Meet Homo helveticus

October 3, 2011, 19 Comments

Last week I wrote an article for the Swiss edition of Die Zeit, one of the main German newspapers, about the typical Swiss man. It seemed hard at first because I wasn’t sure that I’d ever met one, but in the same way that most people, particularly the Swiss, have an idea of the stereotypical Englishman (a  picture I fail to conform to because I don’t drink tea), so the image of a Swiss male can be drawn. I decided to call him Homo helveticus.

Writing it was fun, but what pleased me most was that my helvetican man idea became the thread for the whole series of articles and the splendid illustrations from Markus Roost: William Tell in Zurich station, Alpöhi (Heidi’s grandfather) on an exercise machine and (pictured here) Geissenpeter with his iPad. That one’s my favourite.

The article was published in German, which you can read here, but for those of you that don’t speak the language of Wagner, this is the original English text:

At first glance, Switzerland appears to be a motherland. It has a feminine article and – more importantly – the popular personifications of Swiss nationhood are distinctly female: Heidi and Helvetia, the two faces of Switzerland. One all sweetness and innocence, the other statuesque and scarily well-armed; together they make a rather accurate picture of how the Swiss like to see their country. The trouble is they are both fictional. To see the real Switzerland, you need to look a little closer and discover that the country is in fact firmly controlled by a very special breed of man: Homo helveticus. Let’s meet him.

First introductions might be rather formal, done because they’re expected rather than desired. But without them, you might never get more than a handshake from him; not only is he a bit shy with strangers but he’s also very protective of his own privacy. Even with introductions done, making conversation can sometimes be as uncomfortable for him as it is for you. Small talk is not his forte, personal details are only reluctantly revealed and leading questions are not welcomed – never ask about his marital status or the cost of his car. Patience is what’s needed, and it will be rewarded in spades: befriend helveticus on his terms and he will open up and stay with you for life. Dependable and loyal, he’s most probably the best friend you will ever find.

As with any race there are significant regional differences, which to the casual observer might seem slight and unimportant. But for those concerned, they are as crucial a part of their own identity as the different languages they speak. The branch of Homo helveticus living south of the Alps is certainly more outgoing and less organised, more spontaneous and less cautious than the majority to the north. A second, slightly larger tribe, to the west likes to be more laissez-faire about problem-solving, happily drinks at lunchtime and openly favours closer ties with neighbouring races. Both branches often find life with the dominant tribe difficult, not least because their view of time, and life in general, is more relaxed. But as much as they might talk about being different, they very obviously belong – and want to belong – to Homo helveticus. To mistake them for another race is a big no-no.

Perhaps the easiest way to become acquainted with the archetypal helveticus male is to look at his life cycle. Its five distinct stages reveal everything you need to know about his behaviour and outlook, his expectations and insecurities. He is very much the product of his geography, his history and his society. In fact, he is Switzerland in human form.

As a boy, we can think of him as Geissenpeter, bounding with energy and carefree enjoyment of simple pleasures. With a mother who pampers him, a father who’s proud of him, and most likely a younger sister who worships him, helveticus junior has little to worry about. The biggest moment on his horizon is his first day at school, when he’ll be encouraged to walk there on his own. But his first real step to Swiss manhood will be getting his own penknife, most likely with his name engraved on it. Only then can he be a proper boy scout, whittling sticks for spearing cervelats and making fires. Perfect training for his main cooking task as an adult: grilling at the barbecue. By the time he’s a teenager, he will have had to make a choice – or have had it made for him: college or an apprenticeship? A decision that will map out the next few years, if not the rest, of his life. He might indulge in minor adolescent rebellions, such as some graffiti or an earring, but his sense of duty and need to conform will eventually prevail. And the most important thing he will learn? How to shoot his gun. In the army, of course.

In his twenties, he has become Roger Federer, the epitome of Swiss manhood. Kind, modest and polite, he is a gentleman who believes in fair play and is rarely ruffled by setbacks. This is a man whose dedication to his goals (and his family) is an example to all and has spent years driving himself be the best at what he does, be that banker, doctor, farmer or engineer. Fearing failure, he rarely takes risks and always seeks perfection; second best is not an option, but neither is bragging about any success. Most likely he moved straight from mother to girlfriend/wife, so is sensitive and considerate but has only the vaguest notion of household chores; he’d rather watch his football team or go hiking with friends. In reality he is more amusing and more interesting, but also less macho and less fashionable, than he thinks. When it comes to toys, he’s still a boy at heart and loves to buy the latest gadgets – and has the money to do just that. Not that he’d ever boast about his acquisitions, and he’s always careful to save a bit every month for the future.

In his forties, we now see Wilhelm Tell, a man who respects authority but hates being told what to do by anyone other than his peers. He is self-confident enough to fight for what he believes in, though his modern weapons of choice are his voice and the ballot box. The three pillars of his life are his work, his family and his free time, and all are clearly defined and equally well-organised. At work, helveticus is dutiful and methodical, particularly with his own paperwork: every course certificate, promotion letter and job reference is carefully saved in a folder. He is averse to confrontation, preferring to seek consensus through compromise, and avoids social situations with colleagues outside the workplace – in fact, he is probably not yet on first-name terms with all of them. At home, he’d like to think he’s more liberal than his father but still secretly loves to arrive home to a cooked meal and clean children. He wants to be the main breadwinner and provide a safe haven of security and stability – the perfect husband and father, as long as he is in charge. At play, he relishes the outdoors, no matter what the season: family skiing in winter, being sporty with his mates in the club, walking in the mountains in summer. Although he sometimes holidays abroad, in his heart he knows that there is no country more beautiful than his own.

In his sixties, he is Alpöhi, the gruff grandfather with a heart of gold – and probably a bank account full of it too. He dotes on his family, gives to deserving charities, and is still physically and socially active; he is as punctual and as efficient with his time as ever, but doesn’t waste any time complaining about anything that he doesn’t agree with. Shaking his head in disbelief is his favourite pastime. The world around him has changed, and often not for the better according to him, but he still believes that the rest of Europe, if not the world, could learn a lot from Switzerland. Not that Switzerland is the place it used to be: it was never the same once women won the vote and all those foreigners arrived. Although he wouldn’t dare say that out loud, he feels more comfortable these days thinking it. All the same, helveticus senior is as proud of his country as he ever was and yet has never shrugged off his inferiority complex, particularly in relation to his brash neighbour, Homo Germanicus.

In his eighties, he will die. His life expectancy isn’t quite as long as the females of his race but is still one of the highest in the world. By dying so late in life he can be proud to have helped Switzerland be a world-leader, in death as in so many other areas. Homo helveticus to the end.

19 Comments on "Meet Homo helveticus"

  1. Pascal Tuesday October 4th, 2011 at 12:19 PM · Reply

    So true. As a Swiss I noticed the huge difference in openness when I was travelling in the US: Small talk everywhere. Because I wasn’t prepared for this, I was perceived as being reserved.
    My guess is that if “small talk” would be taught in school, the Swiss would be more open.

    • RT Monday October 10th, 2011 at 01:52 PM · Reply

      You cannot learn small talk in school. To be able to do, and be good at small talk you have to practice. In the UK this is by attending a lot of networking events and to listen and learn and then do it likewise. As with everything, practice makes perfect. But to learn it in school, no way, it has to be learnt in the real environment.

  2. Evamaria Tuesday October 4th, 2011 at 01:01 PM · Reply

    Ha! I saw that in the checkout line at Coop and was intrigued – thanks for sharing, very insightful! (Although I’d say the “Wilhelm Tell” phase doesn’t start until late 20s/early 30s these days.)

  3. Patrick Thursday October 6th, 2011 at 01:30 AM · Reply

    Pascal, I’m not sure that more small talk means more openness. Maybe it means primarily one thing: more talk. It doesn’t mean that you are a more open-minded and friendly person if you chatter all the time… Small talk is basically an impersonal thing, just a convention people in some countries are more accustomed to than in other countries.

    • RT Monday October 10th, 2011 at 02:00 PM · Reply

      I totally agree with Patrick. However, to be able to do small talk, in other words , to know the right things to say to start a conversation can lead to more than just an impersonal chatter where at the end you simply hand over a business card. It could lead to a genuine conversation where two people open up and get to know about each other. Small talk is always a means to end it can remain impersonal but it also could lead to more than that.
      The character of the person doing the small talk determines the outcome. Having said this, I also agree with Patrick, citizien of some countries are better in this than others and yes, the Swiss have much to learn.

  4. swisswatching Tuesday October 11th, 2011 at 09:19 AM · Reply

    I couldn’t agree more RT. Directness has a place in the world but all too often the Swiss don’t realise what it is like to be on the receiving end of it – especially for people who are used to a more diplomatic approach.

  5. RT Tuesday October 11th, 2011 at 02:23 PM · Reply

    You know the Swiss well, swisswatching. I am enjoying reading your site. Can I put a link to your site from mine? I am sure readers of my site would enjoy reading your pages as much as I do. Since you know my e mail address you can contact me directly if you wish?

    • swisswatching Tuesday October 11th, 2011 at 02:42 PM · Reply

      of course you can put a link in your site. thanks!

  6. Swiss Girl Wednesday October 12th, 2011 at 12:07 PM · Reply

    You know, it saddens me to say that your description of “homo helveticus” is still true for too many Swiss guys, especially the German speaking part. And they wonder why so many Swiss women get married to foreigners!…

    • Patrick Wednesday October 12th, 2011 at 08:59 PM · Reply

      Is the description *that* saddening, Swiss Girl? What’s wrong with being “kind, modest and polite”, for example? Or being a grandfather who “dotes on his family, gives to deserving charities, and is still physically and socially active”? 🙂 Surely “homo helveticus” as described by Diccon is not the most exciting person on Earth, but I’m not under the impression that women should be running screaming away from him, either… after all, Roger Federer is quite popular, isn’t he?

      • swisswatching Thursday October 13th, 2011 at 09:57 AM · Reply

        Me, ironic? never. Especially if I’m talking about men.

      • Swiss Girl Monday October 24th, 2011 at 08:17 PM · Reply

        Well Patrick, as you said: “homo helveticus” isn’t exactly the most exciting person on Earth. I meant no offense, and of course, any woman is free not to run away from him… Please forgive me if I do.
        In fact, it would be interesting to have a description of “mulier helvetica”, the typical Swiss woman and (possibly) perfect spouse for “homo helveticus”. Do you accept the challenge, Diccon?

    • Ailec Tuesday January 24th, 2012 at 01:30 PM · Reply

      For the Swiss Girl!!

      As a non-Swiss married with a Swiss man from the German part. I understand you loud and clearly!! Nevertheless, it also depends on the wiliness of you man to be open to have conversations regarding this and yes!! also on the education that his Swiss mom gave him!!

      • Swiss Girl Tuesday January 24th, 2012 at 06:54 PM · Reply

        Ailec, you are right of course! I really think I should have added a 😉 to my first comment… 😀

  7. RT Tuesday October 18th, 2011 at 11:15 PM · Reply

    I have no problems with the Swiss at all. Others who don’t know them as well as you and I might have.

  8. Ailec Tuesday January 24th, 2012 at 01:16 PM · Reply

    Omg!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am Cuban-American married with a Swiss. The writer has just described my in laws and husband very well!

    Thank you, reading the article has help me to understand better the Swiss culture

    • gegu Thursday January 3rd, 2013 at 12:42 PM · Reply

      Ailec, if this has helped you understand, you should read mr bewes book, swiss watching, it’s hilarious and so exact on many little details, i can tell you.

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