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Getting to know you, the Swiss way

March 11, 2010, 12 Comments

Drinks parties are the best place to get to know the Swiss, and not because they need some wine before they can relax. It’s because an apéro, as such a party is called in Switzerland, is the all-purpose Swiss form of socialising that is held at every possible occasion. Organising a leaving-do for a colleague? Then throw an apéro. Want something less elaborate than a sit-down dinner? Then have a stand-up apéro. It can be nothing fancier than a glass of something alcoholic and bowls of nibbles, but most stretch to finger-food, be that savoury tartlets or little cups of pumpkin soup. Supermarkets sell platters of cheese or meat, catering services offer themed menus and posh hotels conjure up gourmet titbits. All because the apéro is a big deal in Switzerland.

As the church bells chime six on any given evening, you can be sure that somewhere in Switzerland people are standing around holding a glass, eating a small something and introducing themselves to complete strangers. That last bit may sound odd for a nation renowned for its reserve, but it’s the second reason why drinks parties are great for meeting the Swiss. As a guest at a gathering of any size, your duty is not to lurk in a corner until you spot someone you know, but to say hello and shake hands with everyone, no matter how long that takes. As a host, your main responsibility is not to make introductions but to provide food that can be eaten easily and quickly; after all, guests need one hand for a glass and the other free for shaking. If your guests have both full, there’ll be no handshakes and Swiss society would collapse.

All this means that in Switzerland it’s possible to commit a major social faux-pas before meeting anyone, as I well know. Not long after my arrival, Gregor and I were invited to a friend’s house, and were a little late by Swiss standards, which means about seven minutes after the given time, so there were already a few other guests in the garden. Off Gregor went to say hello while I, knowing almost no-one, stayed on the terrace to scan the crowd for friendly faces. Bad idea. Moments later Gregor was back to make sure that we both fulfilled our guestly duty: to introduce ourselves to everyone. And I mean everyone. Nineteen handshakes, nineteen hellos and nineteen name exchanges later, I was exhausted – and missing the good old British way of joining a gathering, that of making a beeline for someone you know already. Going up to people with an open hand and name at the ready feels so forward, so American. And seemingly so un-Swiss.

But to the Swiss it is not a question of being pushy, rather a matter of politeness. How rude it would be to stand in a room with someone whose name you did not know. You may never speak to Stefan or Petra again for the rest of the party, but at least you did the right thing and introduced yourself. I have a sneaking suspicion that this custom is the real reason why most Swiss people arrive on time. It’s much easier to stand around chatting or drinking and so make all the newcomers come to you for the introductions. This may feel like being in a wedding reception line, but it’s better than arriving last. Do that and you face a long wait, and lots of handshakes, before you can relax and have a drink.

There are, of course, different levels of hello. The most basic is with complete strangers: an exchange of names, with optional smile, before moving on. With people you have already met before, it’s perfectly acceptable to linger a moment or two for a few extra niceties. But both of you know that it would be unseemly to chat too long before you have met everyone else, so you part company. And with friends, the handshake is supplemented with three cheek kisses (right-left-right) and a how-are-you, safe in the knowledge that once your hellos are done, you can return for a proper conversation. It’s all second-nature to the Swiss, who have been doing this since they were old enough to walk and talk, but for unknowing foreigners like me, it takes some getting used to.

Having stumbled through all that, you still have to master the farewells, but here I have learned one trick. Leaving a party is, in effect, the same process in reverse. You go round, shaking hands as you say goodbye, but – and it’s a big but – using the person’s name. After all, you know the name of everyone there. Trying to remember which name goes with which face feels like a Mensa memory test, but the trick is to wait until someone else starts to leave. As they go round saying goodbye, you follow a step or two behind, carefully listening to each name. Then you come along with ‘Goodbye Frau Schmidt’ and ‘See you next time, Martin’ and get a gold star for remembering everyone’s name. This leaving process gives a whole new meaning to ‘saying your goodbyes’, with the emphasis on the plural, and can take anything up to half an hour. But merely thanking the hosts and then saying goodbye to the whole gathering is a big no-no; you might as well have ‘socially inept’ stamped on your forehead. I am still trying to scrub mine clean.

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12 Comments on "Getting to know you, the Swiss way"

  1. Tim Footman Thursday March 11th, 2010 at 05:35 PM · Reply

    Is it considered bad form to exchange business cards at such an event?

    • swisswatching Friday March 12th, 2010 at 04:49 PM · Reply

      It really depends on the nature of the event, Tim. I’ve largely described social events, rather than business ones. Business and pleasure aren’t usually mixed so readily in Switzerland – it’s quite normal not to socialise with your work colleagues, so going down the pub after work on a Friday isn’t exactly a Swiss habit. And so to bring business into a social setting could be considered a bit brash and pushy. If it is specifically a business social event, then it would be more acceptable. It’s all about why you were invited along in the first place.

      But the same rules of introduction can apply in a far less-social setting. At our last annual staff meeting, for example, the big bosses from Head Office went round the whole room (100+ people) introducing themselves and shaking everyone’s hand. I was quite impressed! Then again, I was at a business apéro in Zurich where no-one did the introduction thing at the beginning, possibly because most of the people there were expats. No doubt the Swiss in the room thought we were all very uncouth. And that time, lots of business cards changed hands.

  2. Rahel Sunday June 20th, 2010 at 12:47 PM · Reply

    This is so right- but I only noticed this some months ago.
    We were a few days in Switzerland and had a big family meeting. We died to leave because the kids started to be sleepy- so my husband (not being Swiss) just said goodbye to a few who stood close to him and left with the kids for the car… I did my round and said goodbye to all my uncles and aunts and cousins and had to excuse my husband all the time because he left without shaking hands…. dear oh dear…

    • swisswatching Sunday June 20th, 2010 at 08:54 PM · Reply

      Hi Rahel. I can sympathise totally, not least because I used to make the same mistake your husband did. Never again! It’s only a small cultural difference, but an important one.

  3. Veronica Sunday January 2nd, 2011 at 04:05 PM · Reply

    Oh, how wrong I was during Swiss holidays. I have not been introduced to this absolute necessity of the Handshakes ceromony. I just noticed lots of them and shaked too whenever someone seemed wanting tot shake my hand. Luckily I have learned it’s a life sake to enter anywhere in another indispenible right way = by being introduced anyhow and not just enter by yourself and join the party, so I have met lots of hospitality where others who didn’t know met grumpyness. Then I also learned about the formerly severe ceremony about dutzen, which is passé now. The trice kiss was not yet invented as a social must.

    Reading your blogs is a nice tour of recognition. Thank you very much.

  4. gegu Tuesday January 8th, 2013 at 11:03 PM · Reply

    this comment might be kinda late (ok, i mean it’s only almost 3 years since the post…) but i don’t agree on the kissing part. maybe, as a man it isn’t as striking, but as a women (even teenage girls, i’d say 14 up) you shall also give kisses to everyone at an apero, no matter if you just introduced or are old friends. there’s nothing quite as awkward as me going for a handshake while the other person leans in for the left-right-left procedure 😉

  5. Jessica Monday February 29th, 2016 at 08:28 PM · Reply

    Hi Diccon:

    I’m trying to learn more about the Swiss. Who would normally be invited to an apero? I’m guessing it’s different in different settings, but say, for a going away apero, would the family of the celebrant be there as well? What’s the procedure for these types of parties? Does the celebrant have to be the last to leave, or does the party basically end once the celebrant leaves? Do all apero’s take place in the evening? If it’s a going away party does a person simply leave for their trip afterwards, if a close friend is throwing it in their honor? Or would such an event typically be thrown by the family of the person leaving? Thank you!

  6. krist0ph3r Friday April 7th, 2017 at 02:28 PM · Reply

    This is very interesting! As a name-challenged person, I usually end up forgetting the names of strangers even if I’ve conversed with them at length during a party. Looks like I’ll need to master some sort of memorization technique before I head to Switzerland 😉

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