I admit it, we Swiss are a strange people. Sometimes I joke that we’re the only landlocked island nation in the world. Although we’re surrounded by other nations, we could just as well be on a different planet. Whether it’s politics, economy or anything else, we always like to keep to ourselves. That’s why many people feel alienated when they visit Switzerland. They describe us as cold, unfriendly and unapproachable. We’re really not that bad, though (I promise!). If you understand the dos and don’ts in this quick guide to Swiss culture, you’ll surely find that we can be as sweet as our chocolate.
Lonely Planet’s guide to Switzerland will provide you with all the rest you need to know to make the best out of your vacations.
Be on time
We’re not the nation of clocks because we love how the soothing ticktock lulls us to sleep. Clocks are our masters and we are devoted to their every move.
Never be late again with one of the many stylish Swiss Swatch watches!
Whether you’re catching a train or meeting up with some Swiss friends, always be on time (5 minutes early would be even better). Swiss trains are the most punctual in Europe, so if the train schedule says departure is 10:47, it will not be there 10:48. You’ll even notice Swiss people getting nervous and impatient if a train dares to be more than 3 minutes late (what an audacity!).
And if you’re supposed to meet someone at 3 p.m. and you realize that you’ll be 5 minutes late, you’d better send an apology message and hope for the best. Not kidding! I had friends tell me that they would just leave if you let them wait for more than 15 minutes.
Don’t just assume we speak English
With 4 national languages and more than 25% immigrants, we are a multilingual and multicultural nation to the core. Every child has to learn at least one additional language at school and most of us know English.
Nevertheless, we appreciate it if you at least try to speak our language (even if it’s just a few words). When we see that you’re struggling too much, we’ll switch to English without batting an eyelid.
Unless you’re in a city, greet everyone that crosses your path
I don’t know how many
thousand times my mum had to scold me as a little girl to “be polite and greet those nice people”. Especially in small villages and towns, you’ll notice everyone smiling at you expectantly and saying “Grüezi”. If you struggle with this word, you can simply nod and smile or add something along the lines of “hi” or “hello” (not quite as polite but still very much appreciated!).
Be ready for every situation with the Europe phrase book and dictionary from Lonely Planet.
For some reason, this rule applies even more strongly on hiking trails. On busy days (which is basically whenever the sun is out) when
all half of Switzerland relocates to the mountains, greeting can get more exhausting than the hike itself. At some point, all I can manage is a sorry excuse for a smile and a grunt.
To tip or not to tip, that’s the question…
Since the 70’s, services charges are included in the price and tipping isn’t obligatory anymore. While waiters don’t earn a fortune, they earn enough not to rely on tips to survive.
Nowadays, it’s seen as a sign of appreciation and should only be awarded for good service. If you were happy with the service leave anything between 5 % – 10 %. For smaller sums, you can just round up to the next full number (i.e. if you pay 4.50 round up to 5, if you pay 17.80 round up to 20 and so on).
If you pay cash, the easiest way to tip is to tell the waiter or waitress how much you want to pay, because the entire paying process happens right at your table. If you take the change and leave the tip on the table as you leave, they might think for a minute that
you’re a jerk you weren’t happy with them.
Example: The bill is 13.50 CHF and you want to give 15 CHF. Either give them 15 and say that it’s fine or give them more and simply say something along the lines of “make it 15, please”.
Be extremely polite
We take politeness seriously. Maybe not as serious as the Japanese (from what I’ve heard) but we’re close.
So, what does it mean to be polite in Switzerland?
- Never address anyone by their first name unless they offer (“You can call me so and so.”). This applies mainly to people above 30 (more or less) and it’s always the older person’s right to offer.
- If you speak German, make sure you practiced the polite verb forms. The Swiss are still very much hung up on these forms of politeness and will feel insulted if you use “Du” instead of “Sie”. This applies to pretty much every situation unless you are talking to a child. And again, it’s the older person’s right to “offer the Du”. Of course, we will
most likelynot kill you if you get it wrong, but why risk it, right?
- Use at least twice as many pleases, thank yous and you’re welcomes than you would think are appropriate. Just buying a bread from a baker will involve at least five of each. Sprinkle in a good amount of “could you” and “would you” and you’re ready to go.
Always ask whether a seat is taken before sitting down
Whether you’re in a bus, a tram or a train, if someone is already sitting in the row or booth you want to sit in, you should ask permission to join them. It doesn’t matter one smidgen whether the seat is obviously taken or not. A simple “Noch frei?” (still free?) or “besetzt?” (taken?) will do the deed and will usually be answered by a small nod and a gesture inviting you to sit down.
And yes, you’ll be asked the same thing as well. If there are still empty seats around you, don’t freak out if someone suddenly springs this question on you. Simply nod, gesture and feel proud of yourself! By the way, any additional interaction is not expected nor desired (unless you end up next to the one Chatty Cathy on the entire train).
Never eat the last piece of anything without asking permission first
If you’re ever invited to someone’s home and they serve some cookies or you’re at a restaurant with a group of people and there are olives, you’ll notice something strange. Even though everyone will happily take seconds or thirds, the last poor cookie or olive will stay on the plate for ever, feeling all lonely and undesirable.
Why not practice at home with these 5 Swiss cookie recipes?
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this poor cookie, we are just too polite to take it. We even have a special name for those neglected last pieces of anything. They’re called “der Anstandsrest” which loosely translates to “the decent leftover”. Basically, it would be rude and selfish to take the last piece. Usually after a ridiculously long time, someone gets up the courage and takes pity on the cookie by asking: “Would anyone else like the last cookie?” After everyone has graciously denied, the cookie can finally be
devoured put out of its misery.
Do not start drinking before cheering
This might not be too surprising. Many cultures cheer before they start drinking. But as always, we have to take it a step further…
Before taking your first sip, raise your glass… and cheer with every single person separately! Raise your glass, look the other person deep into their eyes (
unless you want 7 years of bad sex…), clink glasses and say either “Prost”, “Santé”, or “Cheers”. Then move on to the next person.
If the person is too far away, you still have to do it. Instead of clinking glasses, though, you just do an air cheer towards that person.
On the same subject, don’t start eating before everyone has wished you “Bon appetit” or “En guete”. Which means “enjoy your meal”
unless it’s cold by the time you’re done with everything.
Sunday is a day for rest, respect it
Ooohh, Sundays… Who doesn’t love Sundays? That one perfect day that lets you catch up on everything you couldn’t do during the week. Clean your car, fix things around the house, go shopping… Right? WRONG!
Even though we’re not really a religious country (25% do not belong to any religion), Sundays are “sacred”. Except for small shops at gas stations and train stations, nothing will be open. And you’d better not dare to disturb our peace!
It’s actually against the law to wash your car on Sundays, recycle (!) or make any sort of excessive noise (by that we basically mean everything above a whisper…). Depending on how much you are liked by your neighbours, you might just be visited by the police. And they didn’t come for some afternoon tea…
Don’t talk about money
Yes, we are a rich country. Yes, we are an expensive country. And yes, we are the country of banks.
Despite (or maybe because of?) all this, we do not like to talk about money at all. It’s a bigger taboo than religion or politics!
If you want to learn more about the enigma that is the Swiss culture, I’d highly recommend the hilarious Xenophobe’s Guide to the Swiss!
While it might be acceptable in other cultures to brag about how much that expensive-looking watch cost or what you spent on your last holiday, we Swiss won’t even discuss such things with our closest friends. Even worse is talking about how much you earn. You’d probably get a less evasive answer if you asked them what color underwear they were wearing…
This is slowly changing and the younger generation is more open and honest but you’d still better avoid it
like the plague unless you thrive in awkward silences.
Give us a kiss (or rather three)
No, don’t worry, I don’t mean go in for the full-on smooch. But just like the French and the Germans, we kiss people on the cheek as a way of greeting each other. Now, there are a couple of rules:
- Kissing is somewhere between formal and informal (from formal to informal it would mostly be: handshake, three kisses, one kiss on the cheek (plus a hug), a hug)
- Don’t worry if you get it wrong. The boundaries are extremely fuzzy and you’ll never really know where you are on the greeting scale. Three kisses is usually your safest bet, though. Unless it’s a professional environment, of course. DO NOT kiss a potential employer!
Unless he’s like really cute…
- Always start on the left cheek.
- Don’t actually kiss the other person’s cheek. It’s more of a cheek on cheek move while making fake kissing sounds.
- Kissing is expected unless you’re a man greeting another man.
- Kissing is for saying hi and bye. So if you have to catch a train, plane, boat,
UFO, start your goodbyes early because you’re supposed to kiss every single person! It’s actually pretty standard to hear someone say: Oh, I have to leave in 15 minutes. I’d rather start saying goodbye now!
If you think you’re ready to visit my beautiful home country now, keep reading to see why Interlaken is the best place to stay at when visiting Switzerland!
So in that sense, *mwah-mwha-mwah* and hopefully see you soon!
Is there anything else about the Swiss culture that you find confusing?
Anything that should be added to this list?