Tell friends that you are visiting Switzerland and, inevitably, some of the reaction will come loaded with clichés, perhaps about the country’s wealth (“everyone there is stinking rich”), its quality of life (“it’s one of the safest places in the world”) or its people (“they’re so unfriendly, and boring, to boot”).
Even among those who have set up home in the Alpine nation, there can be “strong opinions about the country, some of which, unfortunately, can be summed up by – ‘Switzerland is great; pity about the Swiss’,” as our former colleague Clare O’Dea, who wrote a book about the Swiss way of life, puts it.
Locals, tourists, immigrants and casual observers alike are all entitled to their perspectives, and some assumptions about the Swiss – that they’re not allowed flush the toilet after 10pm or keep just one guinea pig, for example – are good for a chuckle (although just one of these is actually true.).
But many claims, such as how the country treats foreigners or women, can reveal a lot about Swiss identities, the country’s history, politics and societal norms.
In her book The Naked Swiss, O’Dea set out to present a “fairer and more balanced view” of her adopted land, including one of the most widespread clichés about the Swiss: that they’re rich.
Her conclusion is that they are rich, sort of. Average wealth per adult is among the highest in the world and “this wealth covers the country like furniture polish, making the roads and rooftops shine.” But, O’Dea added, “a relatively small number of fabulously wealthy people at the top haul the Swiss average upwards.”
This rings true to us factcheckers, who have looked into the claim following reader queries. In terms of mean wealth, the Swiss are indeed among the richest in the world, but the country also has a high density of millionaire households. The majority of residents fall into the “middle income” range, as defined by the Federal Statistical Office.
And there is poverty, of course. It exists to a greater extent than many people might expect at first glance: nearly 8% of the population is considered poor, says the statistical office.
Living near the poverty line in Switzerland is just as hazardous as it would be anywhere else, something that became evident during the coronavirus pandemic. Inadequate living and work conditions only increased this group’s exposure to the disease.
How foreigners fare in the country is another matter riddled with assumptions, and one that’s hard to ignore, as a quarter of the population does not have Swiss citizenship.
Would-be citizens sometimes make headlines for failing to answer obscure questions about Swiss traditions and trivia during naturalisation interviews. Such reports reinforce the idea that the road to Swiss citizenship has been made extraordinarily difficult.
Yet the truth is slightly more complex. A large number of foreign residents say they have no interest in obtaining citizenship because they don’t require the red passport to feel well integrated in Swiss society.
There are downsides. Consider car insurances: It is perfectly legal to charge drivers a higher premium if they hold an Italian passport. Many would say this is discriminatory. In the European Union, this is illegal.
The sanctioned differences in premiums based on nationality may seem trivial but they raise questions about the extent to which Switzerland can categorise different social groups, with different sets of rules and expectations for each.
Gender, like nationality, is another such issue. A reader, Lucca, asked why a rich country like Switzerland seemed to lag behind on women’s equality. Are most mothers in Switzerland stay-at-home, wondered a reader named Kay.
Women, after all, didn’t gain the right to vote at the federal level until 1971. (The country’s smallest canton, Appenzell Inner Rhodes, extended the right for women to vote at the local and cantonal levels only in 1990.) Workplace inequality persists. In 2019, tens of thousands of women took to the streets in protest at the lack of progress.
For many women, paid maternity-leave policy remains another sticking point, as it is one of the least generous among developed countries. Efforts to introduce statutory paternal leave are facing challenges from the conservative right.
But of all the claims heard about Switzerland and the Swiss, the hardest one to shake – and verify – is how unfriendly the people are. “It is very difficult to make friends here,” one reader, Caroline, wrote. “It’s such an amazing country, but lacks warmth.”
Perhaps it has to do with traditions and customs, a reader named James pondered, that the Swiss have a hard time making friends with people from other cultures.
Yet, consider what happened during the pandemic: people in Ticino opened their homes to cross-border workers from Italy, and volunteers across the country helped those at risk in their community with errands or gave a phone call to banish their sense of isolation.
The Swiss unfriendly? During the country’s biggest crisis since World War II, at least, there has been no shortage of human warmth and reaching across cultures.
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