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Bristol Country Profile: Assignment in Switzerland

For many people, the name Switzerland evokes mountain vistas and fine chocolates. But what is it like to live and work here? Below, we explore Switzerland from the perspective of employees on international assignment, with special attention to the cultural dimensions that shape daily life.

13 August 2014

Diversity

Switzerland is a confederation of 26 cantons encompassing four major cultures, including German, French, Italian, and Romansch. In addition to linguistic differences, cantons feature distinctive cuisines, festivals, religious affiliations, and even ways of behaving and communicating. For example, the German cantons tend to be more task-oriented, more restrained in their gesturing, and communicate more bluntly. By contrast, the French and especially the Italian cantons tend to be more relationship-oriented and emotionally expressive, and communicate slightly more indirectly.

Despite these distinctions, Switzerland as a whole still has several unifying values. Neutrality, discretion, formality, and accuracy underpin how people interact at work and at home.

NeutralityThe Swiss believe it is easier to get along if everyone is courteous and respectful.— ,

The Swiss desiring to remain neutral is most obvious in the political arena, where they have abstained from wars and elected not to join the European Union. This value is also reflected in the interpersonal sphere, where they are extremely conflict-adverse. They prefer a society in which everyone does what they should, so that everyone can be left alone. To prevent conflict from emerging, they avoid provoking confrontation, and abstain from rule violations that could lead to confrontation. For the Swiss, neutrality is a social commitment which they uphold, and expect others to, as well.

Discretion

From the Swiss perspective, one of the best ways to remain neutral is to mind one’s own business, and to avoid sharing information about oneself with others. Personal matters are viewed as just that – personal. As a general rule, there is little small talk (although this varies by canton), and people do not tend to strike up conversations with strangers simply because they are sharing space. Camaraderie is not desirable; far from putting people at ease, it feels like an invasion of their privacy.

Expatriates should avoid asking questions or revealing information until they develop a better feel for what constitutes the Swiss definition of “personal.” Those who come from cultures where it is common to share about their lives should avoid trying to get the Swiss to “open up” as it will have the opposite effect. Trust is difficult to establish, and once lost will be very hard to regain.

Discretion also informs the restrained Swiss lifestyle. Wearing flashy clothes and behaving in a loud or emotional manner indicate a lack of self-control. Similarly, it is considered poor taste to ostentatiously display one’s wealth and shameful to reveal one’s poverty. Care should also be taken in how the exterior and public areas of one’s home are maintained, especially near common areas, as excessive personalization goes against the concept of privacy and may even be viewed as vulgar.

Formality

The Swiss believe it is easier to get along if everyone is courteous and respectful, and they strive for proper decorum in public and professional life. One way to do this is by using appropriate titles and surnames, as well as the formal form of you. This practice applies not only at work but in public, and in both verbal and written communication. Expatriates who come from less formal countries should be aware that diving into first names and informal forms of you too quickly will feel intrusive and like an overstepping of boundaries. (This applies to using one’s own first name as well as using the other party’s).  If you are granted permission to use a first name, do not shorten it to a nickname. Unlike more casual countries, where informality is used to put people at ease, here such informality is saved for intimate family and friend relationships only.

Formality also extends to the way one dresses. Understated elegance and modesty are appreciated, as is a conservative style. While there are distinctions between region and industry, in general people tend to dress in public as they would for work. This means finely tailored suits or a tie and jacket and polished shoes for men, and suits or dresses for women. Subtle accessories such as a fine watch are appropriate, but expatriates should take care not to overdo it. Instead of quantity, go for quality:  rightly proud of their high-quality products and precision, the Swiss evaluate the fashion choices of their neighbors and colleagues by this same standard.

Accuracy

For the Swiss, perfection is not just an ideal, it is an expectation. For example, even the slightest typographic error in a presentation can undermine the audience’s confidence in the speaker’s competence and expertise. To achieve a high standard of correctness, they establish and abide by rules, respect hierarchies, and are time-controlled.

Compared to people in other cultures who might only follow rules when they are convenient, the Swiss prefer to follow all rules all of the time, as a matter of principle. For locals who have been born and raised in this environment, the breadth and depth of rules offer a comfort, for they tell people exactly how they should act and what they should expect in each situation. While this is very fitting for a risk-averse population, it can cause some difficulty for expatriates who have not yet learned all of the explicit and unwritten etiquette guidelines. New arrivals should adopt a restrained demeanor and try to imitate the behavior and style of those around them. They should also ask their office about what particular expectations their industry and location might have for someone in their position, age, and gender.

Switzerland also has a fairly hierarchical system. Respect and authority are embedded in the position one holds, not in personal characteristics like charisma. Those who have strong expertise and seniority are given more respect than those who are younger and less experienced. For this reason, it is important to be deferential to those in higher positions; from a Swiss perspective, it makes sense to promote and follow the people who know more. However, it is not a rigid system; within organizations, there is also a desire to work on teams and an expectation of building consensus.

For the famous watchmakers, the clock is truly a state of mind. The Swiss expect punctuality, not only because it is courteous, but because it demonstrates that a person’s life is rationally ordered and structured, which indicates that they will be more reliable and professional. The Swiss like to do one thing at a time, according to plans, and in keeping with agendas.

This is not a culture that is open to last-minute changes, that will veer off course during meetings, or that will drop everything and sprint toward deadlines. Rather, they prefer to map out their schedules in advance and calmly and steadily progress toward project completion. They also take a long-view, and are not impressed by quick fixes, short-cuts, and hard sells. Instead, they prefer accurate long-term forecasts and projections, and will take cost overruns and delays as a sign of incompetence and unprofessionalism.

Communication Style

Fitting for a country that highly values precision and accuracy, the Swiss communicate to clearly express their thoughts, rather than to save face. They do not want to read between the lines, and would not expect you too, either. In fact, they will become impatient with innuendo, seeing it as inefficient, because it requires the listener to continually seek clarification.

Because emotional restraint is so important, and because they want to avoid conflict, they communicate as rationally and detached from feelings as possible. To those who are used to more emotional resonance, this can feel cold and distant. However, from the Swiss perspective it is cleaner, less ambiguous, and less prone to misunderstanding. Expatriates should start out by being as reserved, linear, and concrete as possible, and observe the styles of those in their particular canton for guidance. When in doubt, they should ask. This is not a society that expects people to pretend that they understand for the sake of harmony.

Remember that body language is another kind of communication. Always appear neat, clean, and tidy in public. Sloppiness, bad posture or slouching, standing with one’s hands in one’s pockets, and chewing gum in public can all give an impression of disrespect.

Work Life

Credibility is of the utmost importance, and there are a number of steps expatriates can take to ensure that they are taken seriously. First, it is helpful to obtain an introduction. Second, prepare a business card that includes advanced degrees and professional organizations as well as your specific title. Third, dress smartly. Fourth, exude confidence (but not arrogance). Equivocating and demurring are not seen as humility and flexibility, but instead could make people doubt your competence.

When working in a Swiss office, respect the hierarchy, and be sure to always use correct titles. However, remember that compared to those of extremely hierarchical societies, the Swiss workplace is not so rigid. Discussions and consensus are important and highly valued, so when participation is called for, it is important to clearly and concisely share one’s ideas.

When delivering a presentation, it is very important to start on time, to finish on time, and to avoid flashy colors or excessive text. Be prepared for interruptions, and be sure to concretely explain your ideas when challenged, relating them back to models, precedent, and past success cases. Remember that pointed questioning is not a personal attack, but is the Swiss way of trying to precisely understand your idea and ascertain its viability. It is very important not to make outrageous or unsubstantiated claims, to exaggerate details, or to appear as if you are trying to sell an idea, as this will make the Swiss distrust you. Above all, be serious, practical, and grounded.

The Swiss work place is polite but this is not a culture where staff acts as if they are part of one big family. Employees do not expect praise for delivering the perfection that is expected of them. However, employees do expect to receive specific instructions about their assignments, and to receive negative feedback informing them of what they are doing wrong. While this may sound harsh to those who are used to a more feelings-oriented environment, to the Swiss, it is a very practical way to work.

In general, the Swiss draw a line between business and personal life. For example, work is not normally discussed over meals, and people would not expect to be called at home unless it is an emergency. Expatriates should resist the urge to talk about their personal life at work, as this is seen as unprofessional. Similarly, they should accept that the Swiss do not expect to make friends at work.

Social and Personal Life

The Swiss behave the same way in public that they do at work:  with propriety. Even with good friends there is a barrier between public and private life, and personal problems are not discussed.

However, this does not mean that the Swiss permanently keep others away. Expatriates may find themselves invited to someone’s home; if this honor is bestowed, they should prepare for pleasant decorum. It is polite but not necessary to bring a gift, but it isessential to arrive on time. Social engagements often include a meal and intellectual discussion on non-controversial topics. While eating, remember to keep both hands (but not elbows) on the table at all times, eat all foods (including fruit, but not bread) with a fork and knife, and wait to take a drink until after the host has led a toast. It is considered polite to try a little bit of each dish and to finish everything on your plate. The following day, send a hand-written thank you note expressing your appreciation for your host’s hospitality.

Language

In line with its four major cultures, Switzerland has four national languages. According to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, German is the most common, and is predominant in 19 of the 26 cantons. French is common in the four cantons of Geneva, Jura, Neuchatel, and Vaud, and can also be heard in the French-German bilingual cantons of Bern, Fribourg, and Valais. Italian is heard in the southernmost canton of Ticino and in the valleys of the only trilingual canton, Graubunden. Romansch – the rarest Swiss language spoken by less than 1% of the population – is spoken in Graubunden.

As with many European countries, immigration to Switzerland has meant the arrival of new languages. Almost 10% of the population speaks a language other than those mentioned above, with Serbian/Croatian and English being the most prevalent.

Quick Tips

  • Switzerland is not a member of the EU. It uses the Swiss Franc
  • Avoid making small talk or speaking with strangers
  • Be polite in shops by greeting and thanking the shopkeeper
  • Shake hands with everyone in a room individually (including children) upon arriving and departing
  • Always make direct eye contact
  • Demonstrate good posture
  • Avoid interrupting
  • Do not pretend that you understand if you do not
  • Mind the personal space bubbles – approximately arm’s length
  • Communicate clearly and concretely, without subtle hints or idiomatic expressions
  • Do not give sharp objects as gifts.

For More Information:

Those just beginning their research may also look to the official Swiss government Web site operated by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, www.swissworld.org.

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