Switzerland explained For Members

'Wealthy Alpine nation': Are the clichés about Switzerland still fit for purpose?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
'Wealthy Alpine nation': Are the clichés about Switzerland still fit for purpose?
Some ideas about Switzerland are as full of holes as... Emmental cheese. Photo: Pixabay

The English language has no shortage of overused, exaggerated, and often misleading phrases referring to Switzerland. It's difficult to remain… neutral about them.


For some reason, Switzerland just naturally lends itself to platitudes, many of which are based on stereotypes and commonly-held beliefs — often by people who have never even set foot in Switzerland.

All they know about the country is what they read or hear from people who think they are experts on ‘Swissness’ but can’t even find Switzerland on a map — or else, point to Sweden instead.

These are just some of the phrases that have caught on, but which make many Swiss cringe.

‘A wealthy Alpine nation’

The number of times the media has used this term in reference to Switzerland is mind-boggling. 

You can’t argue with this assessment on factual grounds: Switzerland is, indeed, both prosperous and mountainous.

READ ALSO: Why is Switzerland so rich? 

But the overuse of this phrase is getting a tad boring.

'Tax haven’

If you have heard references to Switzerland as a ‘tax haven’, raise your hand.

You are certainly not the only one.

Switzerland has earned an unenviable reputation as a popular destination for people seeking to hide their money from tax authorities in their home countries.

This image is not totally unwarranted: for many years, some shady dealings did take place behind the thick walls of Swiss banks.

READ ALSO: Is Switzerland actually a tax haven? 

In recent years, however, major changes were introduced on the legislative level, ending some preferential tax schemes and replacing them with new regulations which are in line with international standards.

So no, Switzerland is no longer a tax haven, or the other oft-used term, 'fiscal paradise' — though it is a paradise in other ways.


‘Runs like a Swiss watch’

It is true that Switzerland produces the world’s finest watches, and it is just as true that Swiss people value timeliness and punctuality.

However as organised and efficient as they are, not everything here runs like a Swiss watch — at least some of the time.

READ ALSO:  Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time? 

While trains are mostly on time, delays do happen. Of course, the Swiss blame these disruptions on foreign railway systems, especially from Germany. They claim delays on the German side often end up disrupting the carefully-coordinated Swiss railway timetable and are even considering prohibiting German trains from entering Switzerland.

‘More holes than Swiss cheese’

This phrase, which means something is flawed and can’t be taken seriously,  was clearly coined by someone who knows nothing about Swiss cheeses — we would venture to say it was an American.


Because in the United States, ‘Swiss cheese’ is a generic term for anything with holes in it. And no Swiss cows were actually involved in producing  the holey ‘Swiss’ cheese sold in US supermarkets.

In Switzerland, on the other hand, the only Swiss cheese with holes in it is Emmentaler, manufactured in the eponymous Emmental region of  Bernese Oberland.


‘As tight-lipped as a Swiss banker’

This means a person knows how to keep secrets, including dark ones.

But just like the ‘tax haven’ cliché mentioned above, this too is more urban legend than reality.

This may be because Swiss bankers have a long reputation of being secretive when it comes to divulging details about their clients’ accounts.
Under pressure from other countries, however, Switzerland adopted a tougher stance on foreign account holders in 2016, exchanging information with its foreign counterparts to ensure tax transparency.

This means that a foreign individual, whether residing in Switzerland or abroad, can no longer hide assets in a Swiss bank and hope their own country won't find out about it.

But this practice is still intact for Swiss clients.

Rather than calling it ‘banking secrecy’, the Swiss refer to it as ‘client confidentiality,’ which has long-standing legal basis.

According to the government, this legislation “protects the financial privacy of citizens from unauthorised access by third parties or by the State."

In fact, under civil law the confidentiality of the banker is a “professional obligation, the violation of which is punishable.”

So to sum up, bankers must respect the privacy of their Swiss clients, but the assertion that they are tight-lipped about foreign accounts has… more holes than Swiss cheese.


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