Making friends with the Swiss

The discussion that took place late last year about cultural differences spurred me on to give this topic some serious thought.

I thought about HOW I acquired friends in my life and have to say that most people I met with whom I later became friends were almost always work colleagues! And sometimes on a social outing I got to meet their friends and if we got on fine we also went on to get to know each other and became friends as well. It was a sort of chain reaction.

I see myself as a chatty and quite easygoing person who gets on quite well with people, even those I just met J.  But it is not easy, also for a Swiss citizen, to find a circle of like-minded people.

When I left school in 1983 I went on ‘to tour’ the western part of Switzerland until I settled in 1990 where I presently live.

I went to work in a hospital on the shore of the lake of Geneva, and thanks to the ‘légéreté ‘ of the French-Swiss I was quickly involved with a bunch of youngsters from the areaJ.  It also helped me to get my French ship-shape; I believe that you learn a language quicker, after acquiring the basic rules in school, by interaction with people who speak this language!!  You may not be perfect, but it helps you to get to know others more easily.

However, it was a completely different story when I went to work in the hospital of Saanen, a neighbour village of posh Gstaad.J

There the locals are all somehow related to each other, if not by marriage then by some other way.  Being a touristy village with a very high turnover of new faces also contributed to the fact that I had quite some trouble to acquire some friends, and if you ever tried to understand a proper Wallis dialect or Oberland dialect you’ll know that even between Swiss Germans language barriers can be difficult to overcome!!!

But again, eventually work helped me after some time to find some friends.  So even though I am a born and bred native, I can relate to the feeling of loneliness some people must have when they arrive in this country.

The Swiss are sometimes very reserved people, especially toward strangers, and need to be coaxed out of their ‘shells’.

Of course, those in the work force are bound to find friends more quickly. But those who have accompanied their spouses can also find friends.  Yes, it is easy to tell expats to join a club and such to make friends, but it is not as easy as that to integrate into a new country.

One thing is that the Swiss are not immediately friends with everyone, and there are stages through which you must move to the next step of the ladder.

Roughly, these stages are:

- first a stranger;
- then an acquaintance (Bekannte);
- then a colleague (Kollege);
- and finally (maybe) a friend.

In between that are, of course, all of the situations in which you may be related to someone, neighbours etc. and are able to jump up the ladder more quickly.

One thing that I wouldn’t advise to do is to offer to be on a first name basis too quickly, as I know this is common in English-speaking countries and fits with the culture in those countries. However, in Switzerland as well as in Austria or Germany, this is not something that sets well with native folks.

And I’d like to point out that these guidelines roughly count for all German-speaking countries; it is not only Swiss who have this invisible barrier to allowing someone to become gradually closer to them.

An idea to get to know your neighbours is to introduce yourself to them. It is not necessary to go knock on every door. You can just prepare a flyer, for example, with your photo and your name stating that you just moved in the house and are looking forward to meeting the neighbours.

In Switzerland, in contrast to the US (and perhaps other countries), it is not the ‘old’ neighbours who go to greet the new ones; it is just the opposite.  So if you move into a house and expect the doorbell ringing with neighbours queuing up to welcome you in the house, this will not happen!  It never was and is still not customary.  It is not personal nor a rejection of you!!!!

However, if you invite neighbours to a housewarming (Huus Röiki), you can expect to be showered with small gifts.  It is traditional to bring a loaf of bread and salt to a new house, as this is an old custom meaning that this house shall never suffer need.

In our house, for example, we hold an annual BBQ in the summer especially so that new tenants get to know the ‘old’ ones. Usually we sit outside in the common garden until the early hours of the next day. This has led to friendships between tenants such that even if someone moves out, they stay in touch!! Obviously not something that’s common, but extraordinary!

If you rent a flat, you are bound to share the washing machine among tenants in a room in the basement. In my experience as a landlady, most disagreements in a house often start down there!! Petty eh, but it is the truth.

So, why not ask a neighbour to come and explain everything to you to ensure that there will be no hiccups, and afterwards invite the neighbour for a cup of coffee.  You might have won the first friend.

Accompany your child to kindergarten or to school, and if there are others who go the same way, try to walk with them, try to strike up a conversation, suggest taking turns taking and getting the children to and from the school/kindergarten /playgroup/sports club, etc.

Inquire at your local Gemeindeverwaltung what clubs and organisations are available in the area. Then inquire whether it is possible to come only for a ‘Schnupperevent’ (just once to see if you like it); most organisations offer this possibility. You are bound to talk to people present and who knows, you just might click with someone and take it from there!

If you have children in the school system, why not throw a non-birthday party to get to know your child’s friends and parents. This need not be a big affair.  You could meet up at a log cabin (Waldhütte) in the woods or a public playground or park if you don’t like the hassle that it may cause you at home.  If you do meet at your home, then don’t fuss too much - some soft drinks for the kids, wine or coffee for the adults, and some nibbles are sufficient.

Traditional events such as Fasnacht, 1st August, Räbeliechtli, etc. which you have heard about but don’t know exactly what they are, ask neighbours, other moms in school, etc.

You’d be surprised how many doors are opened when you show some interest in local events, and you can be sure that there is always someone who’s keen to explain to you what it all is about and maybe take you with them to the pageant or whatever!

Be persistent but not intrusive lest you chase people away instead of attracting them to you.

Don’t expect that it is sufficient to only introduce yourself.  After this first step, making friends is a process that needs constant work which is true regardless if you are an expat living here, a native Swiss or a martian!J

As an English speaker, give one of the English clubs a try (, as most members are indeed expats who live here, but also a very large amount are Swiss folks who want to speak English with like-minded people.  So despite the fact that it’s an English club, you may very well make Swiss friends there, too.

If you can, and have the time and money to do so, join a sports class -  for example, an aerobics class, a swimming class, etc.  You are bound to meet people who have similar interests as you, and you can always take it from there, such as go for a drink after class, etc.

Another idea would be that you join a German class. You are not very likely to meet Swiss people there, but your classmates will be in the same boat as you are! And if you are shy or embarrassed to try your newly achieved knowledge in public, then you can try to interact with your classmates. After all, they know the feeling too.

Think of what you can offer to get acquainted with more people by teaching English privately to adults and children! You could take part in a ‘knowledge swapping system’, meaning that you teach people what you know and they teach you what they know.  We have a scheme like that in Biel, so it could be that you teach a young girl how to cook and she teaches you Spanish, etc.

Perhaps you are a young mother and perhaps insecure about what’s best for your baby.  Nearly every village has a free MÜTTERBERATUNG. Young mothers meet there with a trained nurse or midwife once or twice per month.  The nurse or midwife measures and weighs your baby and gives you advice if you want or need it. This would be another good place to meet new people, especially as there are no mom and tot groups for such a young age in Switzerland. The earliest are usually KRABBELGRUPPEN or SPIELGRUPPEN, which are geared toward older babies or toddlers of ca. 7 to 8 months and up.

I am sure that there are many more ideas about ways to meet people in Switzerland, but this is all that I could think of at the moment.

One thing that is still occupying my mind is that these hints and tips are more for people who have no - or no BIG - problems of approaching new people and are eager and daring enough to try their newly acquired language knowledge.

However hard I thought, I couldn’t think of ideas to give to shy people who are not very outgoing, and are perhaps very insecure about the entire process of relocating, etc.  But I will keep on thinking, and perhaps will find some ways for them as well.


Sylvie is a born and bred Swiss woman who dedicates a lot of her time , trying to help expatriates understand Switzerland and the Swiss a little bit better, by explaining customs and behaviour out of her vast  knowledge of  her homecountry.She's married and a busy mom of three girls.