Americans vs. the Swiss: Defining Friendship

An American sits down beside a Swiss on an airplane. 

After some initial friendly banter (one-sided from the American), he asks, “Where are you off to?”

The Swiss, slightly uncomfortable, is reluctant to respond, but the American doesn’t take the cue.

Without prompt, he proceeds to share his entire trip with the Swiss. He was visiting his son who lives abroad in France. They went on a bike journey across the Baltics together. He’s now heading home to Minnesota, where he’s retired. He and his wife have three other kids, all of whom are newly out of the nest. Their absence has been particularly hard on him, and he’s been trying to find new hobbies – like biking – to fill that empty void where activities with his children once stood.

“Enough about me…” he wraps up. “What about you? What do you do?”

The Swiss squirms in his seat. This man is a stranger, and it’s none of his business. Even worse, the Swiss has nowhere to turn. The nonstop flight is eight hours. Would it be rude to put his headphones in?

This is a marked difference between American and Swiss culture.

Small talk is a common, acceptable, and even appreciated social norm in America.

In Switzerland, not so much.

Sharing Personal Info

This chart illustrates just how uncomfortable the above American just made his Swiss cohort.

The Swiss only share small talk with buddies or friends – and sometimes with colleagues.

In fact, the American went well past small talk, sharing non business related topics, personal factual information, and even personal emotional themes, all of which are only shared between close friends in Switzerland.

To breach this wall with a stranger can feel egregious to the Swiss.

As we talked about last week, respecting others’ privacy is highly valued in Swiss culture.

Their “bubble” is much larger than that of their American counterpart.

Comfort Zone of Communication

The comfort zone of communication is considerably tighter in Switzerland and the scope of people with whom they communicate narrower.

Americans talk about anything and everything with their friends and are, more often than not, comfortable sharing more with a broader range of people as well, whether they be acquaintances or even strangers on a plane.

Swiss view friendship as intimate and permanent. Being a friend means being there, through thick and thin; it’s a life-long commitment not to be taken lightly.

Essentially, the Swiss have no “degrees” of friendship; they have a single solid unalterable definition.

Americans, on the other hand, have a wider range of friendships. They might have people they consider close friends who always have their back, others they consider fun and easygoing buddies who come and go from their lives, and still others with whom they’d be happy to grab a beer and discuss politics but not necessarily share their deepest darkest secrets.

While Americans might view “close” friendships similarly to the way the Swiss view friendship in general, they are also more often open to lighthearted, casual friendships with most anyone.

To some, they might be considered “fair-weather friends,” while to others with whom they are more intimate, they are considered loyal.

But they are willing to share degrees of themselves and their lives with even strangers, all the same.

So, how does one make friends in a culture with such a different concept of friendship?

We’ll bridge that gap next week.

Small Talk & Swiss Culture

A Swiss anchorman was traveling by train from Zurich to Chur.

A passenger sitting in the seat in front of him spoke not a word the whole train ride.

As the train pulled into the terminal station, the passenger stood, turned to the anchorman, and reached out his hand for a shake, saying, “Mr. Müller, it has been a pleasure to travel with you.” 

This is characteristic of the Swiss in general.

Respecting others’ privacy is a highly valued norm. The Swiss do not talk with strangers – even famous television anchormen – as they see this as an invasion of others’ privacy.

In this case, the passenger might have mustered up the courage to greet the anchorman, but that’s where the intrusion begins and ends.

Personal Details Are Private

The Swiss are traditionally secretive.

Whereas other cultures might chitchat while waiting in a queue, the Swiss don’t bother engaging in small talk.

In fact, if you initiate small talk with a stranger in Switzerland, you may be met with a dirty look.

Personal details are just that: personal.

Private or personal matters aren’t brought to work, be they emotions or facts.

Such matters needn’t even be deep to be avoided. The Swiss are unlikely to share where they’re from, what car they drive, or any sort of mundane detail about their lives.

An article about Swiss culture by Valentine Sergon on Expatica explains:

“As a whole, Swiss people tend to be polite, reserved, direct, and a little guarded at first. In work environments, social etiquette in Switzerland is to remain formal until explicitly told otherwise.”

Personal details and themes are only shared between friends.

Strangers and acquaintances receive only greetings and reserved niceties. It’s only until you break into the “inner circle” that you might earn a lifelong friendship from the Swiss.

But a lifelong friendship it will be, as once they put their trust in you, the Swiss are known to be loyal.

Struggle to Small Talk

An Australian expat wrote the following about Swedish people, but it could apply just as well to the Swiss:

“I can tell that they really want to learn, but they were never taught how to do small talk. When people find out I’m Australian, they try to make small talk with me, but they really struggle. They speak good English; it’s just that they don’t know what to say.”

Swiss culture is very much the same. Small talk is so foreign to the Swiss that, even if they wanted to try, they have a hard time with it.

Now that you know a bit about Swiss culture, you might wonder how it stacks up to American culture.

With such norms, how might a Swiss person survive in a world of America, a culture that typically embraces small talk?

Or how might an American fair in Switzerland?

We’ll tell you how next week.

Know the Rules: Understanding the Local Concept of Friendship

“True friends are the ones with whom you shared a sandbox.”

This is a Swiss saying, and it summarizes how the Swiss feel about friendships in general.

Friends are the people they grow up with. This is the general Swiss view.

They view foreigners’ concepts of friendship (particularly, Americans) as superficial.

They may also view certain areas of discussion with friends or social groups as taboo.

Because of these values and norms surrounding friendship, Switzerland might be one of the toughest places in the world to make friends as a foreigner.

In fact, many expats give up and stick to themselves.

But before throwing in the towel when it comes to cross-cultural friendships, learn the rules.

You might find it’s easier to make friends when you know what the local concept of friendship is to begin with.

Local Concept of Friendship

The definition of true friendship differs across cultures, as does what is considered acceptable in social settings. 

Simply put, to make friends according to local standards, you must know what friendship means to that culture.

The rules of forming a friendship in another culture are three-pronged.

They involve knowing the:

  1. Approach to Human Interaction
  2. Socially Acceptable Discussion Topics
  3. Pace by which Relationships are Expected to Progress

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

Approach 

One culture’s approach to human interaction – i.e., tone and delivery – may be very different than that of another culture.

The way in which we speak to each other – whether politely or jokingly – might be considered too uptight in one culture or too abrasive and disrespectful in another.

Knowing the tone and approach to communication that is culturally expected at different stages of a budding friendship can help you in forming cross-cultural friendships.

Discussion Topics

What can you talk about? What is off-limits?

While you might come from an open culture, some cultures are much more generally private than others.

They might see sharing private thoughts and feelings as oversharing, particularly if the relationship is new.

While talking about the weather might sound boring, being too intrusive or intimate in another culture upon first approach is a surefire way to be friendless.

Pacing

As with any developing relationship, there are typical steps to increasing intimacy in friendship and communication, no matter which culture.

Beginning with the basic level of personal communication, greetings are socially acceptable (and expected) to form common bonds during the initial stages of communication.

Next, you might engage in small talk about the workplace (if this is a situation in which you work together) and then non-work-related small talk.

If the relationship progresses, factual personal information might come next: sharing where you live, what you like to do in your down-time, etc.

As you move into true “friendship” territory, more intimate communication will be shared. Whether that’s a sharing of feelings, fears, dreams, the meaning of life, etc.

While most friendships develop along this curve, the pacing across cultures often differs.

For instance, you might move through all four stages within one plane ride. Or it could take you a year to reach this point.

If both participants are from the same culture, their pacing often aligns. They feel completely fine and comfortable becoming “fast friends” on a redeye.

If the participant is from a different culture, they might be uncomfortable with the pacing.

They might feel their boundaries are being intruded upon too quickly, and this invasion of privacy will be turn them off to friendship.

All cultures have different expectations of how and when to progress and intensify communication toward friendship. We’ll talk more about these rules next week.

Small Appeals to Common Interests: Creating Opportunities for Cross-cultural Friendship

Why are local friendships important when working abroad as a foreign manager?

We’ve been talking about the many reasons over the past few weeks, and it all boils down to this:

Friendship = Experience with, Exposure to, and Engagement with the Culture

Experience, Exposure, Engagement

Without experience with and exposure to the host culture, you cannot be a great leader to employees of that culture.

Without interest in the lives of your employees, they’ll show no interest in following you.

Without curiosity and enthusiasm for that which is most important to them – their culture –, you won’t inspire enthusiasm in teamwork.

The best leaders have a way of making their employees feel on their level. That you are “one of them,” so to speak.

This is why local friendships, both inside and outside of the office, can aid that sense of being “one of them.”

Because it’s only outside the four walls of the office where you will be fully exposed to the culture of your host country.

And with this exposure and experience, not only will you be able to adapt to and adopt the culture easier, but you’ll better avoid cross-cultural “monkey moments.”

Small Appeals to Friendship

It may be that your circumstances allow for little opportunity to make friends.

Whether you’ve been dropped into a foreign country with little notice or you’re an international manager on-the-move, time might not be on your side, making socializing with locals more difficult.

Moreover, as an international manager, you might be more isolated from local culture, due to your children going to international schools, your work-life being spent wooing clients on the golf course, your family life taking precedence, etc.

So rather than spending your time on an all-consuming mission to make friends, you’ll make better headway with small appeals to common interests.

Built-in Common Interests

If you’re religious, local congregations are a great way to integrate into the local culture with a common interest already woven in.

Congressional communities often embrace their congregants and provide various gatherings and festivals in which to come together.

Sports are another way.

My wardrobe includes sportswear with fencing insignias from U.S. and Spanish clubs. Wearing them provokes conversation or offers a segue into one about shared sports.

Knowledge of your host country’s national sports inspires camaraderie.

Many tend to be enthusiastic about their favorite sports teams, so showing curiosity in this shared interest provides an opening into a warm conversation.

Maybe sports aren’t your thing.

Cultural events are a fun venture to get to know different community cultures in your host country.

A regional food festival in Italy?

Delicious.

An international film festival in the U.S.?

A perfect way to spend the day.

Create opportunities for yourself. No matter your circumstances, you can find small ways to initiate friendships or common bonds with locals. 

Not only will you be exposed to the culture of the host country as a whole, but you’ll experience the micro cultures of regional communities.

It’s your responsibility as the monkey to take that initiative.

A Tale of Two German CEOs: The Simple Step that Can Make or Break Cross-Cultural Management

Although the saying, “opposites attract,” may be true in some cases, most of the friends you have probably have similar traits or interests to yourself.

A similar background.

Similar values.

The same language.

The same culture.

Because we like “sameness” in our friendships, expats and international managers might find it difficult to forge hearty relationships with those of other cultures.

In fact, they may fall into one of the three categories of expats who stick to themselves.

Our preference for sameness is due to our favoring the familiar over the unfamiliar, the known over the unknown, and comfort over discomfort.

We tend toward sameness because it reduces potential friction or conflict.

Initiating a friendship with someone from a different cultural background, therefore, can seem like a hurdle. And maintaining one looks more like an obstacle course. 

However, in a cross-cultural environment, as an expat or foreign manager, one must be able to bridge the divide, overriding these initial levels of discomfort in order to build and maintain friendships with people of other cultures.

CEO Hans

Let’s revisit our favorite German CEO, Hans.

Hans relocated to Switzerland to become the CEO of a major Swiss company that belonged to a German group.

Only, Hans fell short: he had no interest in integration.

Not only did he not wish to culturally integrate, but he had no desire to become part of the local business community either.

His goal was to build his career in Germany.

His disinterest in getting to know people and detachment from the culture was blindingly apparent to his Swiss employees.

Instead of coming together cohesively, the company unraveled.

Cut to a few years later. It became apparent that Hans was floundering in Switzerland. So the German group acted accordingly.

Enter, Karl.

CEO Karl

Karl was sent to take Hans’ place.

This German CEO immediately set out to make local friends in Zurich. He demonstrated a true interest in Swiss culture and cultivated a local network of business contacts and personal friends.

As a result, the environment of the company shifted dramatically. The atmosphere was no longer terse or tense, and the employees felt more engaged with each other, their boss, and their work.

Karl understood that in order for businesses to succeed, a common business culture must be built.

And that started with him.

He had to lay the foundation upon which to build, and he did this by taking action, encouraging demonstrations of respect and understanding across cultures – and throughout the company.

Mid-level and senior management worked together much more fluidly – all because Karl chose to take this fairly simple step of showing his openness to the new culture and to new friendships.

While not everyone is a people-person like Karl, fortunately, there are strategies to help you build and maintain cross-cultural friendships, no matter your personality type.

We’ll discuss these strategies in the coming weeks.

Expats Abroad: What Category Do You Fall Into?

In your experiences as a foreigner abroad, you’ve probably noticed that not all expats are alike.

Some keep to themselves, some mingle with other expats on the weekends, some are entrenched in local culture.

In fact, you might see that expats fall into three general categories.

Can you identify your fellow foreigners abroad in these descriptions?

Diplomats

Diplomats country-hop, spending short stints in each country – enough time to do business and make friends, but solely with their own compatriots for the most part.

In fact, official diplomats are often this type, as most countries dissuade their diplomats from getting involved in local economics and politics.

Because of this, diplomats are moved to new countries every couple years, never truly setting down roots.

Another reason for a diplomat’s narrow circle is that their main job is to take care of their nationals in foreign countries.

Although you may not be an official diplomat, you may still fall into the diplomat category in your approach to integration if you tend not to fraternize much with the locals.

Internationals

Internationals flock together.

They’re those expats who don’t stray much from the expat community.

French, English, German (often those of Western cultures) – they are a tight-knit group, developing an international circle within whatever host country they might call home. 

If they have kids, their kids go to international private schools.

If they go to church, they attend service at their international church.

Although these mixed international expat communities are interesting and, often, welcoming, they’re not locals.

They can offer you valuable advice about the local community, practical details about settling in, and examples of cultural barriers you may face, but their views are often tainted, particularly if they’ve lived in this host culture for a long time.

With time, they’ve dealt with a myriad of cross-cultural conflicts that you might not necessarily confront, so any cautionary tales and cynicism about the culture should be taken with a grain of salt.

Don’t take anyone’s subjective experience as fact, as it often comes with their own personal baggage. 

Do not discredit their experience, but refrain from holding fast to opinions before building your own.

Expat cynicism is real, so do your best to start the painting of your own cross-cultural experience with a blank canvas.

Localizers

Localizers are the category that you’ll ideally try to fit into as an expat or foreign manager.

Localizers seek out local friendships.

They intend to integrate into the local culture and build a home away from home.

Their goals are to appreciate, understand, and respect differences in culture – so much so as to adopt some of its values, attitudes, and behaviors.

Those who fall into this category tend to learn the culture more quickly than do those in the other two categories.

This is because they get their hands dirty. They rely on their own experiences and their relationships with local people to truly see and understand the culture. 

Localizers take to heart what it really means to adapt and adopt as a person of the world.

Next week, we’ll talk about strategies to becoming a localizer.

Sharing Culture: Why Local Friends Are Important to Foreign Managers

You work for an international company that relocates you to Beijing, China.

Having never been to China and knowing little about the culture, you feel like a fish out of water.

Nothing is familiar to you; the lay of the land, the crowds, the language on street signs.

You think of home – your family/friends, your favorite haunts, your favorite foods – and you immediately feel homesick.

But you know your success in this foreign country depends on building your own home here, even if it’s temporary. 

It depends on your ability to integrate.

And to aid that integration, you begin your friend-finding mission.

Expat Community

The first people you meet are, of course, your colleagues, some of whom are expats from your own country.

You join them for trivia night at a bar that caters to foreigners, and they introduce you to the broader expat community.

This community makes you feel immediately comfortable. 

They laugh at your jokes, understand your references – they understand YOU.

The group is familiar. It’s home. 

It’s easy to choose comfort and familiarity over differences that may generate potential conflict.

With people of your own culture, you’re not navigating a cross-cultural minefield; you generally know where the mines are and you avoid them.

But if you want to truly integrate into a foreign culture, you cannot self-segregate, sticking to your own flock.

You must migrate into unknown territories.

Cross-cultural Friendships Over Comfort

This is not to say you shouldn’t make expat friends.

In fact, these friendships often evolve into lifelong friendships and are also helpful to your cultural integration.

But when you avoid making local friends altogether, you’re losing out on an important part of living in a foreign culture: sharing.

Sharing culture not only allows you to better understand your employees and direct reports, as you better understand the culture you’re managing in; it also shows them that you care.

Without respect and a genuine interest in the culture and its people, you won’t connect with your local colleagues and employees. 

They will note that you haven’t sought out any significant cultural experiences in your new home.

They will note that you don’t bother with the language, the customs, or anything else.

They will note that you stick to your own flock and don’t show interest in making friends or sharing culture with the locals.

As with anything, you’ll only get out of your experience abroad what you make of it.

You can choose to stay in your bubble and never expand your comfort zone.

Or you can choose to share in a new culture, meet new people, appreciate new ideas and traditions, and ultimately broaden your horizons.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three types of expatriates, and you can decide which category you want to fall into.

The Simplest Way to Clear Up Cultural Conflicts: Ask a Local

My wife and I moved to Spain in my early days as a CEO.

We wanted to bond with locals to better understand the culture, ease our integration, and, of course, make friends.

Sharing time with local friends will allow you to learn about both the visible and invisible parts of the cultural baobab.

Whether it’s local cuisine, festivals, customs and rituals, greetings, dress codes, body language, taboos, etc., a local friend will always be better able to explain to you the values and norms of their culture, often better than any textbook can.

This is what my wife and I were looking for – a respectful and open encounter between two cultures.

And Spain seemed the perfect place for just such an encounter, as the culture is warm and open, easy to connect with, especially in comparison to my more reserved native Swiss culture.

The Invitation

So, we decided to throw a dinner party, and we invited friends over to our place.

We prepared everything; cooked an elaborate meal, arranged our table, and watched the clock, waiting for our special guests to arrive.

The time came and went. Nothing.

No one showed up.

We double checked the date to see if there was some sort of misunderstanding. Nothing seemed out of line.

After debating what might have happened, we chalked it up to forgetfulness on their part and, later, invited another group of friends over.

They didn’t show up either.

And a third time. Again, no one.

Were we social pariahs?

Cultural Etiquette

Fortunately, we weren’t. We just didn’t know what social etiquette in Spain commonly dictated of a host.

On the third no-show, we finally did what we should have done the first time: we asked one of the invitees why he didn’t come.

His response?

“You didn’t call to confirm the day before, so I assumed dinner was canceled.”

This baffled us. 

It’s typical in Switzerland for plans to be made far in advance without necessitating a confirmation.

You could set up a dinner date half a year in advance with friends, and the guests would show up right on time.

We had assumed sameness and the result was crossed wires.

This is the missing link in most cross-cultural conflicts: a piece of social etiquette that you weren’t aware of or didn’t quite understand.

We learned a lesson that day.

If faced with any cultural conflict, simply ask (the first time) when you are confused by something.

Usually, the conflict will be cleared up straight away with no hard feelings…that is, if you can dredge up a bit of cross-cultural understanding. 

Learning a Culture: From Scholastic Learning to Experiential Learning

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how important learning the language, religion, and history of your host culture is.

This conscious, and often scholastic, learning process requires time, energy, and discipline in ways that may make you feel like you’re back at school.

It can oftentimes be a tough process, requiring many studious hours logged. After all, you’re investing in educating yourself about an entire culture.

But don’t worry, not all cultural learning will require you to dust off the books. Some of it – and some might say the most important part of it – is experiential.

Learning Through Sharing

You are not going to learn the power and emotion of Spanish flamenco watching it on YouTube.

You are not going to learn the colloquial idioms of Portuguese by memorizing by rote.

You are not going to learn how to make Italian pasta by hand without getting your hands dirty (or flour-y).

Learning culture is an experiential process and, without learning by sharing, you’ll be missing out on all the warmth of learning culture.

Cultures are not two-dimensional. They are living and breathing; they must be experienced in-the-round.

Immersion for Integration

“Instead of having 100 rubles, it’s better to have 100 friends.”

That’s what a Russian proverb says.

And foreign friends will be so much more valuable to you than rubles, as they will be able to show you their cultural behaviors, tell you their history, and teach you their traditions better than any book can.

Making friends is an investment in your cultural integration, as it allows immersion learning.

This type of learning involves sharing time and food and language with local friends.

Whether you’re an expatriate living in your host country or an international manager traveling abroad often, local friends will make learning fun rather than book work.

Not only will local friends make you culturally savvy, but they’re likely to expose you to local entertainment and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been privy to on your own.

And, even better, you’ll build life-long relationships in the process.

9/11 Interpreted: Discovering Culture Through History’s Depiction in World Textbooks

From the North and South’s view of the Civil War to those of China versus Japan of WWII, interpretations of history differ wildly across the world.

When you enter your host country, knowing their historical perspective can help you better understand myriad aspects of their culture.

It can also help you avoid stepping on any landmines that might lead to a Monkey Moment.

History is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

So, what “truth” do we choose to believe?

And what does it say about us?

Recent History in Textbooks

While distant history can still smart a bit, recent history often stings more.

9/11 is but one of those events.

The case of how 9/11 is presented in various textbooks across the globe shows how history isn’t necessarily skewed with time; it’s biased even in the moment, as originally reported by historical textbooks.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Herman, returned to her old high school about a decade after the tragic event had unfolded and discovered the school’s new history textbooks already detailed 9/11 and its aftermath.

She was curious how these events appeared in other school history textbooks around the world.

Interpreting 9/11

For her university thesis project, and later for research under a Fulbright scholarship, Herman analyzed textbooks from thirteen different countries to examine the differences in how this attack was being taught.

What she found:

  • American textbooks highlight the tragedy using volatile language and emphasize how the country came together after the attack
  • Pakistani textbooks call the assailants “unidentified terrorists,” omitting their identity
  • Turkish textbooks omit their extremist Islamic faith
  • Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian textbooks emphasize the “reckless” actions taken by the U.S. post-9/11 in their illegal war in Iraq
  • Chinese textbooks also interpret 9/11 as a sign of the decline of American authority on the world stage

So, considering all these selective details and interpretations of history, what exactly is “the truth”?

The Truth

As we’ve previously discussed, from a cultural context, there is no One Truth – at least none that we’ll ever know, as bias will always exist, in the writing of history and in the reading of it.

But what these interpretations can teach us is how different cultures view the world, how they view themselves, and how they hope to shape future readers’ perceptions of it all.

You might say, “If no one’s telling The Truth, then history is useless.”

But that’s not the case. A country’s interpretation of history allows us to understand their rationale, to seek the “why,” and that’s the whole point when you’re trying to accept and adapt to a foreign culture.

As Herman said on the results of her thesis:

“If you hand a student thirteen different ways of looking at 9/11 from thirteen different countries and ask them, […] Why do you think it’s different? Why do you think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.”