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Integration in Switzerland – a difficult undertaking?

Recently the online platform InterNations published the latest survey of the “Ease of Settling In Index” (2017). This time Switzerland finished 61st out of 65, the fourth time in a row the country came very close to winning the wooden spoon. The reason: the Swiss are seen as needing to do better with their social interactions.

A comment by Nicole J. Bettlé

Surrounded by the Swiss, but mostly amongst themselves: that’s how many expats feel in Switzerland

Once again the Expats Index survey has revealed the major social dissatisfaction among expats in Switzerland. But can you make friends by moaning about your host country? Probably not. Yet arguments to the contrary generally do not help you very much, either. So, let’s have a look at this issue from a completely different perspective. Actually, the survey confirms yet again: hardly any nation’s citizens on this planet are better at integrating while living abroad than the Swiss.

Almost 800,000 Swiss men and women are living and working abroad. The latest InterNations report only has a short statement about them: Swiss expats very quickly adapt to the new life outside their home country. They hardly have any issue with integration abroad as they have very good language skills, are looking to make friends with the locals, and – should Cupid’s arrow find them – might even become romantically attached to one.

But what about the expats living in Switzerland? The overwhelming majority complain about the mentality and culture of their host country. They believe that the Swiss are too reserved, too aloof and too attached to traditional ways. A good two-thirds (68%) of the respondents mentioned that it is difficult to find friends among the local population, and half think the Swiss are generally an unfriendly bunch.

Not only does Switzerland have its own particular traditions and costumes …

If you want to integrate, the best thing is to find friends among the local population. Well over half of the expats in Switzerland consider this a problem. So why do Swiss expats have no trouble making friends abroad?

Swiss people are reticent. Personal questions and pushiness are an absolute no-go for them. The same goes for expecting blind trust without good reason. They prefer to approach strangers slowly. It is no surprise then that cautious Swiss expats are perceived as polite and unobtrusive in their host countries.

Mr and Mrs Swiss also prefer to travel incognito abroad, and often try to avoid their fellow countrymen. Being mistaken for a local they regard as a compliment. Once abroad they also do not like to ask that question beloved of English speakers: “Where are you from?” To insinuate that others might be foreigners in their own country is, in their eyes, an insult.

But what about expats living in Switzerland? Most of them prefer to remain among themselves. More than half (52%) of respondents say they already have friends among other expats. The reason is the huge number of expats among colleagues and in Switzerland generally So why bother at all?

Cultural differences
If you want to integrate, you should respect the cultural traditions of the host country and adapt to them. Exactly half of the expats in Switzerland (50%) have a problem with this, however. Why does this not apply to Swiss expats?

… it also has its very own sports like “Schwingen” (aka Swiss wrestling), but…

The Swiss are restrained. For them it is obvious: to be accepted and to be able to integrate you need to widen your horizon and try to understand a foreign culture. And the best way to observe and learn is doing that from a distance. For them that is the only way to avoid making gaffes.

Again, what about the expats in Switzerland? According to the survey, the traditional habits and customs of the Swiss are a major irritant. Many of them complain about the flag-flying, the number of pecks on the cheek as greeting, the constant hand-shaking, church and cow bells, or the horn signals by ships. That is not all. To remake their new home according to their own standards some are even willing to go to court. Which country will be delighted by such people?

… a few typically Swiss things, like cow bells, annoy some expats so much that they even go to court to have them banned – and then they are surprised that they don’t find friends among the Swiss.

Language barrier
According to the Index survey the second major problem for expats in Switzerland is the language barrier (42%). So why do Swiss expats have no trouble in making themselves understood in a new language in no time at all?

To learn a new language is just as difficult for ordinary Swiss as it is for The fact that Switzerland actually has four official languages does not make it easier. In fact, the majority of Swiss have anything but fond memories of their foreign language lessons at school. But the Swiss have learned to treat those with a different mother tongue with respect. An unwritten law tells them: you speak German in German-speaking Switzerland, French in the Romandie, and Italian in Ticino. They apply the same concept abroad. 

And the expats in Switzerland? No fewer than 61% claim they can communicate fairly well in the local language, and 11% even boast of having mastered it as well as their mother tongue. However, which of the four national languages are we talking about? The Index survey does not say anything about that.

However, it does say that expats in the German-speaking part of the country have the most trouble to adjust. The reason for this: the many dialects. The Swiss speak Swiss-German, which is so far removed from standard German that even standard German speakers are unable to understand then, as an American complained on the InterNations platform.

Many expats, however, are unaware that standard German is a foreign language for the Swiss. They may very well be able to understand it, but speaking it (and quite often writing as well) is downright torture for many of them. Hence they often prefer to speak English with expats. They consider this as an act of kindness. But many expats complain about this, too.

Swiss expats, it has to be noted, are faced with similar issues. The Scots, Irish, Welsh, Texans or Australians have their own particular accent. However, the Swiss do not complain, they just try to get attuned. For them it is the obvious thing to do. After all, those from Basel very often have considerable trouble understanding people from Appenzell, or Uri, or Valais. But when they come together, they often have quite a laugh about their linguistic differences.

Peaceful integration
The Swiss are proud of their mentality and their traditions that promote coexistence and thus peace. Abroad, too, they prove their peacefulness again and again. The idea of imposing their own mentality or language on their host country never enters their minds. Nor would they think of complaining about their hosts in an InterNations survey.

However, nobody is perfect. We all have our own peculiarities. The Swiss possess a hard (and very thick as well – the editor) shell, but a soft centre. They do not appreciate superficiality. They have trouble with people who are soft on the outside but as hard as granite on the inside. Their motto: work before pleasure. Thus even for Swiss it is not easy to make friends in Switzerland. They (and you) need to invest a lot of time, and above all a lot of perseverance and respect.

To finish, let us change the perspective again. According to the Index survey, 68% of expats complain about being unable to find Swiss friends, 50% of them believe the Swiss are generally an unfriendly bunch, and 42% have issues with the national languages. In other words: 32% have managed to make friends with the locals, 50% live in peaceful harmony with the local population, and more than half of them, thanks to their language skills, have a good chance of widening their social circle. That puts a positive spin on it, does it not?

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