Whether you’re heading to Switzerland for a long-term assignment or for a quick business trip, it’s important to know the secret rules. You know, the ones that the people who live in a culture follow so instinctively that nobody bothers to tell you until you’ve broken them? Save yourself some uncomfortable moments (and possibly some lost business opportunities) by learning some of the unspoken rules.
Business dress in Switzerland tends to be somewhat formal. But it’s not quite as simple as wearing the nicest suit you can afford, because you have to consider company hierarchy, as well. Swiss business consultant Monika Seeger explains: “For men, pin-stripes are a sign that you're senior and highly competitive at work — so are out of the question for junior employees.” Women are expected to dress simply, but not too boringly. In other words, you want to show that you made an effort to look your best without looking like a fashion model.
Hierarchy is important in Switzerland, but what not everyone realises is that the customer is king. So you would present your boss – even if you report to the CEO – to the customer (who is considered to hold the superior position) rather than the other way around. After the customer, however, social rules follow strict company hierarchy. And, while rank and hierarchy are important, so is humility. The Swiss wield their authority discreetly. If you're trying to identify the top-ranking person, watch to see whom everyone else treats with deference.
The Swiss don’t ‘talk with their hands’ as much as some other cultures do. It’s fine to gesture, but if you notice everyone is staring at your hands, they probably find your movements distracting.
As in most countries, table manners are important. To the Swiss, that means sitting all the way back in your chair with both feet on the floor and your forearms resting on the table. Only after you’ve finished the course it is okay to put your hands in your lap. Don’t use your hands for anything other than breaking bread, and cut potatoes and other soft foods with a fork rather than a knife.
The Swiss value privacy. This means that there may be little pre-meeting chitchat and, if there is, it will avoid topics like occupation, marriage, children, age, etc. This also holds true for business lunches and dinners. In some cultures, meal time is when you get to know one another on a personal level. But you should never ask your Swiss colleagues questions about their personal lives unless they ask you those questions first.
The Swiss also value punctuality. To make a good impression, arrive 15-20 minutes early. Avoid being late at all costs; making the Swiss wait for you – even if it’s just a few minutes – is considered a big offense.
What’s considered polite in one country may be taken as rude in another, so it’s always a good idea to learn as much as you can about the little niceties that keep relationships harmonious. The website Expatica offers these suggestions on minding your manners when in Switzerland:
- Assume that colleagues want to be addressed by their title and last name. Some Swiss do business for years without using first names.
- Shake hands and make eye contact.
- Fidgeting and poor posture are considered rude.
- If you exchange gifts, do so after a deal is reached. Doing so before you’ve concluded negotiations may be seen as bribery.
- If you’re invited to a colleague’s home, bring a gift for the hostess and small gifts for the children. Don’t ask for a tour – the Swiss aren’t ostentatious – and write a thank-you note afterward.
- Don’t give sharp objects like knives as a gift. They’re symbolic of severing the relationship.
The best way to be successful conducting business in Switzerland is to be on your best behavior. If you assume formality unless told otherwise and mind your manners, you'll do just fine.