Navigating the social landscape: Insights and strategies for expats facing challenges in Switzerland

In light of the survey’s finding “Expat Insider survey 2023/Switzerland”, AM Relocation aims to particularly explore the first and fourth points of the survey regarding settling-in challenges and feelings of loneliness or unwelcome. We aim to gain insights from Swiss perspectives through discussions with locals and personal observations. Understanding these cultural nuances and social dynamics will help expats improve their overall experience.

1. Reserved Nature and Language Barrier

Swiss people are naturally reserved, especially with strangers. Striking up conversations and receiving invitations to homes might be challenging initially.

2. Loyalty and Limited Mobility

Swiss people's commitment to their existing social circles is influenced by the compact size of the country, unlike e.g. the US, where frequent relocations for education or work are common. Expanding on this, many Swiss individuals stay connected with childhood friends and often live in the same area, reducing the need to actively seek new friendships.

3. Swiss Planning Culture

Swiss people value planning. Spontaneity may not be a strong suit. Arranging meet-ups (well) in advance or avoiding doorstep visits are key considerations to respect their cultural norms and busy schedules. Additionally, Sundays in Switzerland are quiet, providing an opportunity to spend time with family and friends, engage in sports or enjoy outdoor activities.

4. Perceptions of Expats

Some Swiss locals may view expats as transient, potentially affecting the willingness to engage. Additionally, concerns about rising rents and housing situations might contribute to a sense of unease. Awareness of these perceptions is crucial for expats to navigate and address.

Strategies that can help overcome these challenges

1. Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Frequently, prejudices play a role, and engaging in mutual contact and conversation aids in breaking down such biases. Initiate conversations with neighbors, especially with elderly individuals or local families, as they can be excellent initial connections to break down barriers. While words are important, also demonstrate that you are an expat keen on integration. You can e.g. invite them to your home after the move – or you at least introduce yourself personally to each resident at the door. Patience is key, allowing time for relationships to develop and resist the urge to give up hastily.

2. Connect Locally

Immerse yourself in local activities and visit places frequented by locals. Engage in local summer activities like hiking and swimming in lakes, and participating in winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding and sledging or ice skating. Attend local events, exhibitions, museums, attractions or if you are e.g. a family check out Zurich’s community centers (called “Gemeinschaftszentrum”). Enroll your children in local schools and explore typical Swiss cuisine such as Fondue, Raclette or Züri Gschnätzlets.

3. Understand Local Customs

In addition to that, familiarize yourself with local customs. This involves observing practices such as avoiding phone calls after 9 pm, seeking permission before impromptu visits, presenting a small gift when (finally) invited to someone's home (like a bottle of wine, flowers, chocolate, local honey, or an item from your home country), waiting for everyone to be seated before beginning a meal, avoiding laundry and drilling holes on Sundays or holidays, and extending a polite "Grüezi" when you walk into a doctor’s waiting room or greeting people on the street - particularly outside urban areas.

4. Learn the Language

If you plan to stay in Switzerland for an extended period, learning the local language will sooner or later be the door opener to more meaninful interactions with locals and also facilitates a deeper understanding of the overall culture. Swiss German is primarily spoken, so focusing on standard German is perfectly fine.

5. Maintain your Expat Network

Finally, while we applaud your efforts to connect with Swiss friends and embrace Swiss culture, it is crucial not to solely concentrate on forming local connections (even if it sounds contradictory to above). Seek out like-minded individuals within your workplace and share similar experiences and feelings with them. Attend international networking events and explore online communities such as englishforum.ch, glocals.com, or internations.org for a broader social network. Boost your well-being by reconnecting with familiar activities, i.e. resume past hobbies, like playing tennis or consider taking dance classes if that was a home activity. Enjoy your favorite (home) foods every now and again as they can be a source of comfort, too. Invite family and friends from home to visit, providing an opportunity to explore the new country together and enhance your overall experience.

Conclusion

In conclusion, AM Relocation emphasizes the importance of proactive engagement, cultural understanding and maintaining a balance between local integration and connections within the expat community for a more fulfilling overall experience in Switzerland.