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Tips by an immigrant: A guide to making friends in Switzerland as an expat

Tips by an immigrantA guide to making friends in Switzerland as an expat

Many foreigners find it hard to connect with locals. The Swiss aren’t very adept socially. But there are a few tricks that will help you to get over that. 

Question: «How do you meet new people in Zurich?» Answer: «That’s the neat part: you won’t!»

This exchange sounds like a bad joke but was in fact a question on a popular website where the answer got top votes while other answers read «in my dreams» or «you simply don’t». Studies show that this is not an isolated experience. Time and time again, Switzerland rates highly in terms of criteria such as standard of living, public transport or health care but falls short in social categories. 

I myself came to Switzerland as a teenager and recently moved to Zurich after living in Basel for 10 years. I was in search of a new social environment as my old friends in Basel now live far away by Swiss standards. I met dozens of expats who shared their experience with integration in Switzerland or more likely the lack thereof. Many of them find the Swiss to be cold and not very hospitable. It’s not the easiest place in the world to make friends but there are a few tricks that can help you overcome this fact.

Join a club

44 percent of people living in Switzerland are active members of a club, a political party or some form of association. The love for organized hobbies is even more prevalent amongst people living in Switzerland who don’t have a migration background: 53 percent of this part of the population regularly meets up to do stuff together like honoring James Bond, carving wood or playing Harry Potter’s favorite sport which is Quidditch. (Yes, there are clubs for this.) Now, you don’t have to dress up as a teenage wizard to make friends. No matter what hobby you enjoy, there is a good chance that there is a club you can join where you’ll find like-minded people. Depending on which culture you come from, it seems like the Swiss move at glacial pace when it comes to making friends, so clubs are a great way to see people frequently and wear them down with your many charms.

Have a kid – or adopt a dog

Becoming a parent is basically like joining a club. Many expecting parents join classes that prepare them for the task ahead of them.  Since becoming a parent is particularly demanding, that experience can expedite social bonding with fellow parents in the making.

If this seems a little over the top to procreate only to make friends, you could try a simpler version of this strategy and get a dog. Your Labradoodle smelling someone's Shih Tzu butt at the dog park is a great conversation starter and who knows where such an exchange might lead? After all one can arrange playdates for both children and dogs.

Be a little bit «Bünzli»

The Swiss like order. There are rules for basically everything. If you want to fit right in, try adhering to them. So, don’t be loud around midday, after 10 p.m. or on sundays. And if you live in a block of flats, stick to the washing schedule or you will find an anonymous letter in your letterbox.

If you’re desperate because you feel like there is no way for you to know about all the rules you should be following, don’t worry. If you violate one such rule, a «Bünzli» is bound to put you right sooner rather than later. What is a Bünzli, you’re probably wondering. It’s the kind of over-punctual, super-conformist and stuffy person that adheres to all rules and will even call the police if they see you recycling your garbage incorrectly (another matter the Swiss take very seriously indeed). 

Learn the language

I know, this is invariably frustrating. You spend your precious free time in a stuffy language school trying to remember if it’s «das Velo» or «die Velo» and how to conjugate «sein» in past tense. And when you finally feel as if you’re getting the hang of things and you muster the courage to order in German in your favorite restaurant, you’re met with a torrent of words that sound nothing like what you heard in school. And when you’re finally getting used to the local dialect, you get a new co-worker from deepest Wallis and once again you will understand close to nothing.

Nonetheless, if you want to join a club with locals or ask your elderly neighbor for the best place to get Rösti in town, you’ll have to learn High German and ideally to understand Swiss German too. If Standard German is already your native language, that will open an additional field of problems (see «Learn the Code»).

Don’t complain about the prices

Yes, we know that Switzerland is expensive. Yes, the coffee in Italy costs less than half the price and is «so much better anyways». But as a Swiss person, you hear these complaints a lot and this gets really tiring fast. And it really doesn’t make going out for a coffee with you much more fun, either.

Don’t show off your wealth

And while we’re at it, In Switzerland money is something you have, it is not something you talk about. Understatement is a core philosophy of the Swiss way of life. Neither showing wealth nor talking about it is going to win you any sympathy points.

Plan ahead

You’ve mustered your courage and asked your co-worker if they feel like going for a drink sometime. Their brow will furrow slightly, they’ll check their diary and offer you a Thursday two months from now. They’re not trying to get out of a date with you: The Swiss just happen to be busy people. It’s not unlikely that Thursday two weeks from now actually is their next free evening. So, get yourself a diary and get planning!

Take off your shoes!

It’s usually the culmination of months if not years of a relationship and one of the highest honors a Swiss person can bestow upon you when they invite you to their home. In order to not offend your hosts immediately, make sure to be on time (yes, you guessed it, punctuality is another thing the Swiss take very seriously). On time means a maximum of 10 minutes late. And one tip on the side: For professional meetings any minute too late is one minute too many. Around the ten-minute mark, your Swiss colleagues will start wondering whether they should call a Rega helicopter to come and rescue you.

It also never hurts to bring a small gift for the hosts such as wine or flowers. And finally, an important rule for the Americans among you: Take off your shoes in the house. This might seem weird at first, but why would you want to risk dragging traces of dog poop around your living space? 

Compliment Switzerland

Luckily, there is a very easy way to win over a Swiss heart: Compliment the country or even better, the actual region you are in. The mountains are so impressive, the streets are so clean, the cheese is so tasty! And then depending on where you happen to be: The Fasnacht is so unique (Basel), the bears are so cute (Bern) or the lake is so beautiful (this works in a lot of Swiss cities).

Obey train etiquette

If you attempt to compliment a group of Swiss people on the high quality of their public transport, there will probably be someone there who will respond with a story about how his train to Lausanne was 10 (!) minutes late last week. And that really tells you a lot about how spoiled the country is regarding public transport. So try and leave your car at home and take the train with your travel mates, it’s a great opportunity to chat. But make sure to follow train etiquette: no loud phone calls, no music without headphones and, God forbid, don’t put your shoes on the opposite seat if you don’t want to fall out of grace immediately. 

Learn the code

As a newcomer to the country, it’s easy to misinterpret what a Swiss person really means. For example, one might be tempted to assume that someone saying «that’s interesting» means that what one said was interesting. Rather than «that’s a pretty dumb idea» which is what that often translates as. Or even worse: «that’s special» which basically always means «how very weird».

And, this goes out to the German expats, don’t waltz into a bakery proclaiming «I’ll get a bun» but rather kindly let the salesperson know that you “would like a bun” or even better ask if you «could have a bun». Yes, such niceties aren't very efficient and it’s not as if the employee at the bakery was going to deny you your Schwöbli. But anything less polite sounds very rude to Swiss ears.

Don’t try to change tradition

Cows wear bells and Raclette consists of potatoes and cheese and not much else, certainly not sardines, mushrooms or pineapple! Traditions are very important to most Swiss, so you better not try to change them.

Inform yourself

It might take at least ten years of living in Switzerland until a foreigner can start the naturalization process and gain the right to vote. Nonetheless, it is essential to be informed about the topics that keep this nation busy. Try to keep up with current affairs, even if the Swiss political system is complicated and sometimes hard to understand (even for people who grew up here). Direct democracy makes it so that current political debates are of higher importance to the Swiss populace than in many other countries. You’re not going to be able to take part in a lot of conversations if you don’t follow the news.

What do you think? What do swiss people think?

In the end, there are obviously exceptions to any of these descriptions. You might meet a spontaneous Bünzli or a Swiss person that adds bacon bits to their Raclette pan. And even if you have to adjust a bit to fit in: It’s worth it. Swiss friends are hard to come by, but they are even harder to lose. Once you’ve made a friend here, there is a good chance that you’ll have made a friend for life.

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