Switzerland - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Switzerland - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Kendall Hunter, Culture Smart!

Paperback(Second Edition, Second edition)

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There is far more to Switzerland than beautiful scenery, chocolate, watches, faceless bankers, and spotless cities. The real Switzerland is full of surprises and anything but bland. This small, rugged, landlocked country at the heart of Europe has been a confederation since the first three cantons came together in a defensive alliance in 1291. Four national languages are spoken within its borders. Its present twenty-six cantons are largely autonomous and retain their individual characters. In this grassroots democracy real power lies with the people, who exercise it directly through frequent referendums. “Swissness” is, above all, a spirit of independence and of communal involvement.

Although it is a model of peace and multicultural cooperation, with one of the highest standards of living in Europe, Switzerland’s prosperity has been hard-won. Historically neutral, it maintains a semi-detached relationship within the European Union. In 2014, a national referendum supported quotas on EU migrants. Despite the several hundred thousand EU nationals living and working within its borders, and almost half a million Swiss working in the EU, this small, resource-poor country appears determined to retain its independence.

Culture Smart! Switzerland provides an historical perspective, explores Swiss values and attitudes, and looks at the cultural continuity of festivals and traditions. It helps you navigate the workplace, the neighborhood, and the social scene. It offers crucial insights into Swiss business culture, and more generally on differences in communication style. Swiss people are not always easy to get to know. Proud, industrious, fair-minded, and creative, they respect the individual, which means that while they appreciate clear thinking and direct talking, they avoid confrontation. They will never intrude, yet will willingly help out if asked. Make the effort, and people will respond. Warmth, decency, intelligence, and wit are among the many hidden riches of this fascinating society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857338447
Publisher: Kuperard
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 1,176,134
Product dimensions: 4.40(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kendall Hunter is a Canadian freelance journalist, author, photographer, and entrepreneur. After graduating in political science from the University of Calgary she worked and lived in South Africa, England, Wales, and Switzerland. Her first book, Black Taxi: Shooting South Africa, describes her experience as a news photographer in Johannesburg during that country’s first democratic elections. She is the founder of Culture Dock, a new crowd-sourced global travel app that hinges on cultures of the world. She now lives in Toronto.

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By Kendall Hunter

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-845-4



Switzerland is one of the smallest countries in Europe, and one of the most densely populated. Its landmass is only 15,940 square miles (41,285 square kilometers), compared to Germany's 137,828 square miles (356,974 square kilometers) and France's 210,026 square miles (543,965 square kilometers). From north to south it measures 137 miles (220 kilometers), which takes about four hours to travel by train and three hours by car. From east to west it measures 217 miles (350 kilometers), and on any of these journeys one can see contrasting landscapes of great beauty.

The population of Switzerland is 8.1 million, and there are 207 people per square kilometer. Seventy-four percent of the Swiss live in urban areas and 26 percent in rural.

Made up of linguistic regions that mirror the cultures of its larger neighbors, Switzerland at first glance appears to be a peculiar and artificial entity, raising the question, "How did it all come together?" Possibly this is something that the Swiss would be asking themselves today, had they not been so busy being the responsible, active, and cooperative citizens of an extremely efficiently run country. Numerous factors have played a part in the formation of this unique republic — the people themselves, the geography, and the influence of outside powers.

Switzerland evolved naturally within its own borders and continues to forge ahead on its own terms on the European continent. This is not to say that it is immune to the political currents tugging at Europe today, but it implies both a history and a positioning in the world that is founded on a certain mistrust of its neighbors. The common ground that brings the Swiss together as a people is not always clear. Perhaps the paradox of Swiss identity is best described in the saying "unity, but not uniformity." For all its diversity, Switzerland is the most stable democracy in the world today.


The climate is extremely varied. Switzerland lies at the point of intersection of the main climatic regions of Europe: the oceanic, the northern European, the Mediterranean, and the continental. Ascona, in the canton of Ticino, lies at the lowest point of the country at 643 feet (196 meters) above sea level. The climate here is much like the Mediterranean — there are even palm trees. An arctic climate is found at the country's highest point, the Dufour Peak, which is 15,199 feet (4,634 meters) high. One would have to travel only 43 miles (70 kilometers), as the crow flies, to cover the distance between these two extremes. To visitors, the country's most famous mountain, and one of the highest in the Alps, would probably be the Matterhorn. It is situated in the south, in the canton of Valais, which is a dry, mountainous region. However, if one were to travel into the valleys of this region, one would find an abundance of apricots, cherries, tomatoes, and grapes. Temperatures in Switzerland are on average about 68°F to 77°F (20°C to 25°C) in summer and 36°F to 43°F (2°C to 6°C) in winter.

The Föhn

The Föhn, also the German word for "hairdryer," is a warm, dry wind that swoops down over the leeward side of the Alps. It can arrive at any time of the year but occurs most frequently in spring and fall. Recognized by mostly clear skies with a distinct arch of clouds, it brings with it a quick rise in temperature and sudden atmospheric changes. These conditions are said to have an unsettling effect on people, causing headaches and anxiety. The perfect scapegoat, the Föhn is said to be blamed by the Swiss for all their problems.

In the French-speaking region between the Jura and the Alps a strong cold wind known as La Bise can blow from the north, northeast, or east in winter, spring, or fall. In winter the "Bise Noir" contributes to the gloom with rain, snow, or hail.


Geographically speaking, Switzerland is divided into three regions: the Jura, the Plateau, and the Alps. The Jura (Celtic for "wood") is a limestone mountain range stretching from Lake Geneva to the Rhine and extending into eastern France and southern Germany. This subalpine area makes up about 10 percent of the country's surface area. On average, it is 2,296 feet (700 meters) above sea level. It is a picturesque highland crossed by river valleys. The rocks first studied here at the end of the eighteenth century lend their name to the Jurassic geological period.

The Plateau refers to the region between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance. With an average altitude of 1,902 feet (580 meters) and covering 30 percent of the country's surface area, it is here that one finds the majority of the population (two-thirds) as well as most of the country's industry, traffic, agriculture, and livestock.

The Alps extend over the central and southern regions of the country. These are probably the physical feature most closely associated with Swiss identity by foreign travelers. They span about 125 miles (200 kilometers) at an average altitude of 5,576 feet (1,700 meters) and cover almost two-thirds of the country's total surface area. Only 11 percent of the population live in the mountains, but 60 percent of tourism is concentrated in the Alps and their foothills. The Rhone, Upper Rhine, Reuss, and Ticino Rivers divide the mountain ranges.

The country as a whole boasts no fewer than 1,500 lakes, the largest of which are Lakes Geneva, Constance, Neuchâtel, Lucerne, Maggiore, and Zürich. It is the source of 6 percent of Europe's freshwater supply.

Switzerland has practically no natural resources. It has one of the lowest percentages of land under cultivation in Western Europe, and overall the number of farms is dropping. Large farms, however, are on the increase. Six percent of the working population are employed in agriculture, and about one-third of the food is imported. Three-quarters of the farmed area is meadow and pasture, as most of the country is unsuitable for crops. Cereals and vegetables are grown in the lowlands. About one-third of farms are engaged in crop production. There are no large forests, but no region is without a forest either.

Because their own land is so small, the Swiss marvel at countries that take more than four or five hours' driving time to traverse. In some cases, they almost seem to apologize for their own. They take for granted the scale of their magnificent mountains and the diversity of the countryside — you only need travel for an hour or two to experience different cultures, languages, traditions, architecture, scenery, even countries.


Since 1937 there have been four national languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (the closest living descendant of ancient Latin). Of these, German, French, and Italian are official languages. They enjoy equal status in parliament, the federal administration, and the army. Because it is not one of the official languages, all laws do not have to be translated into Romansh. While each linguistic region has close ties with its neighboring country, these relationships are somewhat ambivalent. The Swiss display as much rejection of a neighboring culture as affinity with it, because it appears to pose a threat to Swiss identity. The federal census in 2000 produced the following picture of how the language groups are divided: German 63.6 percent, French 20.4 percent, Italian 6.5 percent, Romansh 0.5 percent, other 9 percent.

Schools have played a key role in bringing the people closer together, with every child learning a second national language from his or her seventh year at the latest. However, when it was decided in 2004 that Swiss children should learn two extra languages at school, the German cantons gave priority to English as the second language, rather than French or Italian. This step has not been well received by the minority Swiss communities.

The German-Speaking Region

This is the largest language region, and was for a long time a mosaic of urban and rural areas with a profusion of very distinct Alemannic dialects, which still exist today. The German-speaking Swiss learn their cultivated official language, High German, at school; they call it "written German," and it always retains an element of strangeness for them. In normal speech they use an unwritten everyday language, which varies greatly from region to region. The grammar and vowels of these dialects, known by the collective term Schwyzerdütsch, or Swiss German, can be traced back to Middle High German. They have produced their own literature since the nineteenth century. National radio and television allow the dialects plenty of scope, and they are also used to a certain extent in churches and schools.

The French-Speaking Region

The second national language is spoken in the cantons of Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel, and Vaud, as well as in parts of the cantons of Bern, Fribourg, and Valais. Called Romandie by the French Swiss and Westschweiz by the German, the French-speaking region also used to have its dialects, but the Church and schools suppressed them in the rural districts. The French spoken in western Switzerland has some regional characteristics, but otherwise its citizens speak French as it is spoken in France.

The Protestant teachings of the Geneva-based reformer Jean Calvin played a decisive role in shaping the cultural identity of these cantons, even though not all the French Swiss are Protestant.

The Italian-Speaking Region

Italian is spoken in the southern valleys up to the St. Gotthard, Lukmanier, and San Bernardino passes. This region comprises the whole of the canton of Ticino (or Tessin in French and German) and the valleys of Misox/Calanca, Bergell/Bregaglia, and Poschiavo in the canton of Graubünden (also known as the Grisons). Although the construction and development of international traffic routes (such as the St. Gotthard Pass) and tourism from the north have brought an economic upswing to this previously relatively impoverished southern part of Switzerland, they have also resulted in a threat to the region's cultural identity.

The rich local dialects remain intact in rural areas, whereas artists and writers tend to look toward nearby Milan, the cultural center of northern Italy.

The Romansh-Speaking Region

The valleys of Rhaetia (today's Graubünden) were conquered in 15 BCE by the Romans, and this resulted in the latinization of the original inhabitants. The isolation of the numerous valleys led to the development of at least five distinct language forms — a unique linguistic phenomenon in such a small area — each with its own written tradition and each with several dialects. But in recent years the influx of tourists and migration to the economic centers of German-speaking Switzerland have threatened to erode this linguistic idyll. Endeavors, such as the creation of a single written language in 1982 known as rumantsch grischun, have been made to try to stop the process of erosion, for administrative as well as cultural reasons.

In the nature of things, the smaller language groups often have to struggle to assert their poltical and economic influence.


In the first millennium BCE the early warlike inhabitants of Switzerland were overrun by more sophisticated Celtic tribes from the west, in particular the Helvetians and the Rhaetians, who occupied the country from about 400 BCE to 400 CE. The Romans began their conquest around 107 BCE. Under Julius Caesar, in 58 BCE, and later under the Emperor Augustus, they consolidated their control over the Gauls (their name for the Celts) and proceeded to move further north into what is now Germany, but were forced back. The Rhine became the border of the Roman Empire and remained so until the first years of the fifth century.

The Celtic population was soon assimilated into Roman civilization, and the Romans presided over two centuries of peace and prosperity, building roads, founding towns, and opening up the country to trade. The names of numerous mountains, rivers, and places are reminders of the Helvetic and Roman past.

This tranquillity came to an end in 260 CE when Aleman invaders from north of the Rhine broke through the imperial defenses and settled in the Swiss Plateau in such large numbers that their language, the ancestor of Swiss German, drove out the local tongue. The Germanic peoples of northern and eastern Europe were on the move, pushed westward by tribes migrating from Central Asia. When Rome finally withdrew its forces in around 400 CE, the Germanic tribes took control. In the west, the Burgundian settlers adopted Christianity and the Latin language, and in the Alpine valleys of the south the Lombardic and Romansh peoples maintained their cultural ties with Rome. This marked the beginning of the language divide in Switzerland.

Christianity, introduced by the Romans, spread and the Church became a major landowner and temporal power. From the sixth century, the Franks, also a Germanic people, gradually moved in from the west, bringing first the Burgundians, then later the Alemans, under their rule. Two successive Frankish dynasties — the Merovingians and the Carolingians — presided over a lengthy period of peace, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne. His Frankish empire reinforced Latin Christianity, created a network of monasteries, and introduced the feudal system, by which landed nobles exercised direct political power over the people on their estates. There was no "state" to speak of during this period; the warrior noble classes accumulated power through conquest, inheritance, and marriage, and the Roman towns declined.

The breakup of Charlemagne's empire after his death ushered in a period of conflict and instability. Order was eventually restored in the eleventh century under the Holy Roman Empire, when Switzerland was controlled by a number of ruling dynasties, including the house of Habsburg.

At the end of the Middle Ages, from the ninth to the fourteenth century, Europe experienced a general rise in temperature — it was 1.5 to 2.25 degrees warmer than today. The warmer climate, coupled with improved farming techniques, led to an increase in agricultural production, which was able to support a growing population. By the eleventh century the social and economic consequences of this new prosperity were starting to be felt in Switzerland. There was a resurgence of urban life that continued into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The period saw the emergence of guilds of specialized craftsmen, the rise of a wealthy merchant class, and the building of roads across the Alps. In particular, the opening up of a trade route to the Mediterranean and beyond through the St. Gotthard Pass in 1230 had a huge impact on the country.


Excerpted from Switzerland by Kendall Hunter. Copyright © 2016 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
About the Author,
Map of Switzerland,
Key Facts,
Chapter 6: TIME OUT,
Appendix 1: Ski Resorts,
Appendix 2: Some Famous Swiss People,
Further Reading,

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