Cultural Differences in Switzerland and America

I’ve already talked about some of the smaller and midsized cultural shocks I had to deal with since moving here. I still stumble occasionally but not nearly as much as I used to. I enjoy the cultural differences, many of which have become second nature to me. Usually the “problems” I have to deal with nowadays are just quirks and nothing more. I guess I just like to get things right and it irks me when I don’t.

You or You Revisited

One of the things that has tripped me up a couple of times lately has been how to address people. Formal or informal. For some reason I have been meeting a lot of interesting people lately. Just because they are new acquaintances doesn’t necessarily mean automatic formal. I know, I know, there are some clear-cut golden rules to follow and I do. I would say that about 98% of the time it’s cut and dry and then I get it right. Still, occasionally I step in puddles.

Quite often age is my stumbling block. Ideally the older person initiates the informal ‘you’. When you meet someone for the first time you seldom ask to see their passport to get their age. If it isn’t obvious you have to guess it. I’ve guessed wrong twice in the last couple of weeks. Once, I guessed the woman was about my age. I said the typical “why don’t we just say ‘you’ to each other, it’s easier”. I was wrong she was 10, perhaps 15 years older than me. Talk about what ageing well and hair dye can do.  She told me subtly she should be the one to suggest such a thing but agreed. An awkward moment but it turned out well.

The Neighbor

The next time was with a male neighbor. He and his wife had been looking after our dog while we were away. Ben and he had already made the transition to informal. I wasn’t there when that happened so I was left out. He dropped by last week when Ben wasn’t here and we had coffee. Okay, he had coffee, I had tea and a nice long interesting conversation. Although everything was pointing towards informal, after he left we were still on formal speaking terms. When Ben came home I asked him why he thought the neighbor didn’t ‘offer’ the informal. Ben smiled, shook his head and said because I was the one who should have! Man! Just when you think you have figured it out… I thought because he is older than me then it’s his duty. Wrong. He is older than me BUT we are close enough in age that the woman should take the initiative.

I know, this sounds like a world is caving in on me, but it wasn’t really all that bad. I mean, I’ve been here so long that if I have to, I can hold long and interesting conversations without directly addressing the person I’m talking to. It’s just a wrinkle in my cultural abilities that hasn’t been completely ironed out yet. Or maybe I should just put all etiquette aside and say what I think is right. But then I remember Ben’s mom’s saying “we didn’t look after pigs together” meaning we don’t know each other well enough to be on informal speaking terms. Anyway, I know it is clearly important to some people so I will continue to try and get it right. Oh, by the way, Ben’s mom never said that to me!!

And hey, oftentimes I can and do get it soooo right. So it does happen.

Toasting the Occasion

Some differences presented absolutely no problems to me. So much so that it took another American to make me see the problem. One of those things would be toasting. Quite honestly, I hadn’t done a lot of clinking glasses together before we got married. So I learned it here.

This is the way it’s done in Switzerland. Toasting is done at any meal or occasion where wine is served. You hold the glass by the stem only and not the bowl. It goes without saying that the crystal wine glass is not filled to the top and has no ice cubes in it. That way the sound that the two glasses make when clinking together is clear and fabulous. Be sure to make eye contact at the moment the glasses touch. You also say cheers or to your health. No other sayings are tolerated, which means no “here’s looking at you”, “to your eyes” or heaven forbid you should say something like “bottoms up!”

The person who showed me that it wasn’t as easy as all that, was my mother. With the exception of the ice and saying “bottoms up” she had been toasting the American way for years. She looked very uncomfortable when toasting before a meal but she was a trooper and was able to go with the flow.

Before every Meal

Even the mandatory saying before each meal was also a bit of a strange ritual for my parents. It’s not difficult at all in Swiss German there are two words that you say and that’s it. After you say “E guete” you can begin your meal. In English there is nothing official that is said before a meal, believe me, “dig in” is inappropriate. But when you are here and everyone else babbles something before you start you somehow feel obliged to say something. While on an European cruise with my parents the waiters there always said “Enjoy your meal”. My parents thought that was a pleasant thing to say and adopted saying that.

Ben and I did a not-so-serious translation of what is said in Switzerland, “E guete”. It certainly isn’t as elegant as “enjoy your meal” but it does makes you smile: “A good one!”

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