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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who’s to blame?

There is a perception in Switzerland that Swiss natives and foreigners just don't really get on. Clare O'Dea looks at why there might be a lack of chemistry and where the blame may lie.

OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who's to blame?
OPINION: In defence of the ‘unfriendly’ Swiss. Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

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. 

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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?  

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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. 

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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.

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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.  

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Will Switzerland be able to feed itself in the future?

Amid a worsening climate crisis and an increasingly unstable world food system, Clare O’Dea looks at what Switzerland and its population need to do to ensure there is enough food on the table in the years to come.

Will Switzerland be able to feed itself in the future?

Faced with a growing global population, the climate crisis and increasingly degraded agricultural land, the challenge of how to feed the world in the near future is one of the burning issues of the day. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a multitude of additional food security problems, contributing to already rising global food prices and rising input costs for agriculture, such as energy and fertilisers. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s food self-sufficiency rate is relatively low for Europe at around 50 per cent. The government’s new agriculture strategy for 2050 has set the seemingly modest goal of maintaining that level.

The 79-page strategy document, like most such publications, does not look beyond 2050. But this is just the point when climate change and increasing demand for food are expected to intensify.

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One thing the Covid-19 pandemic showed was that not all countries are equally affected by a global crisis. Money is usually the main protection against disaster, but leadership, preparedness, and the ability and willingness to respond quickly are also important. 

For domestic food production over the next two to three decades, hope still rests on two main pillars – boosting productivity in a sustainable way, and changing consumer behaviour. There’s not much else that can be done. 

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The bad news is that the Swiss population is not eating a well-balanced diet and the average intake of calories is too high.

People are not eating enough dairy products, pulses, fruit and vegetables and consuming too much meat, sweet things and alcohol. 

We all know this.

But did you know how harmful this love affair with our stomachs is? The strategy document spells it out: “The environmental impact of consumption could be halved if people adopted a healthy diet, based on the nutritional recommendations.”

With a different portfolio of food grown in Switzerland corresponding to a healthier diet, the self-sufficiency rate would increase too. Consumer behaviour is changing but not radically or quickly enough. It’s hard to see the harm being reduced without enforced measures of some kind. 

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Another crying shame of our food system and lifestyle is that a third of the food produced by farmers ends up being wasted between field and fork. All that energy, money and ecological impact for nothing. 

Although food self-sufficiency carries its own risks – vulnerability to local shocks, extra pressure on the environment – being too reliant on imports is not ideal. Overall, the EU is a net food exporter. But the Swiss government has made it clear that Switzerland will continue to rely significantly on imports for the foreseeable future. 

One simple reason is the limited availability of agricultural land. Currently 36 per cent of Switzerland’s land surface is given over to agricultural production and pasture. Farmers have to compete with growing urbanisation and, of course, the non-negotiable presence of the mountains that cover 60 per cent of the land’s surface.

During the Covid-19 pandemic we saw that money can, up to a point, buy you health. Switzerland nabbed so many of the globally available vaccines that it has had to donate or destroy surplus. Money can also buy you food, and this, along with proximity to supply, puts Switzerland is a rather secure position. 

In fact, Switzerland came fifth out of 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index which considers the issues of food affordability, availability and quality, as well as natural resource and resilience. By which we could conclude that everything is under control. 

The victims of this year’s global food crisis – the 323 million people who will become acutely food insecure, according to the UN – live in the countries that routinely appear at the bottom of such indexes. 

Nevertheless, according to the Swiss agricultural research body Agroscope, we should not feel a false sense of security. Apart from dependence on foreign countries and climate change, power supply is one of the key threats to Swiss food supply. 

In its latest annual assessment of threats to food supply, Agroscope wrote that the probability of and the potential damage from a serious power shortage are particularly high compared to other risks. “Supplies of vital foodstuffs would be massively affected, the effects would be manifold, and would not be overcome quickly.”

If the worst comes to the worst, Switzerland stockpiles compulsory stocks of essential goods for bridging in case of crisis and shortages. Mandatory storage facilities around the country hold three to four months’ worth of basic foodstuffs like sugar, rice, cooking oils, cereals and animal feed. 

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Is that reassuring? Three months doesn’t feel like a lot.

These stocks are only released when the economy itself is no longer able to satisfy demand. In any case, Agroscope says “household emergency stocks are of great importance”.

I don’t know about you, but I’m off to the supermarket.

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