For members


Are the Swiss really unfriendly – or are foreigners to blame?

Many foreigners who live in Switzerland say locals are unfriendly toward them. But could the foreign nationals themselves be at least partially to blame for getting the cold shoulder?

Are the Swiss really unfriendly - or are foreigners to blame?
You might need to learn a few local words to fit in with these yodellers. Photo by VALERIANO DI DOMENICO / AFP

Recently, a Zurich daily newspaper, Tages-Anzeiger, ran an editorial complaining about many of the canton’s international residents who “don’t speak German even after years [of living] in Switzerland – and then complain about how unfriendly the country is”.

The newspaper notes that “it is irritating when you are spoken to in English” all the time, especially, when responses in English are also expected.

“Why do many of them not even try to speak a few words in the local language when they move to another country? Anyone who is still unwilling to speak a word in the national language after several years should not be surprised to be treated like a foreigner”, Tages-Anzeiger added.

It is true that many foreigners find it difficult to make friends with the Swiss — not just in Zurich or the Swiss-German part, but elsewhere in the country as well.

READ MORE: ‘Suspicious of the unknown’: Is it difficult to make friends in Switzerland?

In a 2018 poll by the The Local, readers overwhelmingly agreed that making friends is hard for internationals in Switzerland, attributing this to the locals’ “closed-mindedness” when it comes to expanding their social circles. 

But could the inability and / or unwillingness to speak the local language be a factor — as the Tages-Anzeiger suggests — in the lack of openness toward foreigners?

On Monday, The Local again asked its readers on Facebook to share their experiences regarding language and integration.

One respondent pointed out that English is actually well accepted in Switzerland and many people see it as an opportunity to practice their language skills. 

MJ MJ wrote “The younger generation loves English and practicing it. They saw it as an opportunity to practice their language skills.”

One person added that while they know German, “everyone automatically speaks to me in English”. 

‘It’s a lonely country to live in’: What you think about life in Switzerland

Whether that helps with integration is however another question. 

Australian Mel Mallam, who lives in Zurich, told The Local that in many cases even learning German wasn’t sufficient – with the best integrated foreigners “those who had properly learned Swiss German”.

Those who spoke high German would often receive replies in English, Mallam said.  

Jarrod Cooke, an Australian who lives on Lake Zurich, said learning Swiss German was “no question for him” and added that he had no problems integrating into Swiss society.

Laurent Biehly wrote on Facebook that people who use dialect as an excuse shouldn’t be surprised if they have trouble integrating. 

“I learned Züridutch and have no issue understanding other dialekts (sic) or being understood. The excuse of (it) being a dialect is not an excuse. And at the end of the day that is what my fellow Swiss speak, it is their way of communicating.”

The experience seems similar in French-speaking Switzerland, where one reader who wished to remain nameless told The Local that people would switch to English immediately upon hearing his accent. 

“The moment I say one sentence, they respond in English. They think they are doing me a great favour”.

So is it possible to make Swiss friends if you don’t speak the local language?

Basically, it depends – although almost all of our respondents agreed that a little effort goes a long way. 

It seems that the young generation is more open-minded in this regard than their older counterparts.

“When we first came here, my son, who was 19 at the time, had no problem making friends though he only spoke English then”, Lisa, an American, told The Local. 

But her more conservative contemporaries were less accepting.

“An acquaintance told me that knowledge of German is necessary not only to communicate with other people, but most of all to be able to understand ‘Swiss ways and values’, and it’s a sign of respect toward the locals”.

“I think the problems arise when foreigners expect us to adopt to them and speak their language rather than the other way around. To me, it smacks of arrogance, and I would not be friends with a person like that”, Yolande, a Swiss, told The Local. 

As for Lisa, when she mastered German well enough to communicate in it, she did make some friends.

“Although I still make mistakes, they told me they appreciate the effort — even though I never learned any local dialects and only speak high German”, she said.

Philip, a Swiss who has many international friends, told The Local that English speakers seemed to be particularly unique when it came to integration. 

“The unwillingness to learn a local language seems to be particularly prevalent among English speakers. I’ve never seen a Swede or a Greek expecting people in Switzerland to speak their language”.

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

Member comments

  1. True.
    I can speak 2 languages unfortunately not the language in the part of Switzerland I live in.
    It is true that it must be very annoying for the locals.
    If the country wants to attract talent(not for languages but other key skills) from other countries there is a price to pay.
    If not then stop attracting foreigns, who most likely speak English.
    It is annoying for sure but 39 – 45 could have had a very different outcome had it not been for those annoying English speakers.

  2. It’s more than just the language, in my opinion.

    I’ve lived in several different cities through my working life, and it’s always a bit difficult to make friends with locals that have grown up in the place. They have their own friend and family networks developed as far back as their childhood. Just because someone new shows up in the neighborhood doesn’t mean they need or have time for a new friend!

    Participating in clubs or groups with similar interests are a great way to make friends, as they have interest in new insights about their interest. Just trying to make friends with the cashier at the grocery store is unlikely to meet success!

  3. When you learn German you learn High German and then you go into the street and can not understand Swiss German,so actually you have to learn 2 languages to read ans speak here and after working on average 11 hours a day and 1 or 2 weekends travelling abroad on business who has time to do this,especially when you have a wife and 3 kids waiting at home for you?
    My company moved to Zug to save taxes and for no other reason.The kanton was happy to get our revenue and staff to tax.It seemed to be a good deal for both sides.However Swiss people who are employees in Swiss companies dealing with Swiss customers find it hard to understand that we did not need Swiss German because all our customers were where they always were ie outside Switzerland.
    Now lets look at the maths : English is spoke worldwide by about 1.3 billion people (first and second languages combined).Swiss German is spoken by maybe 3 million people.
    I can understand that it is very annoying for Swiss people being spoken to in English but on the other hand there are understandable reasons why many foreigners don’t learn their language : its too time consuming,its not actually necessary if you work in an international company that re-located here and the effort/reward is arguably not justified for many people who work long hours.
    With over 2 million auslanders out of a total population of just over 8 million in Switzerland today English will continue to be spoken more and more widely in the years to come. Already today English is spoken by more people than Italian and by almost as many as French in Switzerland (@ 30%).We all need to realise we are all very different from each other but we all need each other.But remember as The Local pointed out a beer is just a beer here……

  4. I have seen on many occasions when people from another part of Switzerland for example Ticino people speaking to each other in Italian and the reaction of the German-speaking part of Switzerland. It is one of derision, contempt, and the usual superiority complex.
    The issue is, it is more the rule rather than the exception.

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For members


Why Switzerland is one of the world’s ‘happiest countries’

Despite dropping four places from last year, Switzerland still ranks among the world's happiest countries. Here's why.

Why Switzerland is one of the world's 'happiest countries'

It may very well take you forever-and-a-day to find an affordable apartment in Switzerland’s largest cities only to be forced to spend entire Sundays in silence – but the Swiss don’t seem to mind, as Switzerland has once again been ranked among the world’s happiest places.

According to the World Happiness Report 2023, a publication from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network that draws on global survey data from people in about 150 countries, Switzerland still ranks among the top 10 happiest countries on earth.

In the just-released 2023 edition, Switzerland has, however, slid down to eighth place behind Norway (7th), Sweden (6th), Netherlands (5th), Israel (4th), Iceland (3rd), Denmark (2nd), and Finland, with the Nordic country topping the list for the sixth year in a row.

Though still in the global top 10, this year’s lower ranking stands in stark contrast to last year’s 4th place and to that in 2021 where  Switzerland ranked in the top three. In 2015, Switzerland even managed to top the list. 

Still, with a score of 7,240 in the 2023 ranking compared to Finland’s 7,804, Switzerland is not too far behind. 

Its neighbours, however, didn’t even make it to the top 10. Austria is in the 11th position just as it was in the 2022 edition, Germany dropped two places down to 14th, France now ranks 21st rather than 20th, and Italy dropped a whole five spots to 33rd.

READ ALSO: Switzerland named ‘world’s best destination for expats’

Why are the Swiss so happy?

Though happiness is of course subjective and measuring it may prove an impossible task, when looking at the report, which surveys data from the Gallup World Poll and evaluates various factors to measure happiness, such as GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, and the freedom to make life choices, it becomes evident where the Swiss get their contentment from.

Let’s look at life expectancy.

The Swiss population’s life expectancy at birth is currently one of the highest in the world, with Swiss men outliving men from other countries at a life expectancy at birth of 81.75 years, while Swiss women currently rank 7th at a median life expectancy of 85.08 years. This according to data published by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Overall, the Swiss have the world’s second longest life expectancy (83.45 years), only surpassed by Japan’s 84.26 years average.

When it comes to how much of that lifespan can be lived healthily, latest findings on those trends, published in Swiss Medical Weekly, show an increase in the disability-free life expectancy for both men and women aged 65 over the 10-year study period.

The study found that by 2017 men aged 65 in Switzerland could expect to live another 16.2 years in good health. That was an increase of 2.1 years compared to 2007 when on average men could expect to live another 14.1 years without suffering a disability.

Meanwhile women in Switzerland aged 65 could expect to live for another 16 years in good health in 2017. This reflects an increase of 1.5 years compared to 2007.

Several factors may contribute to the Swiss people’s longer and healthier lives, such as well-distributed material wealth, a balanced and healthy diet, low risk working conditions and the country’s clean environment. The same could be said of their happiness.

A person climbing a rock

People are generally happy in Switzerland. Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Moreover, Switzerland has the second highest levels of per capita GDP in the world – even topping Finland – with its strong economic performance largely driven by the services and industry sectors.

In addition to that, Switzerland prioritises and values the promotion of peace and human rights as part of its Swiss foreign policy. The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation stipulates that Switzerland must promote respect for human rights and democracy and the peaceful coexistence of peoples (Art. 54) in its foreign relations.

Its strong emphasis on promoting peace and unity can also be felt on a domestic level and is very evident in the country’s outstanding social services. If you ever find yourself in a ditch and are unable to financially support either yourself or your family, there are plenty of places to reach out for help in Switzerland. – and they deliver.

In 2021, there were 265,100 financial social assistance recipients in Switzerland on at least one occasion. In Switzerland, all Swiss citizens or those with a Swiss residence permit can apply for welfare, as can asylum seekers and refugees. Residents outside those categories can also apply for so-called emergency assistance.

Meanwhile, Switzerland-based residents who find themselves out of work through no fault of their own can also register with their regional employment centre (RAV) to receive unemployment benefits for a limited time.

Unemployed persons will generally receive a monthly allowance the equivalent to 70 percent of their insured salary, while those on lower incomes may receive 80 percent of their former salary depending on a number of criteria.

However, it can’t be ignored that Switzerland has dropped down the ranking compared to last year. This could be due to the worsening affordable housing shortage and the rising cost of living, although Switzerland has fared better than other European countries on that front. 

READ ALSO: Which parts of Switzerland are hardest hit by housing shortage?

Still, as you can see there are plenty of reasons for people to love life in Switzerland – and it’s not all down to Switzerland being the equivalent of a chocolate heaven, although that is a lovely bonus.