A beginner’s guide to Swissness

Diccon Bewes: A beginner’s guide to Swissness

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Have you discovered the true meaning of Swissness? Here's a hint: it has to do with lips, shoes, and poppies.

It's the opening round of Family Fortunes (or 5Gegen5 in Switzerland). The host says, "We asked 100 people to name something associated with Switzerland." Easy. You buzz and say cheese. Top answer! But it could've been chocolate, or watches, or mountains, or Heidi. In fact, any number of things so closely linked to the Alpine republic at the heart of Europe. But there's more to Switzerland than banks, skis, francs and cheese. Swiss life is all about Swissness. But what does that mean?

Swissness is a word that is essentially self-explanatory: it means anything and everything to do with Switzerland. But it is in fact a made-up word, used by the Swiss to cross their own language barriers and so unite the country with a single word. Having an artificial English word to sum up a nation seems rather odd, until you realise that that in itself is typically Swiss. After all, this is a country whose official name is in Latin. Perhaps only the Swiss truly understand the real meaning of Swissness; the rest of us can only make educated guesses. So here's a beginner's guide to discovering the true meaning of Swissness:  

  1. Don't queue. For an otherwise polite society, the Swiss just can't queue. At bus stops and train platforms, it's scrum down, elbows out and every man, woman and child for themselves.
  2. Eat fondue the right way. If you think it's spear, dip, twirl and eat, you're so wrong. That fork must not touch your lips, teeth or tongue. And whatever you do, don't drop the bread in the pot, unless the person next to you is worth kissing.
  3. Wear red shoes. The Swiss do. Maybe they're being patriotic, or are all friends of Dorothy, or just want to stand out in the crowd of black, brown and grey.
  4. Don't apologise when handing over a 200-franc note. What for others is a small fortune, for the Swiss is almost pocket money.
  5. Understate everything. Most Swiss prefer to be small not tall poppies. If you're fluent in French, then you only speak a little; if it's -10C outside, then it's a bit chilly.
  6. Learn Swiss-English, or Swinglish. The Swiss will expect you to understand their meanings of handy, trainer, wellness and pudding. They are English words, after all.
  7. Don't talk about the weather. Here's a typical Swiss-British opener. Brit, coming inside: "Phew, it's hot outside!" Swiss: "It's summer." End of discussion.
  8. Be the perfect guest. Arrive on time, take a gift, and introduce yourself to everyone. But do not help; never set foot in the kitchen, never refill drinks, never clear the plates, as that would imply your hosts cannot cope.
  9. Rediscover Sundays. A Swiss Sunday feels like being in England when it still had pound notes and Opal Fruits. Forget about going shopping or doing some DIY. Instead, visit a museum or have a family day out. Or be very Swiss and go for a walk.
  10. Buy a photocopier. Any application or permit needs copies of at least ten bits of paper: school reports, ID, tax return, inside-leg measurement, dental records. If it doesn't have an official paper record, then it doesn't exist.

Master all these and you might understand what Swissness is. Do that and you're well on your way to becoming more Swiss than the Swiss themselves.

Reprinted with permission of Diccon Bewes.

Diccon gre
w up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.


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3 Comments To This Article

  • me posted:

    on 21st April 2012, 19:53:31 - Reply

    Most of these comments apply to Poland as well. And other EU state memebers.
  • cat posted:

    on 17th April 2012, 15:23:31 - Reply

    This is Exactly my swiss exoerirnce. I also find the swiss lack urgency. They so take their time. I missed a train yesterday because of point 1 and a swiss couple taking forever at the ticket machine. [Edited by moderator] Love the red shoes though.
  • Tom posted:

    on 17th April 2012, 10:53:11 - Reply

    Most of these points do not just apply to the Swiss. Having lived in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, I have to say that at least 1, 3, 6, 9, 10 apply to all of these countries. And probably 8, too, although it does not always fully apply in Switzerland, either (you are allowed to help but it is not expected). And you forgot the Romandie (French Swiss); they would claim to be completely different (but #1 definitely applies, too). I think your list did not catch Swissness at all, it is just a reflection of the German part of Switzerland and perhaps because of that shares certain characteristics with other German speaking countries.