I lived in Switzerland for one glorious year. If you’re new to the country you may question my affection for my Helvetic friend. Your neighbours don’t like you, you get told off for mowing your lawn and your work colleagues stare at you when you eat.

While it may seem like any other Schengen country, and while it feels European in many ways, Switzerland is a unique country with a very unique culture. Crack the cultural code however and you’ll have colleagues inviting you over for brunch, neighbours offering up their dog sitting services and soon you’ll be as integrated as a raisin in a bircher muesli.

Swiss flag photo

To speed up the journey, I asked some experts for their advice on how to integrate as a newbie in Switzerland.

Greetings

In Switzerland, you typically greet people with three kisses [alternating on each cheek]. In business settings, handshakes will do.

Usually it’s OK to refer to younger people by their first name, but you should refer to older people you have just met as Frau or Herr [or Madame / Monsieur in French speaking contexts], until they introduce themselves by their first name. This is a sign of mutual respect. Samantha Suarez-Maier, Editor, Hello Switzerland 

Whenever you greet someone, say their name, even with people you’ve only met briefly. If you don’t remember their name, ask. Not a simple, “Hi” , but “Hi, Anne!” Anne Liebgott, CEO, Where Americans Are Welcome

Bear in mind that Swiss people tend to chat for another half an hour or so after they have said that they’re leaving. It’s custom to say goodbye again outside the host’s house before you go on your way. Sandra Hautle-Illi, Partner at Anchor Relocation

Switzerland photo

Photo: Switzerland Tourism

Table manners

Don’t take a sip from your wine glass without first raising it to a toast with everyone, saying cheers, clinking glasses, speaking everyone’s name in the round and looking them in the eye when doing so. Anne Liebgott, CEO, Where Americans Are Welcome

Avoid crossing your knife and fork. This indicates that you were very unsatisfied with your food. Instead, line your fork and knife together on the right hand side of your plate. Samantha Suarez-Maier, Editor, Hello Switzerland

Things are changing, and it’s not a strict rule anymore, but as a Swiss native I was brought up with table manners which included folding, not slicing salad leaves on your plate.

Service is usually not included on bills and I always tip, even at a bar. There is no need for extravagant tipping however, if in doubt, round up to the nearest digit, allowing for about 10% maximum. Sara Roloff, Head of Media and Communications, Switzerland Tourism

Switzerland photo

Neighbourly love

Your neighbour will not come to you. So, after moving in, go over to your neighbour’s house or apartment with a gift like a small plant or a box of chocolates and introduce yourself. It will make a big difference and hopefully begin a long relationship. Chantal Panozzo, Writer and Author of ‘Swiss Life, 30 Things I Wish I’d Known’

Neighbours form a much stronger part of communities in Switzerland compared to other countries. Introduce yourself to your neighbours, take a small gift, get to know them. Sara Roloff, Head of Media and Communications, Switzerland Tourism

expat living photo

Socialising

The Swiss are formal, polite, and form relationships very slowly, so they will probably only tell you their last name and might not appear overly friendly. Hopefully as the years pass you will switch to first-name terms with each other and become friends for life. It happened with my Swiss neighbour, who still speaks no English, and it can happen to you if you begin things in a culturally sensitive way.  

Practice introducing yourself in the local language if you can, and use the formal version of “you” [‘Sie’ in German speaking parts and ‘vous’ in Francophone areas). It will make a big difference and hopefully begin a long relationship. Chantal Panozzo, Writer and Author of ‘Swiss Life, 30 Things I Wish I’d Known’

Friendships take time to build in Switzerland. Set your expectations for this to develop over time, more on the side of a year or a year and a half, instead of within weeks. 

Coffee breaks are not just for coffee. Snack breaks (‘znüni’ und ‘zvieri’ in some German-speaking parts of Switzerland) are opportune times to build relationships and exchange more informally with your work colleagues, or connect with follow moms in the neighborhood. Sundae Schneider-Bean, intercultural coach, www.sundaebean.com 

Nothing shuts down small talk faster than an (unsolicited) ‘But in my country, we do this that way…’ Be curious about your new home, and be ready to answer questions about your home country too. Just try to avoid direct comparisons. Malte Zeeck, Founder & Co-CEO, InterNations 
Switzerland expat living photo

Photo: Switzerland Tourism

Daily life

To many outsiders, the Swiss preoccupation with following rules may feel excessive. At the same time, these rules are integral to the smooth running of its incredible infrastructure and well-organized communities. Take the time to understand and follow the rules to avoid any unwelcome conflict. Sundae Schneider-Bean, intercultural coach, www.sundaebean.com 

Be punctual. It may be customary to arrive late for a dinner party in some countries, but not in Switzerland. A five minute delay is fine, but if you’re any later it’s generally polite to let your host know. Sara Roloff, Head of Media and Communications, Switzerland Tourism

On public transport such as the tram, bus, or train, always ask if the adjacent seat is available. Don’t just sit down, even if it is empty.

Sunday is a quiet day of rest. All shops (except for train stations, petrol stations and airports) are closed. Do as the locals and don’t wash your car or mow the lawn after 4pm on a Saturday or at any time on a Sunday. Sandra Hautle-Illi, Partner at Anchor Relocation

sunglasses girl Switzerland photo

Not on a Sunday

At the office

Proper breaks are custom in Switzerland. Most businesses (not so much large international corporations) close from 12pm – 1 pm (some until 1:30 pm) for a lunch break. In Zurich ‘Znüni’ (morning coffee break) is still very important, and it’s when co-workers have a quick catch up, a coffee and a croissant.  

Always answer the phone with your surname and if you call somewhere, always introduce yourself with your last name and say hello (‘grüezi’ in German speaking areas) before asking your questions. Sandra Hautle-Illi, Partner at Anchor Relocation

expat girl work photo

And in general

You can never avoid cultural faux pas entirely but if you act politely and respectfully, people will forgive you much more easily. Jan Luescher, asmallworld.com

Show respect to others and observe how others act before you act. If you intuitively feel that something you’re about to say or do might be “risky”, then don’t do it until you learn more. If you do make a “faux pas” openly acknowledge the fact you didn’t mean to offend, and learn from it. Nir Ofek, Co-founder, glocals.com

At work, in love, and in life, flexibility is key. This applies to intercultural contexts too. Always be open to different points of view and opinions. Malte Zeeck, Founder & Co-CEO InterNations

And one final word from me… Dogs are generally well regarded across the country. In our time in Lausanne, our Golden Retriever got a better reception than our (human) baby. Don’t be surprised if you see canine companions in restaurants, supermarkets or other public places. In Switzerland, it’s certainly not a dog’s life.
Dog in shop photo

Not a soft toy.

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