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Becoming Swiss

June 26, 2009 @ 7:40 AM | Permalink

Dealing with four official languages in Switzerland is one thing. Dealing with body language and mannerisms is quite another.

After living in Switzerland for three years, I now react differently to situations than I used to when I lived in the U.S.

For example, I used to stand back from a cheese counter at the grocery store, waiting for customers who were there first to finish their transactions. But in Switzerland, I soon learned this was a recipe for never being waited on. So I learned to stand at the counter, bunched in with all the others. And if I happened to get waited on before the others that were there first, I should just order and not feel guilty. I felt uncomfortable doing it, so it took awhile to master, but now I can get waited on like the best of them and never hesitate, on the rare occasion that a salesperson asks who was next, that it was most definitely me.

I've adopted certain Swiss mannerisms so much, that I don't even notice how Swiss I act until I go to other countries.

In Stockholm a few weeks ago, I would rush to the door of the train before it stopped to make sure I'd get off, assuming others would frantically push their way on like they do in Switzerland. But the doors would open and the Swedes would lazily saunter off while those who wanted to get on waited patiently to the side. I had to restrain myself to not want to rush and barge my way into situations. Again, it was difficult to control because these actions had become my new natural way of going about life.

When American visitors come, I notice how differently they move compared to my acquired habits, and I am slightly nostalgic for the days when I let people pass me or went on a tour with a group of English speakers who backed up to make sure everyone would have a view of what was being discussed instead of the Swiss version of crowding and fighting their way to the front.

In Spain, I got dirty looks when I invaded the personal space of a woman at a lookout tower on top of a church. Three years ago, I never would have done that, but my Swiss training made me believe I shouldn't have to wait for them to finish their activity, I should announce my presence by crowding next to them.

I'm not trying to say one version is right and the other is wrong, but that they are different. Personal space is Switzerland is not really a concept—there is no such thing. People crowd you at counters, in grocery stores, on trains. In the U.S., we stand back; we don’t want to get too close. I don't know if this has to do with country size and the scale of things, but it's a big part of learning the culture of another place.


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