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.

Acceptance & Explaining Your Cultural Behavior & Beliefs

While adapting or adopting another culture’s behaviors or beliefs will help you integrate, you may instead choose to stop at acceptance through active tolerance.

When actively tolerating a foreign culture’s values or norms, you don’t necessarily have to take the next step.

However, remaining in acceptance means remaining a monkey in the foreign culture.

Although you don’t condemn their beliefs, you retain yours, which means you are different. And your odd behavior will be noted by locals.

Some might even view your conflicting behavior and values as offensive. Then again, you are entering their culture, so you cannot expect them to adapt to you.

But choosing not to adapt comes with a caveat: you must explain yourself.

Otherwise, a monkey moment might derail your success across cultures.

Monkey Moments in Language

A “monkey moment” is an encounter of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

When you choose to continue in your own cultural behavior while practicing active tolerance, explaining yourself to your cross-cultural counterparts is key to diplomacy and respect.

Don’t ignore the disconnect; explain why your behaviors or perspective differs from theirs. Building bridges of cross-cultural understanding allows you to be a monkey without all the negative connotations that come with it.

One specific example involves language: the formality of “you” in some cultural environments.

Consider the Swiss and the German, for example.

Germans are more formal than their Swiss neighbors, which means they use the formal, “sie,” for a longer period of time in workplace settings than the Swiss. Swiss move on to the informal, “du,” much sooner, even with their higher-ups.

For those who come from cultures without this distinction, using “sie” is like using someone’s last name, while using “du” is like being on a first-name basis.

When a German financial manager moved to Switzerland, he insisted on using the formal, “sie.” In doing so, he formed a cultural barrier between him and his team.

The more formal language made him appear less approachable and even arrogant.

Cut to a couple years later: the German manager wanted to enroll his executive team in a Swiss bike race as a team-building exercise.

Though the team excelled in the race, they weren’t remembered for their success: they were remembered for their use of the formal, “sie,” amongst themselves. Some viewed the strange usage as similar to a team captain insisting on being called “Mr. Johnston” by his teammates.

Not only did this tarnish the CEO’s rep; it tarnished the company’s image.

The Explanation

When the CEO finally understood his monkey moment after four years of working with his senior executive team, instead of simply switching to “du” unexpectedly, he explained his behavior to them and his rationale.

Describing how he’d grown up in a traditional German family, he explained that informal language always sounded inappropriate to him in a professional setting. He also expressed that it wasn’t that he wanted to be formal; rather, he wanted to communicate respect to his colleagues. However, being that Swiss culture didn’t view the informal “you” as disrespectful or inappropriate in a work environment, he proposed that from that point on, they would switch over.

Although in this situation, he chose to adapt to the culture’s approach to language, he would have avoided misunderstanding straight off had he explained himself from the beginning.

Still, in the end, his explanation made him a stronger leader and managed to bring his team together.