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 tricky. However, with the country's emphasis on conformity, most expats adapt to life in Switzerland easily.
Language barrier in Switzerland
Despite being somewhat dependent on tourism, the Swiss can be nonchalant towards people who don't speak a local language. Expats will likely 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. In the German-speaking part, one is very aware of the orderliness and quietness of the residents, while 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. Throughout the country, 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. Between French, German, Italian and Romansch, English can seem nonexistent.
Applying for immigration documents and 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 in Switzerland
For some time, foreigners have been flocking to Switzerland. This has made some Swiss people uneasy around expats, and some believe immigrants take away valuable jobs. The Swiss are patriotic and many proudly display the flag outside their homes.
Some expats find that they are only really accepted when they adopt the local language and customs.
Making friends in Switzerland
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, it is best to stick to the schedule.
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.
►Read the guide to Transport and Driving in Switzerland to learn about the best ways to get around the country
Are you an expat living in Switzerland?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Switzerland. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
Divya Susan Varkey is a certified Intercultural Communications Practitioner and Associate Partner of Itim International, Helsinki, as well as a scholar at the Universita della Svizzera italiana in Lugano, Switzerland. With almost ten years of work experience in Communications and Public Relations, and having travelled in 14 countries, she uses her experiences and learning to conduct effective workshops for participants from all over the globe. In the years following her entry into Intercultural communications training, she has trained students and executives from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Morocco, Tanzania, China and India. Having worked and studied in multicultural teams, she believes in the power of diversity and that understanding “the other” can be the most enriching experience that one can have.
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