Eight Swiss culture shocks that may take some getting used to

Life in Switzerland can look much like life elsewhere, but there are some aspects that can certainly take a while to get used to. Originally from the United States, Zug-based Ashley Franzen takes us through eight surprises of her new life in Switzerland.

The Swiss love to get up early and get out into the great outdoors. Photo by Dorothea OLDANI on Unsplash
The Swiss love to get up early and get out into the great outdoors. Photo by Dorothea OLDANI on Unsplash

Moving to Switzerland can be challenging no matter where you are from. A wide variety of differences – in everything from language to climate – can take more than a little while to get used to. 

Here are eight culture shocks (some) foreigners might experience when moving to Switzerland.

We’ve tried to avoid the obvious stereotypes and gone with a few observations that may actually surprise you. 

  1. People in Switzerland are up early

It seems like Swiss people are often up with the sun– and in the summertime, that’s especially early! With people getting up on the earlier side to start their day, it means that many things also start a bit earlier: kids are off to daycare, and stores open their doors earlier, too.

READ MORE: The downsides of Geneva you should be aware of before moving there

The flip-side is that things close earlier, for instance supermarkets close around 6pm across much of the country.

A work-life balance is quite important to the traditional family culture in Switzerland. 

  1. People in Switzerland love to be active

Health, fitness and quality local nutrition are pretty important in Swiss culture. Whether you’re out in summer swimming in the lakes, bike-riding through the countryside, or skiing in the winter, Swiss people are always on the move.

Some people like to be on the move on their own, but others prefer to join a club or group sport so as to have the opportunity to socialise in addition to taking care of themselves.

Whether amateur or professional, the Swiss love to be active. Photo by Jorge Romero on Unsplash

Whether amateur or professional, the Swiss love to be active. Photo by Jorge Romero on Unsplash
  1. Clubs and activities aren’t just for kids

Swiss people of all ages and backgrounds are engaged and involved in clubs, voluntary work, and activities put on by organisations or local groups. With diversified interests and lots of outdoor recreation, Swiss people like to come together and work, play, and socialise.

The club culture is a very large part of what it means to integrate into Swiss culture. 

‘Suspicious of the unknown’: Is it difficult to make friends in Switzerland?

As an expat, it can be hard to meet people and make friends. Fortunately the kids will do so naturally through school, but for adults it’s a different story.

Emily Cady Stauffer, who is originally from Minnesota, USA, found connections through her local parent-child singing club.

She explains a bit more about the changes and difficulties in making close friends. “It’s not a joke when they say the Swiss are like coconuts and Americans are like apricots. Apricots are really fleshy on the outside, and everybody’s your friend on the outside, but you have this core group of friends on the inside– the pit. Whereas the coconut is really hard to crack, but once you get inside– and it’s tough– but you’ll be friends for life.”

  1. Most people follow the rules – even when no one is looking

A big part of Swiss culture is setting a good example. If an individual is riding their bike and needs to go across a crosswalk, they’ll dismount, more often than not.

Kids are always observing, so it’s important to the Swiss to set an example of crossing the street at crosswalks and dismounting from a bike in order to cross the street safely. They learn from an early age how to stay safe and care for others in shared spaces. 

Nudity? BBQs? What you can and can’t do on your balcony in Switzerland

For example, most children have a street and bike safety course that’s given in school.

A police officer comes in and relays the rules of crossing the road (stop, wait, look, walk) at crosswalks and teaches children how to operate their bikes around town, including dismounting to walk their bikes across the street.

They are taught how to signal, they go on practice rides during school, and even have a test making sure they know the rules. This sets up a society that has had the same instruction and knows the same rules. (Additionally, it encourages riding bikes as a mode of transportation, and the infrastructure for bikes in Switzerland is fantastic.)

  1. Designated quiet times

It might not seem like much at first glance, but people take quiet times very seriously. This is especially true in buildings that aren’t very sound-proof. You’ll likely hear stories of people calling the police on loud neighbours, so anything loud, such as drilling or hammering, is a no-go, especially on Sundays.

In older buildings, there are even rules about whether or not you can use your washer and dryer after 10 P.M. or even flush the toilet! 

Quiet times are designated between 10 P.M. and 7 A.M., with a one-hour window of quiet between noon and one o’ clock. Sunday is allotted as a full day of quiet.

EXPLAINED: 12 weird and wonderful Swiss laws you need to know about

  1. The Swiss are super recyclers

While a big reason for this comes from the fact that you have to buy the trash bags (in essence paying for the trash service), there are convenient recycling facilities in each and every neighbourhood.

Trash talk: What are the rules for garbage disposal in Switzerland?

This consists of various colours of glass, tins and aluminium, and often a place to donate clothes. In many grocery stores, there’s a wall for all the rest of the recycling: PET bottles, coffee capsules, batteries, dead light bulbs, and more.

The Swiss are very proud of their natural environment and work hard to keep it that way. 

  1. Independence is taught from a very young age

Switzerland has a strong culture of social trust. Kids as young as four are walking to and from school or activities– and it is completely normal! Isabel Falconer, who moved to Switzerland from France 14 years ago says, “You know what’s interesting? I find it’s like the way my kids are growing up now is exactly the way my husband grew up 45 years ago; nothing has changed.”

Part of integrating is getting to the point where you can allow your own children to do this. Neighbours and communities keep an eye on the kids as they walk around their neighbourhood, and there are crossing guards at major streets. 

READ MORE: How different is raising kids in Switzerland compared to the United States?

  1. Two hours off for lunch

Many parents wouldn’t expect their children to come home for lunch during the school day, let alone have enough time to actually sit and enjoy their meal.

Although this tradition might be changing in some parts of the country, home-for-lunch is a great way to connect with the kids over a  meal at home. Unfortunately for most career positions, the two-hour lunch is limited to schoolchildren.

Is there anything we missed? Or are some things not as shocking to you? Get in touch at [email protected]

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‘Peaceful coexistence’: How one Swiss canton helps foreign citizens integrate

Switzerland is a country with many immigrants, but not necessarily an easy place to integrate. One canton has an integration program that helps immigrants learn about the country and make local friends, as writer Ashley Franzen experienced.

'Peaceful coexistence': How one Swiss canton helps foreign citizens integrate

There are many things to prepare for when making an international move: packing, paperwork, scheduling the move, and more. It can be a lot for anyone to manage, but sometimes the hardest work comes once you’ve actually arrived and are getting settled. So how does one prepare for arriving and integrating into a country where everything is so different and new?

Canton Zug has put together an integration plan that helps families learn about their new surroundings, including an informational evening program where new arrivals can attend sessions and learn about Zug’s political, social, and cultural landscapes, all while socialising and meeting other new residents.

According to the Canton of Zug’s website, “Integration is an active and reciprocal process between the people who come from foreign countries to live here and the indigenous people.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to fast track permanent residency in Switzerland

“The aim of integration is a peaceful coexistence on the basis of common values so that people who come here from foreign countries may have the equal opportunity to take part in Switzerland’s social, cultural and political life.”

Chocolate and new friends: my experience with ‘New in Zug’

I found out about the “New in Zug” program, which offers a series of sessions on different topics, towards the end of the scheduled agenda. Still, I was able to attend a session led by an Immigration Advisory Center (FMZ) consultant and a local police officer who had been working in Zug for nearly 25 years. There were about eight of us in attendance.

This particular course was actually a mixture of the German and English languages, as we all had a basic level of German, but we found out that English was the uniting language otherwise.

We learned about the security of the canton and city and learned about the history of safety in Switzerland, including a portion on traffic laws.

It was a valuable and informative couple of hours and there were light refreshments, including water and chocolates. In addition, I was able to connect with someone who was part of a local international women’s group and gained a bit more information about other ways to integrate.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: Are these the ‘best’ places to live in Switzerland?

There are many international groups that are running in places like Zug, Lucerne, and Zurich, but this is a unique opportunity to connect with the local services and locals involved in promoting integration.

My family also participated in a hosting program. Local families volunteer to be paired with recently arrived families – such as mine – in order to help give a new perspective of your new city in ways that a local does, with tips and suggestions to make you feel more at home.

We were paired with a couple that had been in Zug for over ten years. They were similar in age to us and their two kids were within a year or two of our own. We had an initial video meeting to chat and get to know one another a bit before we decided to try and meet up.

View over Lake Zug with the old town of Zug and the Zytturm. By Schulerst – CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikicommons

We met down near Lake Zug and walked through a market/festival set-up along the promenade. It was wintertime and very cold, but the kids were delighted to be with kids their age who spoke some English. There were many activities in which they could partake, including a mini train ride, and they seemed to enjoy themselves.

Having a local family on-hand to call with questions about family services, including daycare or other programs, was an asset to our family. We received recommendations about various things to do as a family, including local destinations that were good for day trips and rainy days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The striking contrasts between Switzerland’s regions

Overall, my experience with the FMZ and their programs was extremely positive. Their office is close to public transportation and a short walk from the lake. While I’ve continued to explore Zug and the surrounding areas on my own, I know that the local government provides access to helpful and unique resources to help develop my relationship with the canton and the country.

As a foreigner living in Switzerland, I already feel a sense of pride with regard to the various cultural and traditional activities and perspectives, such as the quality of food, the work-life balance, and the deeply ingrained social trust. I fully intend to continue integrating with clubs and activities that promote a connection between local and foreign people and promote a closeness to the vast beauty that is now “in my backyard” in Switzerland.

The immigration program

The Immigration Advisory Center (FMZ), or in German, Fachstelle Migration Zug, is a rich resource for people looking to get connected in their new city. The FMZ offers “New in Zug” and various other introductory meeting sessions that introduce residents to things such as local laws, individual rights, and customs of residing in the area.

READ ALSO: FACT CHECK: How accurate are the ‘five reasons not to move to Switzerland’?

They can also help you start German classes and provide answers about life in Zug in 16 different languages. The Center not only offers courses in German and language tests, but they also have classes about Swiss culture and traditions, plus smart ways to meet new people.

The New in Zug Together program is a series of sessions where you can learn about Zug. An FMZ consultant guides the meet-ups and the theme will vary for each session. Possible topics include authorities, work, insurance, health, cultural differences, and more.

There are sessions in both English and German, so as you improve your German, you can branch out and meet people in a German-speaking environment.