Irish person now? It shouldn’t matter.
But the reputation of the Swiss for coldness seems to have staying power. At the very least, the perception seems to be that there is a lack of chemistry between Swiss and foreigners in this country. So is that a fair and accurate assessment?
When it comes to the romantic side of things. Swiss people marry foreigners in large numbers. In a given year, a quarter of Swiss brides and grooms choose foreign spouses. Presumably some chemistry is involved in those marriages.
My impression is that the main source for the idea of the Swiss being unfriendly is anecdotal. In my early years as an immigrant, I noticed that fellow foreigners enjoyed sharing anecdotes of encounters with unfriendly Swiss people. Integration can be a lonely and frustrating process beset with misunderstandings. But are these stories being emphasised because they confirm a stereotype or because Swiss unfriendliness is a widespread phenomenon?
Hard facts are hard to come by in this subjective area. Some “expat” surveys back up the idea that it’s difficult to befriend the Swiss. But if someone defines themselves as an expat, does that not mean they are living somewhat apart from the local population?
There’s another stereotype, expat. A high-income foreigner living in Switzerland on a temporary basis, whose work life is English-speaking and multinational. The natives are just extras in the movie of their lives, a movie that will continue elsewhere. Is this the best group to be interpreting what the Swiss are truly like? Is this description fair and accurate?
Of course there are many different types of foreigners and not enough surveys to cover them all. There are the people with Swiss partners, who have the advantage of tapping into their partner’s ready-made network, which usually means more fast-tracked integration.
There are foreigners born in Switzerland – one in four of the population – who grew up with the Swiss and probably have friends for life who are Swiss. How should their friendliness or lack of it be counted?
Generally speaking, language fluency and time spent in Switzerland are probably the key determinants of whether the relationship between outsiders and the Swiss is successful. Not to forget personality!
It also helps to put aside any pre-conceived notions about the Swiss when you come to live here. That’s easier said than done. The Swiss are the rich kid of Europe, somewhat aloof in their international relations, while domestic politics has its xenophobic moments.
But to view individual people you meet as embodying these characteristics can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a very diverse country, in terms of language, class, politics, regional differences, and immigration background.
Perhaps I should mention that I have found the Swiss warm, welcoming and kind. Not everyone, not everywhere, not always, but enough people to maintain my faith in Swiss humanity. Compared to the society I come from, they don’t feel social pressure to perform superficial friendliness. And that’s ok because different countries have different norms.
The British-Swiss writer Diccon Bewes refers to the Swiss as being like coconuts, in that it’s hard to break through their outer shell, but once you do, you have a friend for life.
Some things are universal. Two ingredients that have made it easier for me to establish friendships are regular contact and common ground. Times where people are thrown together and where nationality doesn’t matter.
Maybe the issue is that many foreigners first encounter the Swiss through work or officialdom. But Swiss people are like Clark Kent, living double lives. They don’t reveal their true selves at work. Their true selves are in their passions.
Hobbies are where it’s at. If you find the Swiss at play or following their passions, you will be able to connect with them because you will be like-minded to some extent.
Whether it’s sports, music or some commitment to the community, the Swiss love joining clubs and associations and organising stuff. Unlike work aperos, people don’t rush home after these gatherings. All you have to do is grab your little glass of white wine and join in.