All aboard the Swiss-bashing bandwagon

clint-eastwood

This week two Swiss newspapers reported on the problem of the “Swiss stare”. Apparently “expats” (I need a separate blog post to explain what I find wrong with this word) have been complaining online about how they dislike it when Swiss people stare at them. The fact that both papers quoted a forum discussion from 2013 gives an indication of how thin this story is.

I am used to Swiss-bashing articles appearing in the English-language media but when I see Swiss newspapers jumping on the bandwagon, I think it is unfortunate, to say the least. All it does is make everyone look bad.

Here’s the interesting part. I heard about the “Swiss stare” when I was contacted by one of the newspapers in question earlier this week, and asked for my take on the issue. I said, honestly, that I had never found it a problem. I’m a bit of a starer myself so maybe I’ve come to live in the right place. In my view, Swiss people in public behave quite like introverts. They are happier to observe others than to draw attention to themselves. That is the group dynamic rather than a reflection of individual characters.

The journalist did not use my answers because they did not fit into the thesis he was presenting. Fair enough. It’s a trivial enough subject and not a serious newspaper so that’s OK. But in the long run, these sorts of stories have a cumulative negative impact, and this is one of the reasons I was motivated to write The Naked Swiss. This quote is from chapter one:

Particularly in the English-speaking world, but also among Germans, there is a great appetite for ‘aren’t they strange’ cultural commentary stories about the Swiss. As a general rule, any piece that makes the Swiss appear ridiculous or sinister, or both, is welcome. The result is a caricature of the cat-eating, obsessively recycling, robotically-dull and silly rule-making Swiss that has been so carefully constructed over years that it may never be dismantled. It’s tough being the rich kid of Europe.

Is there any point in me pointing out that this is a multi-cultural country with a much higher proportion of foreigners than the UK or US (13% in each)? One in four people living in Switzerland are foreign-born. That proportion could well be higher on public transport. How do you even know if the person who stared at you on the train that time is Swiss?

But even if it is a real thing that Swiss people do above all others, I’m not sure why this has to be a problem. When I travel, I neither want nor expect the rest of the world to behave like Irish people. I have never been under the illusion that the Irish way is the defining way of behaviour worldwide. Maybe this is a big country / small country thing. If you don’t count Irish pubs, Ireland has never attempted to dominate the world (or indeed any other country) with its norms and culture. I wonder if it is easier to accept differences in other places if you come from a smaller, more insignificant country, or is it mainly down to the individual’s capacity to accept change and adapt?

In the introduction to my book, I quote Siri Hustvedt who said “no person leaves themselves behind in order to look at a painting”. Our individual responses to a work of art depend on who we are, our character. I think the same applies to our individual responses to a country as immigrants.

So, what can you tell me about the “Swiss stare”? Is it real or imagined? Does it make you dislike the Swiss in general? Or could it happen anywhere? I would love to hear some different perspectives on this from anyone who has experience of living in another culture.  

19 thoughts on “All aboard the Swiss-bashing bandwagon

  1. I read that 20min story and I didn’t get it at all. I’ve just never noticed this stare. I’m very into culture-clash stories but this one honestly didn’t make sense to me.

    After one of the comments, though, I did wonder though whether that were because I just naturally fit into this behaviour myself. I’m an introvert and an observer – and I’ve been told I can have an offputtingly direct gaze in conversation. So I make an effort to look away constantly, but it feels tremendously awkward, and the idea that maybe I can relax a bit on that front is frankly brilliant.

      1. I think it’s more a case of, as a sad old goth, I stopped noticing that people were staring at me a long time ago! (anyway, that’s kinda the point) 😉

  2. I did hear of this before moving here. In fact, our Swiss moving agent who helped us find housing was the one who told us about it! The first couple of weeks after moving here I did, in fact, notice people doing this, but I don’t notice it anymore. It was more people walking down the street in my neighborhood rather than on the tram. I’ve only noticed people staring on the tram at my son, but I assume it’s because he is so flipping loud!

  3. I’ve never heard of this Clare – but I agree I think the Swiss – or those of us living here – tend to behave like introverts. I think in Europe in general it isn’t considered impolite to stare. It’s just people watching. What a silly idea for these papers to pursue!

    1. It’s hard to come up with story ideas every day. I sympathise. But, like you, it’s not something I’ve ever noticed. Maybe it’s also related to the kind of place you live in – rural, urban, small town etc.

  4. I actually have noticed this. When I’m with my kids, I imagine us talking in English and generally being loud elicits some attention, and I’m not bothered. But I often wonder, during the times I’m alone, what exactly it is about me that makes a person interested in staring. It’s a bit unnerving. I’m not stare-worthy material! I enjoy people-watching though. I do love to sit on a bench and watch the world go by. Makes me wish I had a front porch!

    1. It is curious. I can also see the interest in watching kids being cute or naughty or whatever, but what makes you noticeable when you are alone? Maybe they don’t need a reason. Overall, I think I look at others more than I am aware of them looking at me. Very much down to perception I guess.

  5. I’m from the US. I have lived in Bern for 28 years, and I have never felt stared at for no reason. For 15 years of my time here, I earned money as an advisor to new arrivals from all over the world. Most of my clients were eager to adapt their behavior to fit their new culture. Some, though, complained about being stared at. It was always because they had done something outrageous, offensive, dangerous, or stupid in Swiss eyes. Once, listening to a client complain about a Swiss stare, I told her that if I had seen her let her six-year-old son paddle off alone in a boat into the center of a pond, i wouldn’t just have stared, I would have called the police. (I did not receive a good evaluation on that consultation.) My cultural advisory job involved listening to quite a lot of Swiss-bashing by non-Swiss. A few of these stories were about genuinely rude people (who, as Clare says, may or may not have actually been Swiss), but many more were evidence of the foreigners’ complete disregard for Swiss mores. In the brand-new arrivals, such ignorance was understandable–it was my job to make their trespasses clear. In people who’d been in the country for six months or more, these tales of Swiss discourtesy were actually a sad comment on the foreigners’ own insensitivity.

    Everything is relative. From the age of five to fourteen, I lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When I was nine or ten, men of all ages started staring at me. They called out after me, came up behind me on the street to whisper obscene suggestions in my ear, and followed me, sometimes for blocks. I was a perfectly normal little kid, not exceptionally attractive or physically mature for my age. This experience was terrifying. People who complain about being stared at in Switzerland should know that there are much worse kinds of attention you can receive in public as a foreigner.

    1. Thanks for sharing your insight and experiences, Kim. When I was preparing for that newspaper interview, I asked a couple in my co-working space, newly arrived from Brazil, whether they had noticed any staring since they arrived in Switzerland two months ago. The young woman was quick to point out that being here was a big relief after all the unwelcome staring she is subject to at home from men, all the time. She said she feels much more comfortable on the streets in Switzeland. The only thing that shocked her is men wearing short trousers above the ankle, some without socks. They look very cold to her. To me too!

  6. I was at a workshop last night and I overheard a conversation about this! ha ha, One woman was explaining that in America we are taught that staring is rude so we are very aware that we are not to be staring at people and so when we look at new faces or want to see what all the foreign language talking is about, we sort of do these little glances and hope no one sees us. Maybe that’s why some people notice it more than others.

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