SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

GENEVA

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Fitting in and integrating into Swiss life is not easy, especially understanding the complex differences between how the locals tick in various linguistic regions. This is what you should know if live in or visit la Suisse Romande — i.e. French-speaking Switzerland.

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local
Le bisou. Photo by Tony Mucci on Unsplash

As you know if you have lived in Switzerland for a while (and this is possibly new information for you if you are a new arrival), there is a cultural divide between the German and French speaking regions, called the Röstigraben (for Ticino, the applicable word is “Polentagraben”).

The word “Rösti” refers to the Swiss German name for a potato dish which (somewhat) resembles hash browns. 

The dish is popular in German-speaking Switzerland but is almost non-existent in the French-speaking part. 

“Graben” means border, gap or rift. 

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss-Germans and Romands could be from two different planets.

And it is not only because they speak different languages, have a different culture – and because Swiss-French men don’t wear socks with sandals like their Swiss-German counterparts.

But let’s focus on the people living in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, otherwise known as Romandie. 

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

Here are seven life hacks to make your Swiss-French experience smoother. 

Don’t tell the locals that they are “French”

This is the worst thing you can tell a Romand, or, in French – and is a complete faux-pas. They may be speaking French but they are first and foremost Swiss, and most Swiss look down on foreigners.

Genevans, for instance, don’t much care for their French neighbours, even though without them, the canton’s economy would be in shambles.

If you are really French, don’t volunteer this information.

Tell the Romands you are Belgian. Or better yet, French-Canadian.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

Speak French (even poorly) but never German

While the Romands tolerate their Swiss-German neighbours (certainly more than they tolerate the French), they will not want to speak their language.

One reason is that they don’t like the sound of it and another that, while they all learned it in school (though under duress), they didn’t learn it well.

You will have to look far and wide to find a Romand who speaks Swiss-German fluently, without an accent and enjoys it. Even President Guy Parmelin and Health Minister Alain Berset, the two Romands on the Federal Council, speak it with a French accent.

They speak it because their job demands it. For other Romands, it is an unnecessary burden.

However, speaking English with a Romand is fine (although they might speak back to you in French).

READ MORE: Eight ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

Remember that the Swiss attitude to punctuality is universal

Newcomers to Switzerland might assume that the Swiss fascination with punctuality is a Swiss German phenomenon.

While the attitude to lateness in a personal context might be slightly more relaxed in Romandie – unlike in German-speaking Switzerland you’re unlikely to get a text from a friend if you’re three minutes late asking where you are – Swiss people all over the country are proud of their country’s strong record on punctuality. 

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

While the Röstigraben definitely exists, Swiss trains will be punctual on both sides of the border.

So if you’re visiting Romandie, try to do the same. 

Be on time wherever you are in Switzerland. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

Master the three-cheek kiss

You will never fit in if you don’t master the art of a three-cheek-kiss.

It’s true that other cultures have some variation of this custom, but in the Suisse Romande it is taken to the extreme.

It doesn’t matter whether you know someone for a long time or for five minutes — you will not fit in if you don’t practice the right cheek-left cheek-right cheek ritual with everyone you meet.

It is not so bad if you are meeting only one person, but if you attend a large event and have to three-kiss many cheeks you haven’t been properly introduced to when you arrive and then again when you leave, that can take hours.

Thankfully, this custom has fallen victim to the pandemic and nobody can predict whether it will ever re-emerge but, at least for now, there is a reprieve.

Small talk (especially about the weather)

New arrivals to Switzerland are often told to avoid small talk.

This is something that can be particularly difficult, especially for arrivals from English-speaking countries where the compulsion to fill up uncomfortable silences outweighs the desire to actually talk about something interesting. 

While avoiding small talk in German-speaking Switzerland is good practice (unless you want to be treated like an undercover cop), the French-speaking Swiss have a more relaxed attitude to small talk. 

Of course, French-speaking Swiss are still Swiss and some topics will be off limits for small talk – particularly if they are too personal – but if you want to fill those uncomfortable silences, you can always talk about the weather. 

Eat (and enjoy) local specialties

Okay, this may not be easy, as some foods might not be to your taste.

But if you learn to prepare (and stomach) la saucisse aux choux (pork sausage stuffed with cabbage),  le papet (pork sausage served with boiled potatoes and leeks), or Malakoff (a fried cheese ball, NOT to be confused with a molotov cocktail) you are probably good to go.

Le papet vaudois. Photo by Vaud Tourisme

Drink (and converse about) local wines

Food is good but knowledge of wines is even better.

All the French-speaking regions grow their own grapes and produce wines, and they are mighty proud of them.

Depending on the canton or even a commune where you are, learn all you can about these local wines and share your knowledge with the people you meet.

Wines are a huge social connector in this part of  Switzerland and will help you fit in like a local —unless, of course, you start talking about the virtue of French wines, which is the ultimate faux pas. 

Just remember not to assume that all French-speaking Swiss are drunks, as Italian-speaking Swiss consume far more wine per capita (a fun fact to bust out whenever you find yourself on the other side of the alps). 

Voilà, now you are ready to conquer La Suisse Romande. Bonne chance!

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Reader question: What can residents in Switzerland do about noisy neighbours?

Nothing disturbs your peace more than loud noises made by your neighbours. But Swiss law provides for some specific rules in such situations.

Reader question: What can residents in Switzerland do about noisy neighbours?

Barking dogs, screaming children, or other noisy disturbances can be a huge headache for people living in apartment buildings where walls are sometimes too thin for comfort.

What is and isn’t considered an excessive noise, however, is not clear. It depends as much on your own tolerance level as what is generally perceived as sounds emanating from normal daily activities.

The latter means that every tenant has the right to use and enjoy their dwellings for activities compatible with daily life — for instance, talking in a normal tone of voice, listening to music playing at a reasonable volume, or taking a shower.

You can hardly complain about any of these activities or expect the neighbours to whisper and tiptoe around.

What does the law say?

Not surprisingly, it requires tenants to be considerate of other residents in the building, though this rather general statement leaves a lot up to individual interpretation.

Still, common sense dictates that playing a drum in the middle of the night or a dog howling at the full moon, are not most people’s definition of being considerate towards others.

Your rental contract may also set out rules to be followed, which could include noise ordinances.

What can you do when your neighbour is too loud?

If it is a rare occurrence (say, a birthday party once year), you may want to let it go. But if the noise is frequent and disturbing, there are some remedies available to you — other than earplugs, that is.

Before you bring out the big guns (figuratively speaking, of course), you could try a bit of diplomacy. Speak to your neighbours directly and nicely, explaining how loud they are being and how it disturbs you and your family.

In the best-case scenario, you will reach an amicable compromise and maybe even have a glass of wine together, which the Swiss are fond of doing in all kinds of situations; in the worst, you might have to file a complaint (by registered mail) with the landlord, detailing the times and nature of excessive disturbances, and asking them to act within a certain timeframe.

You can also, according to an official government website, mention to the landlord “that you will cease to pay rent if no improvement occurs within the said time limit, withholding the money in a separate account. You can ask for a reduction in rent so long as the disturbance persists”.

READ MORE: Nine ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

Should you call the police?

Noise ordinances, and therefore police regulations, vary from one community to community.

Generally speaking, however, the hours between 10 pm and 7 am are considered as quiet hours.

However, these hours may be more flexible on weekends, and certainly during holidays like the National Day and New Year’s Eve.

What else should you know about noise-related rules in Switzerland?

You might have heard that you are not allowed to flush your toilet at night, but this is more of an urban myth than reality —unless your toilet sounds like a jackhammer.

READ MORE: Swiss daily dilemmas: Can I flush my toilet at night?

Also, you must know by now that Sundays are sacred in Switzerland. They are considered as rest days so your neighbours’ (or your) peace and quiet should not be disrupted by a sound of a lawn mower, hedge cutter, or nail being hammered into a wall.

One thing you should definitely not complain about, especially if you are a foreigner, are church and cow bells — no matter how loud and incessant they are.

If you are a light sleeper, don’t rent in a building located near a church or a meadow.

And you should also avoid farmhouses with roosters, unless you live for early mornings. 

SHOW COMMENTS