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Challenging the Swiss stereotypes

November 9, 2017

National clichés take a long time to become established and do not reach critical mass without a significant kernel of truth. But once these labels are fixed in place, the full picture is obscured and the real people are no longer knowable under all the layers of partly-false assumptions. The stereotypes become a shortcut for judging people on one side, and a code for how to behave on the other side. These stereotypes should not be left unchallenged.
As a foreigner for the past fourteen years in Switzerland, married to a Swiss and now with Swiss children, I have gained a certain insight into how the Swiss are perceived by foreign residents, and how the Swiss relate to the outsiders in their midst. It isn’t all rosy. Many of the labels attached to the Swiss are less than complimentary – cold, boring, xenophobic. But no progress will be made by taking the lazy route of dismissing people on the basis of preconceived ideas.
In my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, I stress-test the most widely-held assumptions about the Swiss by examining the facts, along with people’s words and actions. When it comes to making judgments, context is everything. I cover important historical and economic background and introduce the reader to a diverse cast of Swiss people, from president to street sweeper, from banker to suffragette.
Buffeted by empires on all sides, Switzerland began its existence as a club of cantons that (mostly) freely joined together to determine their own future. But once that process of joining forces was complete, the country pulled up the gangplank and embarked on a course of holding itself apart from all the rest, a decision that saved countless Swiss lives and became a deeply-ingrained reflex.
The Swiss consider their country a job well done, and not without reason. They have what everyone wishes for – health, wealth and happiness. The Swiss have the lowest obesity rates in Western Europe and the second-longest life expectancy in the world (after Japan). The quality of life in Swiss cities is ranked among the best worldwide. Swiss residents enjoy financial security, low crime and an excellent public transport system. Year after year Switzerland secures a place at or near the top of global surveys in all sorts of categories, from innovation to wellbeing to prosperity. They also manage to achieve all this within a bottom-heavy democratic system which grants the people more power than the politicians.
But who are the Swiss? With four national language groups, the Swiss are a multicultural nation, even before recent migration comes into play. Historically, the country’s location at the crossroads of Europe surrounded by a hinterland of fellow French-, German- and Italian-speakers produced a lot of moving and mixing over the generations. To go further back into the mists of time, the early settlers of Swiss territory were Celts, the most important tribe being the Helvetians, whose name lives on in the Latin name of the country – Confoederatio Helvetica. The Celts gave way to the Romans, who in turn ceded to the Germanic tribes.
Today half of Swiss nationals have at least one foreign grandparent, while one in four of the resident population is foreign-born. The 26 cantons each have their own cultural identity. All this diversity makes any generalisation about the Swiss character or the behaviour of Swiss residents difficult or even pointless, and yet, the Swiss have chosen to be together and have created a society that inevitably reflects something about them. So, what can we discover in their handiwork? To me, equality is a key word in Switzerland. While other nationalities accept extreme inequalities in a fatalistic way, stepping around these troubling facts almost without noticing them, equal access to excellent education, healthcare and public amenities is taken for granted by the Swiss. As a group, they have high expectations of themselves and of the broader community.
So where does that leave foreigners trying to fit into present day Swiss society? Can we join the group too? There is no doubt that immigration has become one of the most contentious issues of our times in richer, destination countries. When immigration is portrayed a national emergency, a threat that is out of control and urgently needs to be controlled, xenophobia rears its ugly head.
This is happening in a context where many people have a wildly distorted view of the real level of immigration. In a recent IPSOS Mori poll of perceptions in 14 countries, UK citizens believed 24 per cent of their population were immigrants when in fact the real rate is 13 per cent. And the US respondents in this survey estimated the level was 32 per cent when the actual figure is 11 per cent.
But in Switzerland, we really do have one quarter of the population foreign-born or one quarter living here who do not have Swiss nationality (taking two different definitions of foreign). So, the phantom fear that other countries have is actually the reality in Switzerland. Does that mean that Switzerland is a hot bed of xenophobia because they are actually living ‘the nightmare’? I would say the Swiss are a little weary and wary of foreigners in the abstract, encouraged by xenophobic political campaigns. This is reflected in some of their decisions at the ballot box. However, in their everyday lives – in homes, workplaces, schools and universities – diversity is the norm and functions well. There is no social unrest. The Swiss know they need foreigners for their highly-advanced economy to thrive. One in three marriages in Switzerland is between a Swiss and a foreigner. Take away the foreign-foreign marriages and almost half of Swiss people getting married in a given year choose a foreign spouse.
So much for the attitudes of the Swiss population. Let’s look at it from another perspective: the outcomes for foreigners in Switzerland. Work is a good indicator of integration, and here the news is good. Switzerland is unusual in having relatively few foreigners working in jobs for which they are overqualified, according to OECD indicators of immigrant integration. The rate in 2015 was 17 per cent as opposed to an OECD average of 32 per cent. Having the right job is a fast forward to integration. When you have the salary and social status you expect, you’re less likely to feel excluded. Also in the survey, only 5 per cent of Swiss-born children of immigrants stated that they had been discriminated against. The EU average was above 20 per cent.
These results indicate a fair and tolerant climate for foreigners but this coexists with the attitude that Swiss citizenship is a great privilege that has to be earned. Swiss naturalisation requirements are among the strictest in Europe, actively excluding low-income applicants. It was only this year that voters accepted facilitated naturalisation (still an onerous procedure) for third generation foreigners. This defensive stance reveals a people willing to share their space – up to a point – but not necessarily their power over that space. Meanwhile, the best thing foreigners can do in Switzerland is to branch out from their own communities and get to know the locals. Whether it’s a motorbike club, a running group or a baroque choir, there is a Swiss tribe waiting for you.

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