Ten unspoken rules for fitting in with the Swiss

If you're new to Switzerland and don’t know how people tick, social situations can be a bit of a minefield. Luckily The Local is here to help you navigate your way safely.

Ten unspoken rules for fitting in with the Swiss
File photo: Depositphotos

Moving to a new country, it can take years before you feel you understand the social nuances and feel you fit in. 

If you need to fit in right away and haven’t got time, then our handy list of dos and don’ts will help you out. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

Do: Say hello – liberally

Newcomers to Switzerland are often surprised at how frequently the Swiss greet one another. In this respect Switzerland is like a small village where everyone tries to be on friendly terms with everyone else, according to the Schweizer Knigge etiquette guide.

In the workplace it’s considered polite to greet everyone you pass in the corridor or share space with in the lift with a friendly ‘Grüezi’, ‘bonjour’ or ‘buongiorno’. It’s also usual to acknowledge people in the doctor’s waiting room and to say hello to staff in shops and at the supermarket till.

Outside towns you should greet people you pass in the street, at the railway station, when hiking and even at the ski lift.

Do: Shake hands

File photo: Depositphotos

“Usually in any encounter you will shake hands,” cross-cultural trainer Sabine Baerlocher of Geneva-based company Active Relocation told The Local.

Walk into a business meeting and you will be expected to shake hands with everyone else in the room. The same goes for social gatherings. More handshakes will be required when you visit the doctor, dentist and even hairdresser.

Read also: 20 telltale signs you have gone native in Switzerland

The habit starts early: kindergarten children are trained to shake hands with their teacher at the beginning and end of lessons.

Which is why this story about the refusal of two Muslim schoolboys to shake their female teacher’s hand was seen as an affront to Swiss culture (as well as as sexist). 

“It has to be a firm handshake and you have to look the other person in the eye,” says Baerlocher. “And then when you’re a little more intimate with the person you could even kiss them three times,” she says, adding that kissing is even done between men and men, in the French part of Switzerland.

Do: Be punctual

Photo: AFP

Perhaps not surprisingly in the home of watchmaking, the Swiss take time-keeping seriously. It doesn’t do to be late, so make sure to get to your appointments on schedule, or even five to ten minutes early to avoid making a bad impression.

That is, unless you happen to live in the canton of Vaud, where the ‘quart d’heure vaudois’ prevails, allowing you to be 15 minutes late and get away with it.

If you’re invited for dinner, don’t do as in Britain and turn up half an hour after the stated time. Check with your host when exactly they expect you to arrive. “For some people, particularly German Swiss, 7.30pm means sitting down at the table at 7.30 and for others it means as of 7.30 you can arrive,” says Baerlocher.

Read also: Seven fun facts about Switzerland’s famous railway clocks

If you’re going to be more than 15 minutes late you should call your host and warn them (and have a good excuse ready).

Do: Remember names

When introductions are being made at a social event, a Swiss person will shake your hand and say his or her first name. It’s a good idea to repeat this after them as you will be expected to address them by name when saying goodbye.

That may be no problem in a small gathering but can be a challenge when the group is large. If you’re not good at remembering names, a useful tip is to be one of the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Do: Make eye contact

When you’re seated at the dinner table with Swiss and a toast is proposed, make sure to clink glasses with everyone and to look them in the eye as you do so.

Every time a bottle is opened, from the white wine with the starters through to the schnapps or liqueur at the end of the meal, it’s an occasion to say cheers (Prost, santé or salute).

Do: Carry slippers

Apart from exchanging handshakes or kisses with your host, the first thing you should do when stepping inside their home is to ask if you should take your shoes off. This is not just a formality – sometimes the answer will be yes. In this case, slippers will usually be provided, but you might feel more comfortable in your own than flopping around in someone else’s.

Do: Respect Sundays

Although it has moved with the secular times Switzerland still keeps Sundays special. The shops are shut and it’s generally a day for spending with the family. So it’s best to avoid scheduling social events or play dates for children on Sundays.

“You can do a barbecue with you neighbour on a Sunday – even though it’s always better to do it on a Saturday, especially in the German part,” says Baerlocher.

Don’t: Open the gifts

If your guest brings a bottle of wine or chocolates, it’s not the done thing to consume these in their presence. Make a show of appreciation but put the gifts away for later. In any case, according to the Knigge, you should have your wine ready to serve having carefully selected it weeks ahead to match the different courses.

Don’t: Be spontaneous

If you want to invite people to visit you should do it well in advance. “You don’t do last minute invites in Switzerland,” says the cross-cultural trainer. But how much notice is required? The Knigge suggests up to one month before the planned event is not unreasonable.

Don’t: Mention money

According to the old adage, you shouldn’t discuss sex, religion or politics with people you don’t know well.  But if you want to be invited back you should never broach the subject of money in Switzerland. Don’t even think about asking someone how much they earn.  In a country where there is no wage transparency the subject is a definite taboo. “You would never, ever talk about salary,” Baerlocher stresses.

Having said that, a change may be in the air. Last year, a Swiss campaign saw people publishing details of their salaries online in a bid to boost wage transparency.

A version of this article first appeared in The Local in 2016.

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