After writing a post on PR lessons I’ve learned from Russia, I thought I should do the same for Switzerland. I’ve now lived in Switzerland for almost a year, and I have had the chance to study Swiss culture and interact with Swiss professionals on a regular basis. Once more, the following observations are not scientific, but merely drawn from first-hand experience in business or social settings.
- The Swiss are thoughtful, but careful, in their communication.
Despite Switzerland’s small size, the country is unusually diverse and varied. Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. It’s also divided between Protestant and Catholic cantons as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Switzerland’s mountainous geography kept people apart historically, and this explains why the Swiss kept their distinct linguistic dialects, religious faiths, and cultural practices. Recent emigration and an influx of expats from the European Union, the Balkans, and South Asia has only added to what was already an eclectic cultural blend.
And yet, despite whatever language they are speaking and whatever canton they call “home,” you are met with politeness and consideration. The Swiss keep their voices soft, and they always appear calm, cool, and collected. The Swiss place great importance on direct personal interaction, and I was amused how quickly my grocers, accountants, and insurance agent learned my name. There is, indeed, something of a “village mentality” here. For some — I am thinking about my German colleagues in particular — the Swiss can be “too careful” in their communication. This, however, is an outward expression of how the Swiss manage their everyday interactions, and it is deeply rooted in their respective history. The Swiss value functionality and order, and I believe this is reflected in their manner of speech and patterns of communication.
- The Swiss are dedicated to order and organization.
Anywhere you go in Switzerland, you’ll be met with order and organization. Neatness is a virtue in Switzerland, and it’s just as “Swiss” as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. While it’s true that you encounter a pervasive societal focus on structure elsewhere in the world — Scandinavia, Germany, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea immediately come to mind — I think the Swiss supersede the others. It’s no surprise then that the Swiss are the world’s best watch and clock makers!
Visit a Swiss train station or Zürich International Airport, and you’ll see Swiss efficiency up close. Everything is seemingly interlinked, clean, punctual, and fast. Even hiking trails in Switzerland are interspersed with little color-coded signs that let visitors know where they are, what kind of trail they’re hiking on, etc. I’ve rarely needed to consult my mobile’s GPS mapping app while in Switzerland, and I’ve never gotten lost in the countryside either. Everywhere you find detailed maps in multiple languages, and there are often guards or personnel at stations with whom you can ask questions. I contend the Swiss are keen on order because of their geography and linguistic diversity. It’s worth remembering that nearly half of Switzerland is uninhabitable — it’s Europe’s most mountainous country after all. To the Swiss, order is sensible and ideal, mitigating chaos and the potential for strife.
- The Swiss have an independent streak.
Switzerland is one of Europe’s oldest nations and democracies. Established when three cantons banded together to fight Habsburg Austria in 1291 CE, Switzerland is neutral and has a highly decentralized government. Switzerland’s 26 cantons each have a considerable degree of autonomy, and this suits the Swiss just fine given the medley that constitutes their nation. They’ve retained their own currency — the highly valued Swiss Franc — and they’re unabashedly proud of their traditions and lifestyle. While the Swiss have successfully avoided international conflict for over 500 years, they do have a contentious relationship with the European Union (EU). They’re not part of the EU, and they don’t wish to be either. Relations with the EU are a rare point of contention within Switzerland, as the Swiss German traditionally prefer limiting ties to the EU, while the Swiss French and Swiss Italians are in favor developing further ties. (However, recent elections in Ticino — Switzerland’s Italian canton — have shown that the Ticinese are now voting more similarly to their Swiss German compatriots.)
This sense of independence serves the Swiss well — one needs to only look at their high standard of living, their level of entrepreneurship and innovation, and their very successful economy. However, the Swiss independent streak can cause visitors and expats alike to find the Swiss aloof, suspicious, and even buttoned-down. I find the conservatism in Switzerland to be more reminiscent of Mediterranean Europe and Latin America; it is noticeable primarily in small mountain villages and tiny hamlets.
Isolated by virtue of their geography and politics, the Swiss are a fascinating anomaly located at the heart of Europe. I’ve enjoyed living in Switzerland and working with Swiss colleagues at museums, nonprofits, and art galleries. Living in Switzerland has given me the chance to better understand the land of my ancestors and apply Swiss knowledge to my own business. For PR professionals, the Swiss remind us of the necessity of sound organizational and communications practices. The Swiss recipe for success is based on a mélange of shrewdness, practicality, and thoughtfulness. These are a necessity for success in a fast-paced media environment too.
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