Expat Guide to Switzerland: How to make Swiss friends

Welcome to another new blog post series. I thought about a bit how to add more value for my readers by posting helpful blog articles. Since I’m Swiss and worked with several dozens of expats by now, I thought it would be helpful to write some articles for new arrivals in Switzerland. I’ll take my experience as Swiss person and sprinkle them with the recurring mistakes/struggles of my expat coworkers, which I’ve noticed over the years.

Before we go into the topic of this post a huge shout out and thank you to the members of the MP forum which happily shared their top things they wished they would have known before arriving in Switzerland.

So today’s topic: How to make Swiss friends!

The Swiss mentality

First of all as a background/foundation, watch the following video. It has as many entertaining as true elements.

All the parts with skepticism, shyness and pride have some truth to them.

I’m personally from the very central part of Switzerland where people live pretty rural in small villages with up to 5000 people. People are very rooted. You or at least your parents usually know the 500 next neighbors by first name because they very likely went to the same school or are in the same (sports/gun) club or just lived their whole live there. Fun fact my parents moved in together in an owned apartment (in the house of my dads brother) and moved exactly once after 15 years, 6 houses down the street to my dads parents house. And there they’re living already for over 20 years now. And we (or rather me specifically) are Swiss in the 14th generation from that area. I think you get what I mean.

So this immobility of most rural Swiss people leads to some form of tribalism and that in return leads to skepticism and shyness against “the unknown foreigner”. I would say the majority of my primary school class mates never left the canton for living nor work.

There is also the “Kantöndligeischt” (cantonal spirit) meaning that people from different cantons are more or less actively expressing their distaste for the neighboring cantons. Again a form of tribalism. And on a smaller scale and more likely prominent in more urban areas there’s the “Gärtlidenke” (garden thinking) where everybody just maintains their own garden and don’t want to interfere or interact with their neighbors.

The Swiss politeness etiquette

So with the mentality clarified and you still want to make Swiss friends, you need to realize about a few behaviors that are crucial when interacting with Swiss people. Some might be applicable to other cultures in Europe and some might be very Swiss specific:

  • Whenever you drink an alcoholic beverage with a Swiss person, you have to bring the glasses together to cheer BEFORE drinking the first sip. If you say “Proscht” you already have a plus point.
  • While bringing the glasses together you have to cheer with each person individually while maintaining eye contact with that person while saying the “Proscht” word.
  • Swiss people greet unknown people with a simple handshake. If you however shared drinks together or if you’re already closer you can greet & say goodbye with 3 kisses alternating on the cheek (e.g. left, right, left) (only men -> women and women -> women / men -> men is usually just a handshake or a brief hug if you’re very close friends (shit this confused me as a Swiss person the first time in Mexico where everyone bear-hugs each other from the start))
  • If a Swiss person invites you to their home you can already consider it as a first step to their heart. However, when going to said invitation:
    • Be on time, Swiss people are known for their punctuality. If there is an invitation with a given starting time like 13:00 then be there at 13:00
    • Bring a little gift, it’s customary habit to bring a little present to people that invite you for the very first time (or even every time). A little chocolate, flower or bottle of wine will do. You can also ask the host if you should bring something but expect responses like “yeah the dessert” or “a salad would be great” and follow up on it.
    • Return the favor, if a Swiss person is inviting you to their home they usually expect you to invite them at some point in the future too. Especially in the beginning when you’re not “friends” just yet it’s crucial to keep the invitations going to not lose contact.
  • Swiss people like to plan meetings ahead of time, don’t be upset if you’re trying to ask somebody out for beers or invite them with just one day notice. I have several Swiss friends myself who are fully booked for 1-2 months ahead. This is especially true for people with families and their weekends. Anything from one to four weeks notice is fine. You can make it more spontaneous when you’re in the inner circle of a Swiss person.
  • Apero’s are get togethers to have a few drinks and eat some snacks. There will be no full meal and attendees are usually expected to leave before the official meal times (e.g. 12:00 and 18:00) (Shout out to Dustin who mentioned this one).

Swiss friendships

As the video outlined Swiss people to usually only have a handful of very close friends and it can take a while to establish those friendships. I would personally say I have about 3 very close Swiss friends (and a bunch of less close friends). One guy I knew since I was 2 years old, we have pictures of us playing as toddlers in my parents apartment. That was 30+ years ago and I still try to meet him roughly quarterly. Then 2 very good friends from university, funnily enough while we spent those 4 years of university together we only “found” each other towards the end of our studies around 2012. One of them is my video games buddy (400+ hours of Borderlands anyone?) and was my best-man and the other one I talked a lot about investing during university (we played a bit in the stock market since we both were studying part-time) and with whom I did an epic road trip in 2016 where I met my wife (again another story). We eventually also started doing city trips together with a mix of other people to join and leave that core group of 3 men. So another 8 years lasting friendship.

I kind of have these categories of friends:

  • Closest circle: 2-4 people which I try to meet monthly or more often, see above
  • Wider circle: 2-4 people which I try to meet quarterly / half yearly, coworkers, old friends
  • Best-effort: primary school friends, apprenticeship friends, (old) coworkers which I try to meet at least yearly, I’d say about 10 people. Mostly out of curiosity how they’re doing.

But even Swiss people can also lose or abandon friendships if they’re not in contact regularly. I once read some article that good friendships have a chance to break after 7 years. And that was the case with at least 2 people from apprenticeship, seen us fairly regularly until we lost each other out of the eyes. There are also friendships that come and go with romantic relationships. Merging friend circles is often tricky and when the relationship falls apart the friends often choose one side to stay with.

But enough about me.

How to actually make Swiss friends

The answer like so many things in life is “it depends”. If you’re living in an urban area your chances of people speaking English is relatively high so the first barrier of the language would already be broken. However here comes the shyness part again, most Swiss people speak perfectly fine English but usually are too shy to use it because they think they miss the practice or vocabulary. However every Swiss person below 30 should have had at least 5 years of English study in school.

Learning the local language can be very beneficial, also public language schools can be a good place to meet new people. My wife took away around 2-3 friends with whom she’s still in contact from language school. They’re not exactly Swiss tho.

Disregarding the language barrier: Go where Swiss people are.

First stop: Your neighbors. While it might be cheesy or stereotypical there’s nothing wrong with introducing yourself to your neighbors in the same house if you live in an apartment building. Another Swiss friend of mine organized 4 house warming parties in 4 different apartments in the last 5 years and it was always a great way to meet new people. Organize a house warming party yourself and invite your neighbors.

The classic: Join a local club. Be it a gun club, a sports club, a book club or a chess club. Might be again a bit easier in rural areas as most small towns and villages have “Turnverein” (sports club) where people meet up to do gym exercises or play group games (as silly as catch or hide and seek). These clubs usually have a socializing element after the official club time where people sit together and drink some beers and talk.

Again probably more for rural areas, join the voluntary fire department. You will not only get a free fire fighting training but you also save between 200 and 500 CHF by doing it. They usually also have organized yearly trips which are mass drinking events in diguise.

Or try to go to yearly fares and events in your local community, almost all rural areas have some form of “Chilbi” (kind of thanksgiving but with market and food stands in the streets). That also worked for me and my wife when we moved to the area we’re in now. Seeing the same people, eventually starting to chat, meeting again in public at some other point and voila you’re suddenly invited for a lunch or dinner or grill party at their place.

The same might work by becoming a regular at some local restaurant or bar. There is a Chinese place in our city to which we go almost weekly. The owners and all servers know us by now and I usually get the drinks on the house. (Well I also had to bring some bottles of Rum because they didn’t have any on the menu, but that’s another story).

That’s it for now. I hope you liked this post, leave a like or a comment with topics you would like to hear more about.

5 Replies to “Expat Guide to Switzerland: How to make Swiss friends”

    1. Bahahaha good catch. Looks like you’re the first one actually reading the article. Corrected. Thanks for the proof read.

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