How formal should you be with colleagues? How important is a deadline, and how many people need to be consulted on a decision? These are some of the things that may surprise newcomers to a Swiss company, where office codes and cultural cues can be a mystery. Two Swiss etiquette experts respond to common questions on how to integrate into Swiss workplaces.
Margaret Oertig-Davidson will never forget her first cultural “faux-pas” in the country.
“I arrived at a party, very unfashionably late, thinking it was normal. My hosts made their disappointment very clear.”
The Scotland-born Basel resident has spent more than twenty years helping expats - who she prefers to call “incomers” - navigate the cultural dos and don’ts in Switzerland, avoid embarrassing misunderstandings or even conflicts.
Earlier this year, she published the second edition of her book, The New Beyond Chocolate: Understanding Swiss Culture,external link nearly twenty years after the first edition came out.
One of the first cultural clashes for Valeria Harlay was when she greeted a new acquaintance with one kiss on the cheek, the way she would at home in Argentina. “The person stepped back surprised and greeted me by squeezing my hand.”
Harlay, who first worked in communications for various companies before becoming a consultant in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and writing the book Living in Vaudexternal link, says differences between Swiss and other workplace cultures may seem subtle, but in fact “Switzerland has a lot of particularities”.
Feeling at home in Switzerland
According to a recent survey of foreigners living in Switzerland, less than a third of expats feel at home in Swiss culture and the country ranks 65th out of 68 countries when it comes to “ease of settling in” – four spots down from the previous year. There is no shortage of commentary about the challenges of making friends in the country. But the workplace can also be a source of tense or awkward encounters that, if misunderstood, can leave people isolated and unproductive.
How formal should I be?
For many "incomers" living in German-speaking Switzerland, the challenges start with the initial greeting. Should you shake hands, kiss on the cheek, use surnames? There are many opportunities for awkward encounters with a boss, colleague or client.
Harlay learned after that first kissing misstep that a comfortable physical distance for the Swiss when greeting a person for the first time is about 80 centimetres (31 inches). This is especially true in the workplace, where handshakes are the norm for a first-time greeting.
All bets are off outside the workplace though, especially when you meet up with colleagues of the same age or those you see on a regular basis at the office. Harlay finds that the French-speaking part of Switzerland is more likely to give three kisses, especially among women, than a handshake. But some of it comes down to personal preferences.
For Oertig, one of the most striking differences between Switzerland and her native Scotland was the use of surnames.
“To me, using a first name is very important as it is a way to break down barriers.” But when working with Swiss clients, she quickly learned to err on the formal side by using surnames over first names, as well as the “Sie” form in German instead of “Du” (or in French, “Vous” instead of “Tu”).
Oertig recalls a meeting she attended with two Dutch and Swiss human resource directors in Switzerland. It was in English, and the Dutch were using first names with everyone so Oertig did the same. At the end of the meeting the Swiss boss shook hands with her and said firmly, “Auf Wiedersehen Frau Oertig”, making it clear that he was not on first name terms with her (in German).
People switch to first names and informal titles more quickly these days, especially among those under 35 years old. But emails and letters still apply some old, steadfast rules, she’s found.
“It is very typical to use [very formal greetings] over email until you’ve met someone face to face,” Oertig says. One reader can relate:
“I was writing to someone at a government department and I used Sehr Geehrte Simone, the first name, because we had emailed a lot,” the reader shared. “Even though I was submitting a formal document, I thought I could use the first name with a formal greeting. My boss let me know that this was not appropriate.”
And the formalities don’t end there. Many non-Swiss find the ritual of using a salutation and sign-off on emails cumbersome, but one reader said that she learned very early on that in Swiss workplaces you don’t just respond to emails with “Thanks! or “Will do!”.
Use of messenger apps and other technology is making things more informal but this is causing language to morph into new greetings that still show a higher level of respect that aren’t common among native English speakers. “For example, I’ve noticed people have started responding to emails with ‘thank you, dear Margaret’,” Oertig observes. Overall, she’s noticed etiquette rules growing less clear with the introduction of technology.
Oertig’s advice: let the Swiss take the lead when it comes to determining how formal and informal to be.
What did I just commit to?
Miscommunication and conflicts often occur when it comes to commitments.
Oertig argues that the Swiss tend to be realistic when it comes to deadlines. “They really assess whether they can meet the expectations before committing. In contrast, people from the US, for example, see this as not having a ‘can do’ attitude.”
But for many Swiss, missing a deadline is a cardinal sin.
“You lose credibility,” says Oertig. “In some countries, it is more common to set high expectations and then accept that problems arise or other things get in the way. The fact that you were ambitious is important, but not so in Switzerland.”
This also applies to other situations. Oertig shared a classic example of two companies that had recently merged. A manager offered to take American colleagues hiking in the mountains upon their arrival in Switzerland. The Americans responded enthusiastically to the idea.
But when they arrived, the Americans were totally unprepared. They didn’t bring hiking boots and had no desire to go hiking. “The Swiss felt that their colleagues were not keeping their promises. For the Americans, the proposal sounded like a nice idea, not a fixed plan.”
Oertig explains that some of the confusion could be a lost-in-translation issue. In English, there are so many different future tenses that reveal a degree of likelihood that something will happen. “This doesn’t exist in German, especially in Swiss German. Many local dialects don’t even use the high German ‘werden’ to mean you will do something.”
Does my opinion really matter?
When it comes to having a discussion, the number of people and the amount of time spent can catch many non-Swiss by surprise. Oertig explains that incomers are sometimes taken aback when people beyond their team are consulted unexpectedly and drawn into a long discussion on matters that seem beyond their job scope.
Harlay agrees that decisions are often studied in detail and people with expertise are consulted to make sure that the company doesn’t take risks or miss anything important. She explains, “there is a desire to do things ‘properly’, which takes time. Process is as important as the product.”
Oertig agrees. “It is unusual for someone to give an immediate reaction to something without the full information,” she says. This can make processes quite slow and can be difficult for foreigners who see their own priorities as urgent. “However, it helps get people on board with a decision.”
But does the boss really listen to his or her subordinates? Oertig has observed that colleagues do get a say in a final decision with some limits. A boss may still have to make the decision, but she explains that colleagues usually understand, thanks to lengthy discussion, why it was made.
At the root of it all, explains Harlay, is a high level of trust in Swiss workplaces, where supervisors generally trust their colleagues’ expertise.
Are the Swiss workaholics?
The Swiss are known as hard workers but they also appreciate their time outside of work, whether it is spending time with family or participating in a leisure activity or club. On average (at least on the record), the Swiss work 41 hours a week. The current labourexternal link law sets weekly maximums of 45 or 50 hours, depending on the sector.
In response to a question from a Japanese reader about overtime, Oertig explains that this can be a delicate issue and a legal judgement call.
By law, an employee may have to do overtime if the boss has a good reason for them to do it and the employee doesn’t have a good reason not to. The employee is either compensated with time off later, or with overtime pay.
From a cultural standpoint, overtime is not a Swiss custom. Oertig recalls a case where a Swiss employee thought it was very odd that her foreign boss expected her to work as long as the boss did.
“She was willing to do a bit of overtime but not to stay until 10pm.”
Harlay echoes this, explaining that Swiss people value their time outside of work.
“The current trend is to conciliate work and family life. That’s probably why there are so many part-time work opportunities in Switzerland.”
However, Harlay says the situation isn’t the same for men and women. Switzerland has one of the highest labour force participation rates in Europe at around 80% but some 59% of employed women work part-time, compared with 17.6% of working men.
Final piece of advice?
Integration is not about denouncing your own culture, says Oertig, but about showing respect for Swiss values. Simple changes can mean a lot, like greeting co-workers in the local language.
Harlay encourages people just arriving in any foreign country to listen, observe, and become aware of the feelings of the locals. And try not to judge people by stereotypes, she says.
“It is important to remember that there is not a magical potion or formula to help you feel integrated. It depends a lot on a person’s willingness and individual skills.”
And there’s one thing incomers often forget:
“On your birthday, you have to bring the croissants to work.”