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French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Fitting in and integrating into Swiss life is not easy, especially understanding the complex differences between how the locals tick in various linguistic regions. This is what you should know if live in or visit la Suisse Romande — i.e. French-speaking Switzerland.

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local
Le bisou. Photo by Tony Mucci on Unsplash

As you know if you have lived in Switzerland for a while (and this is possibly new information for you if you are a new arrival), there is a cultural divide between the German and French speaking regions, called the Röstigraben (for Ticino, the applicable word is “Polentagraben”).

The word “Rösti” refers to the Swiss German name for a potato dish which (somewhat) resembles hash browns. 

The dish is popular in German-speaking Switzerland but is almost non-existent in the French-speaking part. 

“Graben” means border, gap or rift. 

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss-Germans and Romands could be from two different planets.

And it is not only because they speak different languages, have a different culture – and because Swiss-French men don’t wear socks with sandals like their Swiss-German counterparts.

But let’s focus on the people living in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, otherwise known as Romandie. 

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

Here are seven life hacks to make your Swiss-French experience smoother. 

Don’t tell the locals that they are “French”

This is the worst thing you can tell a Romand, or, in French – and is a complete faux-pas. They may be speaking French but they are first and foremost Swiss, and most Swiss look down on foreigners.

Genevans, for instance, don’t much care for their French neighbours, even though without them, the canton’s economy would be in shambles.

If you are really French, don’t volunteer this information.

Tell the Romands you are Belgian. Or better yet, French-Canadian.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

Speak French (even poorly) but never German

While the Romands tolerate their Swiss-German neighbours (certainly more than they tolerate the French), they will not want to speak their language.

One reason is that they don’t like the sound of it and another that, while they all learned it in school (though under duress), they didn’t learn it well.

You will have to look far and wide to find a Romand who speaks Swiss-German fluently, without an accent and enjoys it. Even President Guy Parmelin and Health Minister Alain Berset, the two Romands on the Federal Council, speak it with a French accent.

They speak it because their job demands it. For other Romands, it is an unnecessary burden.

However, speaking English with a Romand is fine (although they might speak back to you in French).

READ MORE: Eight ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

Remember that the Swiss attitude to punctuality is universal

Newcomers to Switzerland might assume that the Swiss fascination with punctuality is a Swiss German phenomenon.

While the attitude to lateness in a personal context might be slightly more relaxed in Romandie – unlike in German-speaking Switzerland you’re unlikely to get a text from a friend if you’re three minutes late asking where you are – Swiss people all over the country are proud of their country’s strong record on punctuality. 

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

While the Röstigraben definitely exists, Swiss trains will be punctual on both sides of the border.

So if you’re visiting Romandie, try to do the same. 

Be on time wherever you are in Switzerland. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

Master the three-cheek kiss

You will never fit in if you don’t master the art of a three-cheek-kiss.

It’s true that other cultures have some variation of this custom, but in the Suisse Romande it is taken to the extreme.

It doesn’t matter whether you know someone for a long time or for five minutes — you will not fit in if you don’t practice the right cheek-left cheek-right cheek ritual with everyone you meet.

It is not so bad if you are meeting only one person, but if you attend a large event and have to three-kiss many cheeks you haven’t been properly introduced to when you arrive and then again when you leave, that can take hours.

Thankfully, this custom has fallen victim to the pandemic and nobody can predict whether it will ever re-emerge but, at least for now, there is a reprieve.

Small talk (especially about the weather)

New arrivals to Switzerland are often told to avoid small talk.

This is something that can be particularly difficult, especially for arrivals from English-speaking countries where the compulsion to fill up uncomfortable silences outweighs the desire to actually talk about something interesting. 

While avoiding small talk in German-speaking Switzerland is good practice (unless you want to be treated like an undercover cop), the French-speaking Swiss have a more relaxed attitude to small talk. 

Of course, French-speaking Swiss are still Swiss and some topics will be off limits for small talk – particularly if they are too personal – but if you want to fill those uncomfortable silences, you can always talk about the weather. 

Eat (and enjoy) local specialties

Okay, this may not be easy, as some foods might not be to your taste.

But if you learn to prepare (and stomach) la saucisse aux choux (pork sausage stuffed with cabbage),  le papet (pork sausage served with boiled potatoes and leeks), or Malakoff (a fried cheese ball, NOT to be confused with a molotov cocktail) you are probably good to go.

Le papet vaudois. Photo by Vaud Tourisme

Drink (and converse about) local wines

Food is good but knowledge of wines is even better.

All the French-speaking regions grow their own grapes and produce wines, and they are mighty proud of them.

Depending on the canton or even a commune where you are, learn all you can about these local wines and share your knowledge with the people you meet.

Wines are a huge social connector in this part of  Switzerland and will help you fit in like a local —unless, of course, you start talking about the virtue of French wines, which is the ultimate faux pas. 

Just remember not to assume that all French-speaking Swiss are drunks, as Italian-speaking Swiss consume far more wine per capita (a fun fact to bust out whenever you find yourself on the other side of the alps). 

Voilà, now you are ready to conquer La Suisse Romande. Bonne chance!

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For members

SWISS HABITS

How you know you’ve been living in Switzerland ‘too long’

When you first arrive here, you may be so overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all, that you think you will never get accustomed to the local way of life. But then, something happens — you actually become “too Swiss.”

How you know you've been living in Switzerland 'too long'

Let’s say it as it is: Switzerland is not exactly the easiest of countries to get used to if you are a foreigner.
 
This is especially true if you come from a place that has totally different customs, culture, mentality, and general attitudes — which is about everywhere else in the world.
 
READ MORE: Eight Swiss culture shocks that may take some getting used to 

But if you live here long enough (with ‘long enough’ being hard to define precisely), you will wake up one morning and realise, to your utter dismay, that things which seemed incomprehensible when you first arrived, are now totally normal.
 
Not only that, but the ways of your own country may now appear strange to you.

So how do you know when you crossed that invisible line and became too immersed in everything Swiss?
 
Some of the answers come from a recent thread on English Forum, The Local’s forum for Switzerland’s English-speaking community.
 
We chose the most “telling” examples:
 
‘You know you’ve been in Switzerland for too long when you cringe as your parents come to visit and don’t realise how much noise they make after 10pm’

That is because tenants in Switzerland are sworn to the vow of silence between 10 pm and 6 am, so as not to disturb their neighbours.
 
‘When you have a vacuum cleaner for cleaning the patio’

For many Swiss, cleaning is an art form and cleanliness a must, not an option, A regular vacuum cleaner would probably suffice for a patio and balcony, but not having proper tools for the outdoors, just wouldn’t be…Swiss.

‘You are German and are annoyed by the Germans’

The Swiss typically look down on their European neighbours, believing they are far superior to all the other countries that surround them.

READ MORE: Why do the Swiss think they are superior to everyone else?

‘You unbox and dispose of as much packaging as you can in the supermarket before you bring shopping home’

As carton and cardbox should be recycled, it is often more convenient just to leave it at the supermarket — and retailers provide special place where this, and other recyclables, can be left. 

‘You put Aromat on everything’

The article below explains the Swiss obsession with this seasoning and why they even take it on holiday with them.
 
READ MORE: What is Aromat and why are the Swiss so obsessed with it? 

‘When you are annoyed that the train is a few minutes late’

Punctuality is an integral part of Swiss psyche — possibly because they are so good at watch and clock making. To be fair, trains do sometimes arrive and depart late — which is irritating to the time-conscious commuters. 
 
‘When you visit a country in which you used to live, and catch yourself getting annoyed when an appointment doesn’t start on the dot punctually’

Same as above: in Switzerland, timeliness is the rule, rather than exception.

OPINION: Trains in Switzerland are excellent, so why are cars still king?

‘You feel dumb for not speaking three languages’

While most Swiss probably don’t speak all three national languages fluently, some do. Two languages is probably the norm in Switzerland — something that is difficult for foreigners to keep up with.

READ ALSO: Just how good are the Swiss at speaking the country’s languages?

‘You pay 20 chf for a burger and you think ‘what a steal!”

When foreigners (or tourists) first come to Switzerland they are shocked by the prices. With time, however, they get more (though perhaps not totally) accustomed to the cost of living — especially in relation to high wages. 

‘You get annoyed when someone is speaking too loudly on the tram’

Of course. Being noisy on public transportation is considered rude.
 
‘The prices in Laderach [luxury chocolate brand] no longer shock you’

As with the hamburger mentioned above, you learn to put up with high prices — whether for meat or chocolate. After a while, you actually expect Swiss goods to be expensive.
 
‘You stop your guests from taking their shoes off but you’re dying a little inside’

So true. It’s an inner struggle between not wanting outside dirt on your clean floor and wanting to be a gracious host(ess). Hygiene and social interactions are equally important here.
 
‘Your stacks of papers are perfect’

The Swiss are extremely well organised (possibly Swiss-Germans more so than their French and Italian speaking counterparts) and like everything to be  tidy. It’s unthinkable for documents or other papers to be strewn in a haphazard fashion rather than be neatly piled up.
 
‘You anticipate other drivers’ actions based on the canton on their number plate’

Driving behaviour in Switzerland can depend very much on the canton where the driver is from as the article below explains.
 
READ MORE: MAPS: Which Swiss canton has the worst drivers? 

‘You get enraged by people who say ‘Let’s do it!’ and then you find out not only they don’t have any plan — with costs and deadlines — but they also don’t believe in the necessity of a plan!’

The Swiss love to pre-plan everything down to the last detail. Operating in a disorganised fashion grates on their nerves. That’s why they establish committees and commissions — first to look into the feasibility of planning, and then to actually plan.

 
‘When you say ‘drop by any time for a coffee’ but you really mean ‘give me at least 2 weeks notice in writing’.’

Spontaneity is definitely not a Swiss trait. Showing up at someone’s doorstep uninvited is a definite no-no, as it doesn’t give the Swiss hosts time to thoroughly clean the house and, yes, plan.
 
‘When you start looking for a new car and wonder why they don’t offer more shades between grey and silver’

It’s true that most cars on Switzerland’s roads are in neutral (read: boring) colours, possibly because the Swiss don’t like to stand out and show off, or maybe because these dull shades are easiest to come by, without a long wait.

You do see brightly coloured cars as well, but they probably belong to foreigners.
 
When you start becoming involved in all the ‘Röstigraben’ discussions

Perhaps the most prominent sign of Switzerland’s cultural, linguistic and gastronomical diversity, the Röstigraben is a well-known concept in Switzerland. The article below explains all you need to know.
 
READ MORE: Röstigraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland 

You can find out more examples from the forum here.

But wait, there is more.
 
Anecdotal and observational evidence also suggests a foreigner is totally (and perhaps too much) immersed in local culture when he or she:
 
Trims the hedges using a ruler to make sure they are perfectly straight.

This, again, is the evidence of neatness, tidiness, and organisational skills the Swiss are known for.

Fills the taxed trash bag to the rim before taking it out to the curb — but only on a designated day and in a designated place.

These garbage bags are expensive, so people don’t dare throwing them out until and unless they are full to the max and almost ripping at the seams. The more waste you can stuff in there, the more economical this undertaking is.

As for taking the trash out on designated days only — chalk it down to another Swiss trait: compliance with the rules.
 
Knows who the Swiss president is for the current year.

Because the presidency rotates among the seven members of the Federal Council on annual basis, Switzerland has a new president every January 1st. And as he or she has no special powers, the Swiss just don’t bother to remember who is in and who is out any given year.
 
Believes that being disturbed by cow bells and chiming of the church clock every 15 minutes through the night is pleasant.

Only foreigners reportedly complain about this incessant noise. The Swiss regard it as part of their national identity.
 
READ MORE: Six things foreign residents should never do in Switzerland 

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