Saturday, 28 May 2011

On Switzerland: Swiss People Live Here

"Switzerland would be better if it didn't have Swiss people." - An asshole

I live in Bern, so the following observations about Swiss people can really only be classified as observations about Bernese peoples. One thing to note about Switzerland is that from Canton to Canton, region to region, everything from politics to traditions can vary greatly, and so you should know that I haven't actually gone to live amongst the Italian or French or Romansch tribes, and I haven't spent a lot of time in the wilds of Zurich or Graubuenden studying their homosapien wildlife; therefore, I can't make a broad sweeping generalization about what all Swiss people are like. However, I'm willing to bet they're all pretty much the same: regular people who are generally nice.

So a lot of expats feel that Swiss people are a cold and unwelcoming race who hate foreigners. I call bull shit on that.

Now I certainly do not discredit those expats who have been on the receiving end of a cold Swiss shoulder (I have a friend who has unfortunately had quite a few bad experiences), and I do acknowledge that Swiss people can seem to be abrupt and aggressive, especially if you're trying to get on a bus or a train. Why, just last night I was out with some friends and unbeknownst to us there was a lady behind us wheeling her work luggage and trying to get around us. Did she say excuse me? Did she clear her throat to let us know she was there? No. Instead she shoved right through our little trio and her luggage slammed into my friend's ankle.

Our one companion called after her in Swiss-German, but instead of an apology we received an over-the-shoulder withering stare before this rude woman continued on her way.

Am I to classify all Swiss people as rude, just because of this one woman?

Absolutely not.

There are jerks all over the world, and if you're in a densely populated environment you're going to encounter more of them: that's basic statistics peeps. That said, Swiss courtesies are not Canadian courtesies so there's no point in expecting as much.

When I walk into a store, chances of me being greeted, let alone asked if I need help, are slim to none.

I'm cool with that.

When we're at a restaurant, our waiter or waitress is not going to engage in pleasant conversation and chat us up: s/he is there to take our order, bring us our drinks, and that's it.

I'm cool with that.

If I'm running for the bus, and the bus driver sees me coming, but he's already late (ie. he should have left two seconds ago) he won't wait for me.

That's just the way it is.

If I pass people in my village, just two of us passing each other on a sidewalk, there won't be eye-contact let alone an exchanged hello; the cashier ringing in my order doesn't give a crap how my day is going and won't pretend to care; the girl cutting my hair wouldn't dream of being privy to the terrible and personal morning I've had; and you are not on a first name basis with people you have just met.

Now, conversely: if I pass people out for a hike, all of us will acknowledge each other with a friendly and formal hello.

When I am sitting down to eat, and I must closely pass a table of people who are just receiving their meal, it is the courtesy to wish them a pleasant meal.

Before taking a sip of our beverages, every one at the table will toast each other and wish each other good health.

In the evening, on a bus that isn't too busy, passengers getting off will wish the remaining passengers a good evening.

If I see a close friend or relation on the street, or meet them at their home, we will tap cheeks (think of it like an air kiss) three times--left, right, left--and ask how they are.

These are Swiss courtesies, so even though they might not queue for a bus or a train, it doesn't mean the Swiss are a population who have no respect for each other or for you, the expat. When I need assistance, I will ask the person in the store for help in my shaky German-English hybrid that still relies heavily on English. Am I shunned because I'm obviously not Swiss? No. The person in the store will help briskly as possible; there is no point feeling slighted by this: they're helping me for five minutes so I don't need them to be my new best friend.

Now that said, do Swiss people get annoyed with expats? Yes. From what I have been able to discern, the biggest sticking point with people in Bern are individuals who move here and never bother to learn any German. The Bernese people are not so totalitarian as to believe that expats are going to learn Swiss-German (a spoken dialect that is not written), but the effort to learn German is appreciated and expected.

I speak horrible German.

It is terrible.

And it won't improve until later this year when I can get back to classes. However, every single time I try to attempt a transaction in German, the person helping me always says I speak 'very good German'. They're lying of course, but they're also encouraging me. They appreciate I'm making an effort and want to express as much.

Switzerland may seem quaint or funny to us expats who are coming from informal and boisterous societies, but it's not and you do it a disservice to classify it and its people as such. Just as Switzerland's foreign policy has been to keep itself to itself, so to do its people appear to keep themselves to themselves. This is a formal society, and I know it is really hard to break into it. I'm married to a Swiss guy who only has Swiss friends, and I haven't been able to break into any inner circles on my own. However, that doesn't mean I can say with sweeping certainty that all Swiss people are rude and they hate me just because I'm not from Switzerland.

If you don't understand a country's history, it's principles, and it's traditions than you can't say you really understand its people. To write off an entire population as being rude cold-fish is ignorant. Tally up every bad experience you've ever had in your own country, every government official who has been less than helpful, every customer service experience that didn't go as you wanted it to, every parking lot altercation, every confrontation with an inconsiderate neighbour, work colleague, or client.

Are you going to also classify all your own country's citizens as rude cold-fish because of these experiences? Or does the fact that your cashier might ask how your day is going, before she tunes you out, make it all better?


T said...

I really enjoyed your logic in this post Caitie. I like that you have taken the time to really look at a situation from the other person's point of view and I think that it would be a very useful thing to remember even when you're out and about in Canada!

becca28 said...

I love your series "On Switzerland". I too have read a lot of negative reviews on Swiss life, and as a soon-to-be expat, this can be quite discouraging.

I appreciate you shedding a light on the subject, and I particularly enjoyed this post. I think it relates to just about any country in the world. Each ethnicity has a different definition of what is polite and expected. It would be unfair to expect every nation to operate the same way as yours. And then go labelling an entire group as "rude" after a bad experience with one person.

M'dame Jo said...

My swiss opinion on the anecdote you mentioned: if you're walking with two friends, you're probably using all the sidewalk width. And if you're walking at a slow "I'm hanging with my friends" pace, it will be percieved as rude (same as standing on the left in the stairs) because you're taking up all space and blocking the passage for everyone else. That doesn't justify slamming your friends ankles. Still in that situation I would ask you to move and my tone would probably let you know I'm annoyed. And you know I'm not cold nor rude.

That was my swiss perspective :-)

Virginia said...

"every single time I try to attempt a transaction in German, the person helping me always says I speak 'very good German'. They're lying of course, but they're also encouraging me."

--Darn. I thought that I'd been impressing people with my really awesome pronunciation, but now I learn it's the standard polite response. Ah well, I will still take any encouragement I can get.

I'm really enjoying these posts!

Melissa Sue said...

This whole series has been awesome, I need to link to it so my readers can get some actual insight, instead of just photos of me drinking, haaa.

I do have to stick up for my village (and surrounding ones) though -
The store clerks are very into their pleasant 'hello-can-i-help-you's, the waitstaff is overly friendly (free shots and dessert and hanging out for coffee), the smiling bus driver always waits for the poor running bastards, and I have to say hello to every damn person I meet on the street between my house and the Migros (except for when you enter the "magic migros bubble" as I call it - that zone 30 feet or so surrounding the migros where it becomes acceptable to just go in and shop without the Gruezi crap). I dunno, maybe that's just over here. Or the fact that most of my town's residents have 4 legs.

I particularly like the bit about understanding a country before judging its people. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Swiss people sound great! I hate being annoyed by store clerks and waiters.

Anonymous said...

The problem with expat Americans or other nationalities wanting to settle in Swiss, or in any other country from the Western Europe, is that those countries are based on principles of high education, discipline, order, respect of the law, trust of institutions, and high standards overall. This comes as a shock to most people, especially Americans, they are facing when they're there since they would to either make a huge effort to adjust to their high standards, or return to their countries. In fact, most American would not be capable to live in Switzerland as they live in the USA doing littering and noise, and disturbing the neighbors, and so forth, because the society is a too formal, fair, and educated in general and they wouldn't feel welcome there. But it's not Switzerland's fault. When you go there, even as a tourist for a short time, you can clearly see the difference in civilization between Swiss, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and so forth, and USA. It's not like between day and night, but still visible and palpable. It's very hard to live in a civilized way, if not impossible, when you're not properly educated and raised. In fact, a poll said that 95% of Americans don't have proper education - including overall culture, manners, and so forth. I totally concur.