Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Informalization of Swiss Ways

Many years ago during the first year I lived in Switzerland, Esther and I took a four-day bus trip to Holland with a group of mostly farmers from the Emmental Valley. We addressed each other as Mr. so-and-so, and Mrs. so-and-so, and used the formal “you” conjugation of the verb.  On the final evening of our tour, we stopped for dinner in Rüdesheim, a wine-growing region along the Rhine River in Germany. The restaurant was proud to show off its regional wines and it flowed freely among our fellow passengers. After about the third round of toasts, people started giving each other their first names. From now on we could use the informal “Du” to address each other. A little wine was all it took to break down the social barriers. We were now on a first-name basis.

I always thought it was a bit ironic, since I never met any of our fellow passengers again to exercise this newfound intimacy. Meanwhile, others I met on almost a daily basis were still held at arm’s length with formal address. Usually you have to wait until the person in the higher social position invites you to use the informal you.

This year we have experienced a newfound freedom to do away with this awkward (in my US American point of view) social custom. We have visited eight different churches so far, and attended numerous meetings and seminars in different localities where we have met hundreds of people. In the vast majority of cases upon introducing ourselves, the Swiss person would immediately give their first name, inviting us to use the informal “you” form with them. I find this an interesting example of the “informalization” of Swiss ways.

Another area of change has been in the normal greeting given when passing someone on the street or on a hike. In the past, you never walked past someone without giving a greeting: “Good morning,” “Greetings to you,” or “Good evening” depending on the time of the day. Arriving here this time, I began to greet people the way I had in the past. Most people responded accordingly, but many seemed surprised by the greeting, like they weren’t expecting it. Usually I initiated the greeting, so I experimented by waiting for the other person to give the greeting first. More often than not, I didn’t get a greeting. Perhaps there are regional differences, but I found this to be another interesting example in the “informalization” of Swiss ways.

Finally we come to the kiss. It used to be customary for you to greet friends or relatives with a kiss on the cheek when meeting them: men to women, women to women, but not men to men. Actually, it was three kisses, starting on the left side, moving to the right side, and then returning to the left side again. Or is it the other way around? Although the kissing ritual is still done, especially among older people, I have discovered that it is not necessarily expected anymore. It is often replaced with a hug; even among men. I find this to be another example of the “informalization” of Swiss culture.

I am sure there are many factors involved in the informalization of Swiss ways. Perhaps it is the ubiquitous global youth culture, spread by music, movies and social media. Perhaps it is simply the natural evolving of a culture. However, not all Swiss ways changing, as I observed in a former blog post, “Bumbling through Swiss Social Conventions.”

Whatever the cause of what changes and what does not, I find it interesting to observe over the course of the 37 years that I’ve lived and traveled in Switzerland.


  1. Hi Don,
    Did you visit Mennonite churches? There people have always used the "Du", even when I was a kid. I do think, people are a little less formal now, which is nice. And I like hugs....

    1. Thanks for your comments! We did: Bern, Brügg, Langnau, Aebnit (Bowil), but my earlier experience in Langnau (37 years ago) was much more formal than now.

  2. The times I return to visit family in the Netherlands I have found the same truth. My family is from Zeeland and practices most of these formalities; that is, the elder generation. Saludos de María Day

    1. Gracias por tus comentarios, María! Interesting parallels; sure the same is true all over Europe. Another parallel, we live in the "Seeland" region of Switzerland! Muchos saludos también.

  3. This is a very interesting post, Don, about addressing and communicating with others. I find the topic fascinating and it reminded me of an observation I made recently at out motel in Orlando when we were attending the Mennonite Convention over the fourth of July this year.

    My wife, Karen, and our 14-year-old grandson, Zachary Branam, who lives with us, were with me there. After the convention we spent an additional 3 days visiting Sea World, Aquatica, Epcot and the Harry Potter buildings and events even though we visited the latter just a few years ago. In spite of the high heat and humidity the crowds were thick. Unlike many people my age I like large crowds, loud music, color and noise, and the lights and superficial glitter and empty charm that goes with places like Disney World and Universal Studios. I even like the rides.

    But even better is people-watching. We saw large groups of visitors from other countries and were often surrounded by the sound of other languages, which I also think is good for our ears and brains, even if we don't understand a word. One large group of mostly young people were from Paraguay according to their matching T-shirts. Others were from Japan and Spain.

    One morning in the motel while waiting to get seated for the buffet breakfast there was a young man ahead of us. At first we thought he was waiting to be seated also. But he waved us on.

    He stood there for about 45 minutes. Apparently he was the/a leader of a large group of foreign visitors and was meeting them as they arrived for breakfast. Most of the group of at least 50 to 70 people were young women, probably late teens and the majority of them, but not all, gave him a light kiss on each check when they arrived, then promptly went to their table. A few males were there also, but none of them greeted him with a kiss. I identified them because most had matching shirts or backpacks. There was a foreign name on the shirts and backpacks which I looked up on the internet and it was the name of a travel agency in Argentina.

    There did not seem to be more adults with them, but I doubt if one man in his late 20's or early 30's was solely responsible for so many young people. However I was intrigued by the greeting which is unusual, generally speaking, in this country. I noticed that some of these groups including the one from Paraguay I mentioned were very large, over 50 young people, but did not seem to have a large number of adults with them, at least not one for every 4 or 5 youth as we might expect for a trip from our junior or high schools here in the US. Maybe foreign youth need less adult supervision. Thanks again for your post. I wrote about addressing people on my blog in 2011 at Take care and blessings to you and your family.

    1. Thank you for sharing your interesting observations and comments. The two kiss greeting is prevalent in all of Latin America, and performed like it is in Switzerland, only here there are three kisses. Some countries have as many as four. Thanks also for the blog link. Very astute observations on use of language to propagate power dynamics. Blessings to you and your family as well.