Getting to know you, the Swiss way
March 11, 2010, 11 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.