Swiss customs and expressions
Knowing local customs and avoiding pitfalls
Been wondering why Swiss people kiss so often when they meet? Do you know what to expect when friends invite you to an Apéro? Find out more about local customs in our list of Dos and Don’ts.
Dos and Don'ts in Switzerland
You don't want to offend Swiss locals and want to be seen as highly integrated by your acquaintances as quickly as possible? If this applies to you, it is worthwhile closely studying the local customs and, in particular, possible pitfalls.
Always say "please" (German: "bitte" / French: "s'il vous plaît" / Italian: "per favore"), "thank you" ("danke"/ "merci"/ "grazie") and "you're welcome" ("bitte"/"de rien"/"prego"): This exchange of verbal politeness at supermarket tills may seem almost excessive. Nevertheless, it is better to say "thank you", "please" or "have a nice day" one too many times than one too few.
Clink your glasses: It is customary at an "Apéro" (see below), at dinner and, depending on the situation, when enjoying a nightcap to clink your glass with everybody before taking a drink. Often, you also say the respective person's name. Here, too, it is better to raise your glass in the group one too many times that one too few.
Hiking: It comes as no surprise that the Swiss love hiking. But please note: When you go on a real hike, you will be climbing several hundred vertical metres. A two-hour tour around a lake does not count as a hike and will smilingly be dismissed by the Swiss as a long walk. To join in a hike, you therefore have to have the right equipment: good hiking boots and a light rucksack are a must. Please also be careful when referring to the official hiking scale: light climbing is also deemed to be hiking in Switzerland!
Three kisses as a greeting: When meeting somebody for the first time in Switzerland, it is customary to shake hands. From the second time you meet, things become a little more complicated. When greeting a woman, it is customary to give three kisses on the cheek. If you are more acquainted, it may only be one kiss or a hug (also among male friends). The rules are not so clear, however. There can therefore also be misunderstandings between the Swiss when they greet one another, for example if one person thinks that one kiss was enough while the other is already going in for the second kiss. This problem is notorious, however, and therefore there is a very high level of tolerance. Nevertheless, you can be sure of the following: You never give two kisses.
Repeat name when greeting people: This is not obligatory, but it is very noticeable that the Swiss often say or repeat the name of their counterpart when they hear it for the first time: "Hello, my name is Hansruedi." – "Hansruedi, nice to meet you, my name is Susanne".
Switch down a gear: As a rule, the Swiss work in an efficient and productive manner. This may seem surprising given the slowness which they display in almost all day-to-day situations, be this when boarding a tram, paying at the supermarket till or at a meeting. Pushing in, rushing around and impatiently tapping your foot will a) not help you get to where you want to go quicker and b) you will be deemed as rude.
An invite without an Apéro: If Mr and Mrs Swiss are invited for an (evening) meal, they will expect to receive an aperitif and some appetisers before the meal is served. This does not have to involve a great deal of work: Depending on the formalities of the invite, beer or white wine with crisps, nuts or olives will also be accepted. Particularly popular Apéro drinks also include sparkling whine, Hugo (a Swiss cocktail), Aperol Spritz and Campari varieties. If, however, you don't want to wait until serving your delicious meal to impress, you can make a big effort with your Apéro. For example, you can serve up a selection of aperitif cocktails together with small home-made treats. Also: Sending out invites for or arranging just an Apéro will also be welcomed. This may last late into the night and should absolutely be more extravagant and involve more work than a "warm-up" prior to a meal.
Trying to speak Swiss German: Admittedly, opinions are divided here. Many Swiss view the effort to acquire the language as a sign of successful integration. With others, it is not well received if foreigners (especially Germans) try to speak Swiss German (dialect). This comes across as contrived and is interpreted as an unwelcome "attempt to seize" a trait that is reserved for the Swiss. There is also the fact that it is unlikely that a non-Swiss person will ever perfect Swiss German due to the complexity and wide variety of the dialects – this is usually only achieved by the children of immigrants who practice from an early age and grow up with Swiss German speakers. Furthermore, the Swiss can recognise the German (or any other foreign) accent and immediately identify the speaker as a non-native. What is expected of foreigners, however, after having been in Switzerland for some time is that they understand and speak standard German, French or Italian passably well.
Stinginess: Kicking up a fuss because you're being charged a couple of rappen – or, depending on the price, a couple of francs – more than advertised or complaining to supermarket, restaurant or amusement park staff about excessive prices is not only unusual in Switzerland. The person counting every rappen will also be viewed to be very miserly and impolite. Not commendable qualities.
Loudness: Complaining or telling jokes loudly, shouting into the telephone or even raising your voice about the maximum acceptable level for the Swiss during an argument will not be received well. The perpetrator will immediately be labelled as rude, unfriendly and egocentric.
Being late: Being more than 15 minutes late is simply unacceptable. If this still cannot be avoided, you must inform the person or people waiting for you about the delay in good time. And, of course, apologise.
Irony in day-to-day situations: The Swiss are not quite so humourless as widely assumed. Nevertheless, you should be careful when using irony and sarcasm in day-to-day situations: If somebody does not know you or does not know you well, they will likely not recognise the irony or sarcasm as such and, if they do, will view this as inappropriate. The situation is different when you're with friends who are well positioned to judge how you mean something. In such cases, almost all forms of humour can lead to hilarious entertainment.