Doing business in Switzerland: Swiss business culture
Tread carefully in Swiss business and social situations and be aware of Swiss cultural nuances. Elise Krentzel prepares you for business culture in Switzerland.
Switzerland, though a small nation, has four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansch. Romansch is spoken by 1 percent of the population in the eastern part of the country. Swiss-German is a dialect spoken in all the German-speaking cantons, as well as in Ticino. It is the lingua franca of the population, although High German is what is taught in schools and read in newspapers.
Because of the nuances of culture this diversity brings, Switzerland is considered to be a prime test market in Europe where new technology products and services are often introduced and used first prior to national launches elsewhere.
While openness towards technology may give the Swiss an air of daring-do — do not be misled. The Swiss tend towards conservatism, empirical-thinking and prefer to stick to the rules. Swiss culture remains ethnocentric – a strong belief in ones own cultural group - and maintains a cautious attitude towards outside influences.
However, as Intercultural management consultant Fons Trompenaars points out, "There is a mindset that needs to be built in which the Swiss (or any other country national) can be approached rather than 'this is a list of what the Swiss do' because the Swiss will not expect you to become Swiss. You are not Swiss – they know that!"
The question is more, once you are aware of the differences, how do you deal with them?
The following points should be noted before doing business with the Swiss:
- Meetings are done by appointment and not spontaneously. This is true for social occasions as well, particularly in the German-speaking cantons.
- You should arrive at least five minutes early and be sure to telephone if you think you’ll be late. Arriving 15–20 minutes ahead of time will impress the Swiss.
- Punctuality is necessary on all occasions, whether business or social. This is especially true in the German-speaking areas, where arriving even five minutes late for a business or social engagement can cause grave offence. Although French- and Italian-speaking areas tend to be slightly more relaxed about time, punctuality is well appreciated.
Swiss dress code
- It is in your best interest to be well presented (read conservative) and to remain polite at all times.
- Do not wear jeans or casual attire on a first-time business meeting unless it is standard in the industry such as in IT or the arts.
- Dress well, but modestly; since the Swiss dislike ostentatious displays of wealth and appreciate clothing that is simple, clean, well pressed, and in good condition.
- Any jewelry [even a Swiss watch] should be elegant, but simple and understated.
Conversation in Switzerland
- The Swiss are a very private people, so try to avoid asking personal questions. For example, refrain from inquiries concerning their occupation, age, marital status, religion, and related matters. By the same token, your Swiss companions will not pry into your personal affairs in the course of a conversation. That said, it appears that in some circles, topics such as mentioned above are being spoken about more openly so it is not "that unusual" to ask a person’s age, occupation or marital status.
- The Swiss attribute their independence to their military preparedness, which includes universal military conscription. You should avoid mentioning this subject, as it stirs many passionate opinions and can lead to bitter arguments.
- The Swiss can be rather earnest, so it is advisable to avoid making jokes until you are sure of your ground; it is only too easy for your gentle banter to be perceived as mockery.
- In conversation and debate, the French have a reputation for their rhetorical abilities and charismatic presence, yet these characteristics tend to be less apparent among the French Swiss.
- The Italian Swiss are more open than other Swiss, though more reserved than native Italians.
- Do not interrupt your Swiss colleagues with remarks or comments. Wait until they have exhausted their point of view and then offer yours, and only if asked.
- The Swiss are extremely attentive due to their reticence, therefore mind what you say. It is a rare Swiss that will forget what has been said.
- Generally, the Swiss are conservative in their opinions and will not change their minds easily. However it would be wrong to think of them as needlessly stubborn or arrogant.
What to discuss with colleagues
- World politics and economics.
- Your travels in Switzerland.
- Positive aspects of Switzerland.
- Swiss cuisine.
- Sports, particularly winter sports.
- The Romansch culture.
- The founding of the Swiss Federation.
- Work; however do not open a conversation with "What do you do?"
Topics to avoid
- Swiss neutrality.
- Switzerland’s role during both world wars.
- The Swiss military.
- Voting rights for women in modern Switzerland.
- Monopolies of industry.
- Any personal questions.
- Swiss society is rather formal. One can go on for years addressing a business colleague, neighbor or acquaintance by their surname. It is a sign of respect and privacy. However some exceptions to the rule may spring up in Anglo-Saxon or English speaking multi-nationals where first name basis is common.
- Always address someone first by his or her professional title, such as Dr, then their family name and only when invited to, use their first name.
- Shake hands with everyone; use a firm hand and make eye contact
- In German-speaking Switzerland, use the courtesy titles Herr to address a man and Frau to address a woman; in French-speaking areas, use Monsieur and Madame; in Italian-speaking areas, use Signore and Signora.
- You should be aware that Frau, Madame and Signora are increasingly used as a mark of respect for a woman's professional and social standing, not as a statement of their marital status. Fraülein, Mademoiselle and Signorina are now used almost exclusively for addressing female children and teenage girls. Do not call a waitress by these honorifics.
Swiss body language
- Fidgeting, moving hands and making sweeping gestures are considered rude.
- Do not point your index finger to your head it is an insult.
- Poor posture is frowned upon. Do not slouch, stretch or yawn in public.
Wining and dining
- Business entertainment is mostly done in restaurants.
- Lunch meetings are more common than breakfast.
- If invited to your host's home, do not ask for a tour.
- Try to finish everything on your plate; it is rude to leave leftovers.
- Use utensils at all times. Do not use your hands except for breaking bread.
- Cut potatoes, soft foods including dessert, salads with a fork and not a knife.
- Keep your hands on the table during the meal and not on your lap. Try to keep your elbows off the table.
- Try to leave a party no later than midnight.
- Female businesspersons should reflect before offering to pay for a male colleague's meal since the Swiss are traditional and most men will view the offer as impudent.
Gift-giving protocol in Switzerland
- Gifts are exchanged after the successful conclusion of negotiations and not before.
- Never give an expensive gift, this can be seen as a bribe or flattery.
- Give a good bottle of wine, whisky or bourbon, books on your home region.
- If invited to your host's home, bring flowers or a good box of candy for the hostess and something small for children.
- Do not give a gift unless given one. You could give something with your company logo on it.
- Always send a hand-written thank you note if invited to someone's home.
- Avoid giving sharp items such as cutlery, knives, scissors, since this indicates the severing of a relationship.
- Interpreters or guides prefer a small gift rather than a tip.
Making a deal
Generally speaking, the German and French Swiss are conceptual, analytical thinkers; the Italian Swiss tend to think associatively. The German and French Swiss often have a tendency to use universal rules to solve problems, while the Italian Swiss usually prefer to become personally involved in each situation.
Also, the German and French Swiss rely on empirical evidence and other objective facts for verification, while Italian Swiss depend more on subjective feelings.
- Ensure that you bring a plentiful supply of business cards, since the Swiss are usually keen to exchange them. When arriving for an appointment, you should give your card to the receptionist and/or secretary to keep on file and, then, to everyone you meet, not just your counterpart or client.
- It is no longer necessary, or even desirable, to include any academic or professional qualifications on your business card. Your rank within the corporate hierarchy is much more important and, when designing your card, you might consider having your professional title printed in a different font.
- You might also include the founding date of your company, since the Swiss will be curious to know how long your organization has been in existence and will be impressed if your company is an older, venerable institution.
- Inquire about the English-language proficiency of the Swiss businessmen you will be encountering. If French, German, or Italian is what your Swiss contacts speak and understand the best, you will want to have an interpreter.
- If you use an interpreter, speak slowly and clearly. Avoid using idioms and frequently confirm that what you have said has been understood.
- Generally, the Swiss take a very long time to establish personal relationships. Yet if you are willing to put in the time and effort, the rapport and bond you establish with them may prove to be very worthwhile.
- You do not have to have a magnetic personality to win favour with the Swiss; it is usually sufficient to be a responsible, sound, honest businessperson. Maintaining control over your emotions and leading a disciplined personal life are also esteemed qualities.
- In Swiss business culture, few women hold high-level positions and they must work much harder than their male colleagues to achieve a comparable level of success. Female business travellers will, however, be accepted in their own right but they must remain highly professional at all times, both in their behaviour and dress.
- German Swiss will usually get right down to business. The French and Italian Swiss, however, will expect some preliminary 'small talk' and may even offer you a drink.
- In Swiss business culture, there is a reluctance to take risks. The Swiss will require substantial information and persuasive argument before agreeing to a new plan or procedure.
- Presentations of any kind should be clear and concise and it may be advisable to have a summary available in the local language.
- Summarize the presentation first before launching into your pitch.
What to look out for
The Swiss have a reputation for getting the best possible deal from opponents without ever appearing aggressive or demanding. Their quiet self-confidence, combined with the exceptional quality and value of their goods and services, allows them to sidestep the 'hard-sell' and other high-pressure tactics in the knowledge that they enjoy a strong bargaining position. Nor, since they will refuse to rush a decision, will they succumb to high-pressure tactics themselves.
The Swiss are good at making you believe that 'you get what you pay for.' They will make you feel that you have made a questionable proposal if you try to drive too hard a bargain. They remain straightforward in negotiations and make a genuine effort to see matters from the opponent's perspective. Moreover, they are quick to make helpful suggestions, even when it is not necessarily in their own interests.
Swiss business culture has a rigid, deeply entrenched hierarchy; only the highest individuals in authority make the final decision. Moreover, although everyone involved or affected must be in agreement, the final decision will pass unquestioned once it is reached.
You should be warned that, in Swiss business culture, individuals with seniority, rank, and authority are often very discreet in exercising their power. Frequently, they will assume an air of modesty and kindness. In most organizations, though, a person's car and the location of his or her parking space in the company lot will be key indicators of their real status.
For the most part, the Swiss are reliable, efficient and can be trusted to follow through. They are also very good at maintaining confidentiality. Even in offices with secretaries, envelopes addressed to individuals will usually be opened only by the addressee. It is recommended that you inform the secretary when you are sending mail that requires an immediate response, so that he or she can alert your correspondent.
David Hampshire, author of the book, “Living and Working in Switzerland” aptly describes the Swiss as,”Scrupulously honest, narrow-minded, industrious, pessimistic, boring, hygienic, taciturn, healthy, insular, tidy, frugal, sober, selfish, spotless, educated, insecure, introverted, hard working, perfect, religious, rigid, arrogant, affluent, conservative, isolated, private, strait-laced, neutral, authoritarian, formal, responsible, self-critical, unfriendly, stoical, materialistic, impatient, ambitious, intolerant, unromantic, reliable, conscientious, obstinate, efficient, square, enterprising, humorless, unloved (too rich), obedient, liberal, thrifty, stolid, orderly, staid, placid, insensitive, patriotic, xenophobic, courteous, meticulous, inventive, prejudiced, conventional, intelligent, virtuous, smug, loyal, punctual, egotistical, serious, bourgeois, cautious, dependable, polite, reserved or shy, law-abiding and a good skier".
He concludes by saying: "You may have noticed that the above list contains a 'few' contradictions, which is hardly surprising as there's no such thing as a typical Swiss!"
Credits and useful links:
Elise Krentzel / Expatica
Netherlands-based journalist and author Elise Krentzel is a Swiss/American citizen, who has lived and worked in Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, France, USA and Holland.
Thanks to Tim Morris, expatriate and consultant with Deloitte and Touche, Geneva, Switzerland, who provided additional insight to this article.
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