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.