Introduction to Swiss Culture: What is Switzerland really like?
Many people have preconceived ideas about Switzerland which may include some or all of the following: snow, mountains, skiing, cheese, chocolate, banks, watches, cuckoo clocks, and cows. Beyond these admittedly real clichés is a complex and layered reality. In spite of having one of the highest foreign to local resident ratios in the world, the Swiss are fiercely protective of their culture and customs.
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First impressions of Switzerland include its cleanliness, safety, efficient infrastructure, and high prices. Considerate behaviour that shows awareness of others and general helpfulness are held in high regard.
The Swiss are also known for their reserved, extremely organised nature and strict adherence to a set of unwritten social rules for daily life. Everyone is expected to follow these rules, which can make integration challenging. Many newcomers stick with familiar expat groups, but those who make the effort to get to know the Swiss better are rewarded with loyal friendships in the long term.
Getting to know the culture and people better with tips for settling in may help you to navigate through daily life and ease the integration process in Switzerland.
Social courtesies in Switzerland
Everyday life in a Swiss neighbourhood
Swiss neighbourhoods are compact and planned around local services and infrastructure. They are generally safe, clean, and orderly places, where failure to stick to ‘the rules' may be commented on.
As a newcomer, you are expected to make the first move and invite your neighbours over to introduce yourself. An introduction over a glass of wine and snacks is sufficient. The Swiss are reserved and generally limit their invitations to trusted circles. This is a sign of respect for your privacy and not intended to cause offence. They are usually delighted to be invited as a way of getting to know you better. Don't expect barriers to break down immediately: this will take time. Once you do get to know the Swiss better, there is great potential for lifelong friendship.
Swiss form of greeting
Swiss people over the age of 30 generally greet each other by shaking hands on introduction, using family rather than first names, and addressing each other using the formal word for 'you' ('vous' in French or 'Sie' in German). Neighbours are greeted by name and a polite 'bonjour' / 'guten Tag' during the day or 'bonsoir' / 'guten Abend' in the evening. This courtesy is returned and greatly contributes to your being gradually accepted. When entering an establishment a greeting is expected, as is a goodbye or 'au revoir'/ 'auf Wiedersehen', on leaving.
Only start using the familiar form of 'you' ('tu' in French and 'du' in German) form once invited to do so by the person you are speaking to. When a Swiss colleague feels ready for a friendly relationship on a first name basis along with use of the familiar 'tu'/ 'du' form of 'you', you may be invited to partake in a special 'tutoyer/ dutzen' ritual, usually over a drink. After this, the use of first names and a dependable relationship will always be expected. Younger Swiss practise this less.
Common Swiss social courtesies
- Bring a small gift such as flowers, chocolate or a gift for the children when invited for a meal
- Be on time (or even 5 minutes early) for appointments or cancel in time
- When offered a glass of wine, wait for the host to make a toast before drinking
- Before beginning a meal say 'bon appétit' / 'guten Appetit' ('enjoy your meal')
- Call before dropping in for a visit
- On the telephone: Swiss people introduce themselves first before asking to speak to someone or explaining the reason for the call.
- If a workman is at your home for a longer period, offer him something to drink or eat
- Sunday is a day of rest, and noisy activities are not appreciated
- If you're planning a party, neighbours appreciate being informed or even invited