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New book unwraps essence of Swiss

Beyond Chocolate is published by Bergli Books of Basel

A new book exploring what makes the Swiss tick says that comparing them with people in English-speaking countries is like comparing coconuts with peaches.

“Beyond Chocolate – understanding Swiss culture”, by the Swiss-Scottish author Margaret Oertig-Davidson, has been written for native English speakers living and working in Switzerland, and for Swiss who have to deal with Americans, British or people from other English-speaking countries in their daily lives.

“When you move to a new country you notice pretty quickly that things are different, but it can take a long time to figure out why,” explains the author in the preface to the book.

According to Oertig-Davidson, English speakers are peaches while the Swiss have the characteristics of coconuts. Because of their soft skin, people who are peaches are willing to talk openly to anyone they have just met, addressing them familiarly with their first names. Hard-shelled coconut types, on the other hand, are more reserved and formal.

Mobile cultures

An English teacher and cross-cultural trainer who emigrated to Switzerland, the author is well qualified to speculate on the reasons for the differences. One major influence, as she sees it, is the very mobile cultures found in countries like the United States and Britain.

“I have a feeling it is connected with the sea,” she told swissinfo during a round-table discussion. “The sea represents movement – change.

“I remember hearing a woman from Sicily saying the sea is something nostalgic. You lose people because of the sea. They can jump in a boat and go away. If you look at mountains you just see continuity, everything stays the same. So I think over hundreds of years that’s quite a strong message.”

Rich in anecdotes

The book is rich in examples of everyday situations where English-speakers are often tripped up, no matter how good they are at languages.

Of the many contributors to the book, a British expatriate describes the very rigid yet unspoken rules for talking on the telephone. A Swiss-French woman also explains how the French are deft at using first names while showing respect by addressing the same people with the formal “vous” instead of “tu”.

Oertig-Davidson counters that this would be unacceptable to Swiss-Germans who would consider such a compromise a “half-measure”.

The author interviewed about 50 people for the book: Swiss-Germans and Swiss-French, English-speakers living in Switzerland, mixed Swiss and English couples.

Wealth of advice

As word spread that she was writing the book, the number of people willing to give advice grew.

“I would be sitting on the tram and I would meet a Canadian friend’s Swiss husband and he’d say ‘how’s your book going?’, and I’d say ‘I’m working on such and such’ and he’d say ‘oh yes, a funny thing happened to me last week’.

“I’d go home and write it down and email it to him and say ‘is that what you said’ to get confirmation. Or I would send it to someone else to see what they think of this and they would email with their comment on his comment.”

Peach-coconut theory

Oertig-Davidson is the first to admit that the peach-coconut theory is a generalisation, and that peaches can be found among the Swiss and coconuts among English-speakers.

She says Switzerland is becoming a more mobile society, following the lead of countries like the United States, and this is leading to a softening of the Swiss coconut shell.

“Once you get beneath the hard shell of the Swiss you find a friend for life,” she says.

“Beyond Chocolate – understanding Swiss culture” is published by Bergli books of Basel.

by Dale Bechtel

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