Meeting the Swiss

geneve rooftops
Let’s talk about an always controversial expat topic: meeting the locals.

Working as I do in the international sector in Geneva, I find it challenging to meet a lot of Swiss people. This is a well-known, well, I hesitate to say ‘problem,’ but occurrence in this town. Geneva (and I’ve heard Zurich is similar) is so full of expats that to some extent, the Swiss themselves become a mysterious breed that you’re not able to interact with unless through dedicated and careful investigation of local activities, and luck. You may ask, but surely if you just join some local community organisations you could find the Genevois? Bien sûr! I did just that, and joined a local sports club. Now, keep in mind I do not live in an expat-heavy suburb near the international hubs. Nevertheless, at my club I find myself interacting with French, a Scot, an Argentinian, and a (singular) Genevois.

When I first arrived in Geneva, I stayed in an AirBnB prior to finding my own accommodation. The person whose flat I shared was a Frenchman, an expat, although I guess he may have been on the way to becoming Swiss. I didn’t interrogate him on that matter. Just recently I scored a bargain to work out at a gym for a month on the cheap. At the introductory class, although I didn’t introduce myself to everyone, as far as I could tell: mostly expats. The gym managers running the class? Expats.

So I’m always quite suspicious of people living here and claiming to know about the somewhat infamous Swiss reputation for coldness. That is for two reasons. The first is, as described above, in my personal experience most of the people I meet are not Swiss! The second, which I will discuss next, is that I generally don’t feel the coldness anyway.

There are some well-known expat networking websites that I won’t bother to link, you can find them if interested. If you visit, you can find quite a few stories of people detailing the poor customer service and rudeness that they experience here. But I just haven’t found that to be the case in my own personal adventures. Sure, there was one restaurant we visited soon after our arrival where the customer service (and the food!) was bad. But in general—when dealing with the bureaucracy (changing driver’s license, opening bank accounts etc.), most restaurant service, and asking for directions—I would say that people are at least equally as friendly as in any other country I’ve visited. Well, perhaps not quite on the level of Tongans, but I digress. In saying all this I should also point out that I spoke approximately four words of French on arriving here (oui, non, merci, bonjour). So all the people I’ve dealt with have had to put up with me either waiting for them to help me by speaking English, or dealing with my awful French (I have been learning, I promise). This doesn’t seem faze them, and in fact I think most people (expats, Swiss, or otherwise) are remarkably patient and helpful as I mumble at them in French.

The two takeaways from this are that although everyone wants to meet the locals and not restrict themselves to an expat bubble, it’s not necessarily a simple matter to do so. The second is that you may have heard the Swiss are unfriendly. I’m just one bundle of anecdotes, but if you want to give my opinion any credence I tell you that the reputation is undeserved.

The sole disclaimer I will add here is that I have noticed that certain stereotypes of the Swiss may apply to a greater degree to those living on the other side of the Röstigraben. I will reserve judgement on that matter.

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