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SWITZERLAND EXPLAINED

Does Switzerland really have a national identity and is it changing?

To the outside world, Switzerland comes across as a unified nation of bankers, cheese and chocolate makers, yodellers, and skiers. But the real picture is far more complex.

Does Switzerland really have a national identity and is it changing?
Judging by this photo, Swiss identity is intact. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

A recent Credit Suisse study examined, among other things, whether Swiss national identity has been changing in view of the events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

More specifically, researchers looked at the way Swiss people’s perception of their country’s role in the world has shifted in view of this geopolitical event.

But first, what exactly is ‘Swiss identity?’

This question is difficult to answer in relation to any nation, and Switzerland is no exception — even more so because it is not, as many people from other countries believe, homogeneous.

The 8.7 million people who live in the country are not only divided among four linguistic groups — German, French, Italian, and Romansh — but other distinctive characteristics also pay a role in defining Switzerland’s diversity.

For instance:

  • Over 2.2 million of Switzerland’s population (25 percent) are foreigners, mostly from the EU.
  • Nearly 2.9 million people (39 percent) have a migration background, including more than 1 million Swiss citizens.

In terms of mentality too, there are marked differences, not only between language groups — the so-called Röstigraben — but also between the more liberal urban areas and rural regions, which tend to be more conservative in their outlooks.

READ MORE: Röstigraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

So it is fair to say that in matters of identity, the Swiss could be as different as their individual backgrounds, regions, and languages.

Yes, but is there such a thing as a single ‘national’ identity?

While this remains undefinable for all the reasons mentioned above, there is such a thing as “national characteristics,” although that could be part fact and part stereotype.

For instance, the Swiss are known to value punctuality, hard work ethic, rules, social justice, direct democracy, as well as freedom and independence (the latter trait often spilling into the country’s political stances).

They also don’t like to be told by other countries what to do within their own borders, according to the study’s findings.

When asked about various factors that threaten Switzerland’s identity, “external pressure, in its different forms, plays a significant role for many respondents,” researchers reported.

“In concrete terms, Switzerland’s dependence on the global economy, the EU and its problems, and immigration, are increasingly seen as threats to Switzerland’s identity.”

It is true that the Swiss often look down on anything foreign, believing that everything in Switzerland is better than elsewhere. That too, could be regarded as part of the elusive “national identity”.

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

Belief in their country and institutions

Swiss people’s assessment of their own country “remains positive by international standards, although Switzerland’s vulnerability has been laid bare by the pandemic and the war,” the study found.

For 92 percent of respondent, the Swiss economy is in good shape compared with other countries.

In addition, 54 percent of those surveyed still believe Switzerland can compensate for more difficult access to the EU market through increased trade relations with third countries.

This positive outlook ties in with yet another finding: the trust people have in their public institutions is stable and broad-based.

The fact that the Swiss have such confidence in their government is also an aspect of national identity: the unshaken belief that authorities which the people themselves elect will not let them down.

That trait, by the way, extends to foreign nationals living in Switzerland who, in some cases at least, trust the state even more than the Swiss themselves.

READ MORE: Why do foreigners in Switzerland trust the government more than the Swiss?

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SWITZERLAND EXPLAINED

Swiss etiquette rules: The dos and don’ts

Toblerone, Heidi and Fasnacht: Switzerland in a nutshell - or is it? Anyone who thinks they know the ins and outs of Swiss culture from these classics couldn’t be more wrong. There's a plethora of unwritten rules when it comes to behaviour.

Swiss etiquette rules: The dos and don'ts

Whether you are visiting the country as an exchange student or are here on a more permanent basis, you are likely to commit your fair share of faux pas on your way to becoming a true Swiss. But fear not, these can be easily avoided if you’re aware of some of the most important Swiss etiquette. Let’s check it out.

Greet the Swiss way

Grüezi, Bonjour, or maybe just a simple Hallo? Over the course of your time in Switzerland you will encounter many people, be it co-workers, fellow students or just strangers on the street – so it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed with figuring out just how to greet people properly.

As with many things in Switzerland, the way to greet people, too, depends on the canton you’re in. In casual situations, such as when riding lifts or meeting people out on hikes, usually a friendly Grüezi, Bonjour, or Buongiorno will get the job done. Greeting anyone that isn’t friend or family with a Hallo is not common in Switzerland and is often perceived as rude. So, as a rule of thumb, always stick with the formal way of greeting people you’re not close with.

READ ALSO: Swiss culture shocks that may take some getting used to

A flag thrower performs with a Swiss flag in front of the Parliament.

A flag thrower performs with a Swiss flag in front of the Parliament. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

In a business environment, always greet people with a firm (!) handshake in addition to addressing them formally – this is crucial until the other person initiates an informal approach.

When it comes to greeting friends, however, the rules are generally a lot more relaxed, depending on the closeness of the friendship. While many Swiss friends are content with a quick Hoi, Salut, or Ciao, some will favour a more physical approach, such as a hug.

Good friends also greet each other with three kisses (left, right, left) – but be careful when greeting a French person, they start with the right!

Do give a small gift 

If you have been invited to a party or homecooked dinner by a friend, colleague, or acquaintance, the etiquette is to bring a small gift as a thank you. In Switzerland, most people choose to bring a bottle of wine or a seasonal bouquet of flowers. 

In a business setting, it is not necessary to bring or exchange a gift.

Bring a gift to your host in Switzerland.

Bring a gift to your host in Switzerland. Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

TIP: Refrain from bringing expensive or flashy gifts as this can be seen as tasteless and make your host uncomfortable.

Don’t say the wrong thing in conversations

Once you’ve stepped inside a Swiss home you will want to make for interesting conversation, but before you know it, you could be on your way to committing your first crime against Swiss etiquette. That’s right, the Swiss are notoriously private people which means discussions around divisive topics, such as finances, politics, and religion, are best avoided.

Get dining etiquette right

We all know the feeling: You’ve been waiting for your order to arrive for longer than anticipated, your stomach is growling, and you’re growing increasingly impatient. But where some people may be tempted to raise a hand and wave over the restaurant staffer, in Switzerland this is considered a big no-no. Likewise, you should always wait for everyone’s dish to be served and wish the whole party a “Guten Appetit” prior to digging in. 

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

On that note, don’t be surprised to see a dog patrol the restaurant as you enjoy your long-awaited meal. Dogs are in fact allowed inside a remarkably high number of Swiss establishments, and diners are expected to pretend they’re part of the ambience.

Once you’ve finished your meal and are ready to ask for the bill, be sure to remember that tipping is not necessary in Switzerland as staff are paid a healthy salary. However, despite this, many Swiss still choose to round up their bills to the nearest franc.

If you’re invited for a dinner at someone’s home and the host wishes to make a toast, you will (regrettably) be expected to sit through the entire toast before eating. If you are the host yourself, remember it is important to make eye contact with your guests while addressing them. 

People with drinks

Photo by Zan on Unsplash

Brush up on fondue skills

If you find yourself in the land of cheese and chocolate, you are very likely to indulge in some delicious fondue sooner or later. But eating the melted cheese dish isn’t as straightforward as you might think, so make sure to get a hang of some of the key fondue rules before losing your bread in the cheese (the loser buys the next round of drinks!).

TIP: Fondue is eaten in the winter, avoid restaurants offering it in the summer.

Shopping

When out shopping, be sure to greet shopkeepers when entering a store and paying for goods. However, don’t expect fellow shoppers to queue up. The Swiss, while polite, do not have a queuing culture and will absolutely step in front of you if you let them!

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