We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Switzerland

Learning the mother tongue of the area you will be staying in is a great sign of respect. English is widely understood in Switzerland especially by young adults and teenagers but any attempt to speak the local language is always appreciated (especially in the French-speaking part of the country), even if you’re replied to in English. It’s always polite to ask if they speak English before starting a conversation. Make an effort to at least learn Hello, Goodbye, Please, and Thank You in the language of the region you will be traveling in. “I would like…” is also a phrase that will help you.

Switzerland Culture photo

Photo by Lomyx

If you are in the German speaking region of Switzerland, it is generally wise to try to communicate in German rather than attempting to speak Swiss German. In most cases, German Swiss almost instinctively switch to German or English once they notice that they are speaking to a foreigner. German, French, and Italian all have formal and informal forms of the word you, which changes the conjugation of verb you use, and sometimes phrases. For example, the informal phrase don’t worry about it in French is ne t’en fais pas and the formal is ne vous en faites pas.

The formal is used to show respect to someone who is older than you, who you consider to be a superior, someone who has a greater rank than you at work, or simply a stranger in the street. The informal is used with close friends, relatives, and peers. As a general rule, you shouldn’t use the informal with someone you don’t know well, someone who is your superior in rank, or an elder. Use the informal with your close friends and younger people.

Peers can be a gray area, and it is advisable to use the formal at first until they ask you to use the informal. Friends kiss each other on the cheek three times (left – right – left). This is the usual thing to do when being introduced to someone who is female (or if you are female) in the French and German speaking part. If it is a business related meeting you just shake hands. Don’t be shy as you if you reject the advance it appears awkward and rude on your part.

You don’t have to actually touch your lips the skin after-all, as a fake kiss will do. Do not litter. While Switzerland will not fine you (as in Singapore), littering is definitely seen as bad behaviour in this country and in general in German speaking Europe or Central Europe for that matter. Also make sure that you put it in the correctly labeled bin (e.g. recyclable). Some bins actually have times to when this should be done to avoid excess noise! Be punctual. That means no more than one minute late, if that! Not surprisingly for a country that is known for making clocks, the Swiss have a near-obsession with being on time and arriving late can be considered rude.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Switzerland, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Switzerland food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Switzerland and No miss drinks in Switzerland.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Switzerland? Please comment below.