Spend enough time in Switzerland and a local will one day turn to you with a half-smile and say “typical Swiss” about something they’ve observed nearby that they know sets the Swiss apart from all other Europeans. Cultural variations do exist between cantons in Switzerland and Zurich residents are to the remaining Swiss population what Parisians are to all other French. Generally speaking, however, here’s how to be typically Swiss.
Be on time, be on time, be on time. If a morning meeting is scheduled for 10.15 then everyone is there by 10.15 for a 10.15 start. And that’s just for a play date. There’s a sense of duty to use time efficiently and not waste it waiting or causing others to wait. Swiss people arrive early for business meetings to demonstrate how organised and respectful they are. Public transport is so consistently on time that a 10-minute train delay can make locals genuinely irate.
Speak at least three or four languages. Switzerland’s national languages are French, German (though Swiss-German is spoken), Italian and Romansch. There are countless dialects, everyone is multilingual and nowadays many people speak English. Romansch, the traditional language of the Engadine, has barely changed since Roman soldiers settled the region more than 2000 years ago yet it was only recognised as a national language in 1996 and is finally being actively revived more than actively quashed.
Be understated. The Swiss like high-quality products, good shoes and clothing, being successful at work and achieving great things, but they don’t bang on about it, nor do they discuss their earnings. Roger Federer does his country proud by never being a mouthy show-off despite having just about every right to be. Swiss people also try their best not to boast about their pristine, economically sound homeland and the way it runs like a well-oiled timepiece.
Save the life story for later. When Swiss people meet someone new they are usually quite private about their personal lives and, in turn, don’t initially ask many questions about family and job or hopes and dreams. The journey from acquaintance to friend can be a long one with a reserved Swiss person but once that transition is made, the relationship is highly valued.
Appreciate great design. Part of what makes Switzerland so calm, clean and organised is the attention to detail given to typography, graphic design, architecture, the composition of public spaces, lighting along a toboggan run, the rotation of a gondola, the multi-tool in a person’s pocket, the watch on someone’s wrist.
Observe znuni (pronounced snOO-nee); it’s possibly even more Swiss than horology. The word means “at nine” and refers to a snack eaten at that time. Some workplaces strongly encourage employees to partake because the brief morning break – both socially and digestively nourishing – seems to improve productivity.
Live under a direct democracy. Governed by a seven-member council serving as the collective head of state, there’s no other political system in the world like Switzerland’s. Citizens can vote on issues several times a year and they do so very carefully. Increasing annual holidays from four to six weeks was recently voted against by a nervous majority unsure of how the change would affect the economy.
Be unmoved by celebrity. Swiss culture values privacy and discretion to such an extent that celebrities are never hassled or mobbed. Locals play it cool no matter whether they run into Tina Turner (now a Swiss citizen), Renee Zellweger (her father is Swiss) or Roger Federer (he’s typically Swiss). Popular international celebrity getaways include Davos Klosters, Gstaad, Verbier, St Moritz, Zermatt and Montreux.
Go public. Along with excellent urban public transport, every Swiss village and town must be serviced daily – and, in reality, it’s usually every hour – by a PostBus locally called “Postauto” (covering a route network of 10,300 kilometres). The smallest and remotest valleys will also have a cable car or train.
Be an active type. Swiss commuters walk or cycle whenever possible. Many people hike, mountain bike and cycle in summer and ski, snowshoe and toboggan through winter. Traditional Swiss sports that are still alive and kicking are Hornussen (like golf but nothing like golf) and Schwingen (wrestling). When travelling abroad most Swiss people take hiking shoes. Outdoor clothing is often top-of-the-line and it’s OK to be colour co-ordinated with a companion.
Love nature. The Swiss are proud to have 208 mountains more than 3000 metres high and are keen to preserve their wild-flowering alps, spring water, fresh air and wild animals – marmot, chamois, ibex, the occasional bear. Mountains are easily accessible from anywhere in Switzerland and people get high to exercise, relax, eat cake, drink coffee with schnapps and forget about everyday life. On Friday and Saturday evenings during summer it’s acceptable to be tipsy and raucous at the outdoor restaurant of an alpine hut.
Be environmentally friendly. Just about everything recyclable is recycled. Instead of parents wasting fuel driving kids to school Swiss children are encouraged to walk or bike. Urban streets are generally free of rubbish as are rural and uncultivated spaces.
Keep up with animal protection laws. Loving cows and the sound of their bells is in the blood of Swiss people. Beef is nationally consumed as are fish, chicken, pork, lamb and horse. Meanwhile, it’s illegal to keep “social” creatures – guinea pig, mouse, ferret, fish, parrot, pig and others – unless there are at least two of them because isolating such animals is considered abusive. There is also a dog-owning tax.
Eat your weight in dairy. There are about 450 varieties of Swiss cheese and, along with milk and yoghurt, it remains an important staple and source of regional pride. Traditional cheesy dishes include aelpler makkaroni, raclette and cheese fondue. Whey-based soft drink Rivella is tastier than it sounds. Switzerland enjoys the highest per capita consumption of chocolate in the world. Ragusa, a brand that is more than 70 years old, is a national (and personal) favourite. Chocolate fondue, however, is not typically Swiss.
Follow the rules. Along with punctuality there’s strict etiquette around how to greet people and who to triple cheek-kiss, how to toast correctly and what to say before a meal. Then there’s the ritual of cheese fondue: drink wine, schnapps or tea but never beer. Spear your bread artfully so it stays forked; lose your bread in the mix and you risk having to kiss someone or everyone.
Respect others or be prosecuted. In the interest of neighbourhood peace, a social law in Switzerland deems it illegal to mow, wash a car, put out the recycling or hang out washing on Sundays . Some apartment buildings don’t allow residents or their guests to slam a car door, empty a bath, flush a toilet or pee standing up after 10pm.
Go nude in Swiss saunas. It’s the norm – there are often signs strictly forbidding swimming costumes – while gender segregation is not. The Swiss, however, are a respectful people.
Skip the queue. Despite the orderly nature of the country, lining up is not a particularly recognised thing in Switzerland and accidentally bumping into someone or being bumped into isn’t the end of the world, either.
Curb your postnatal creativity. If parents give a child a name deemed inappropriate the decision can be overruled by the authorities. It shouldn’t be offensive to others or potentially problematic for the child ie Charity Case, Jack Knoff. No boys names for girls and vice versa, no surnames as first names, no biblical bad boys like Cain or Judas, no brand names, no place names and nothing original.
Don’t helicopter parent. The Swiss aren’t into hovering over their developing offspring. They encourage toddlers to learn to ski, ride around on tiny pedal-less balance bikes, go off and play together in the forest and join the family on alpine walks (though you may see leashes used on cliffside trails).
Party like it’s 1499. Swiss of all ages embrace yodelling, alphorn, flag twirling and traditional costumes. Annual festivals include springtime’s Sechselauten in Zurich, horn sled races in the Bernese Oberland and Chalandamarz in the Engadine. There are loads of summertime music festivals such as Blue Balls in Lucerne, Ascona Jazz in Ticino and Montreux Jazz Festival. During carnival – Fasnacht – everyone plays dress-ups, drinks for days and lets out all that excess noise they’ve been holding in so as not to annoy their neighbours.
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.
Swiss International Air Lines, along with airline partners, offers daily connections from Sydney and Melbourne via Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. See swiss.com