Culture Shock in Switzerland

►Buy the Expat Guide to Switzerland in PDF format


Expats will experience culture in Switzerland
A train ride from Milano to the Italian canton of Ticino in Switzerland can be enthralling. After almost an hour of a somewhat coarse Italian landscape, with run-down train stations and walls with peeling paint, one suddenly enters the seemingly contrasting Swiss landscape – suddenly clean, prim and with a symmetry that is hard to miss. One has now crossed the boundary that divides Southern Europe and Northern Europe. And with that, one comes across a people and a system that are distinctly different. 

With four official languages and a multicultural population, having a well-informed, open-minded approach is the best way to combat culture shock in Switzerland.

Making local friends can be difficult. While they're hardly ever hostile, the Swiss have a reputation for being conservative and reserved.
Adjusting to the laws that govern everyday life can be difficult. People living in some apartments can only use their washing machines at certain times, and cannot flush their toilets after a certain hour of the night. Also residents can't wash their cars on Sundays.

Despite an emphasis on conformity, most expats adapt to life in Switzerland easily.

Language barrier in Switzerland

For somewhere dependent on tourism, the Swiss can be nonchalant towards people who don't speak a local language. Sometimes expats need to learn the basics of their region's predominant language to settle in. 

Switzerland’s four language regions can offer starkly different cultural experiences. While in the German speaking part, one is very aware of the orderliness and quietness of the residents, the southern, Italian speaking canton of Ticino can give the experience of a mini, albeit more orderly, Italian town. The French and the Romansh speaking cantons fall somewhere in between. Wherever you are, one thing is for sure, the Swiss like their peace and quiet. 

Most locals speak English but signs, restaurants and transport announcements are in the local language outside tourist areas. In-between French, German, Italian and Romansch, English can seem non-existent.

Applying for immigration documents and work visas in Switzerland can also be tricky for expats who don't speak German or French – so most expats hire an immigration consultant.

Attitude towards foreigners

Foreigners have been flocking to Switzerland, which has made some Swiss people uneasy around expatriates, while others believe immigrants take away valuable jobs. The Swiss are patriotic and many proudly display the flag outside their homes. Some immigrants have been in the country for three generations and new ones keep arriving, but they're only really accepted when they adopt the local language and customs – conformity is the key to acceptance.

Expats living in Switzerland will find life in the Alpine country orderly and safe. But without an expat social network, new arrivals can find it harder to integrate. To make the most of their experience, expats should try to understand the locals, respect their rules and customs, and if possible, learn their region's local language. 

The Swiss can be extremely private people, so those who come from collectivistic cultures may find it lonely in Switzerland. Especially in the German speaking parts, everything is scheduled – including a catch up with friends. So unless it is with a group of friends from one's own culture that one understands, it is best to stick to the schedule. 

While some arrive in Switzerland to experience life in the “first world”, it can be extremely difficult to fit in to the culture. Joining expatriate groups may be the best way to overcome this. 
Whatever the rules are, Switzerland offers an orderliness that cannot be so easily found in other countries. Public transport is extremely dependable. The Swiss are proud of their country and mostly satisfied with how it is run. Some fear that outsiders will spoil the status quo and hence, there can be apprehension towards foreigners. This can be overcome by a willingness to integrate by speaking the local language and playing by the rules.