Germans in Switzerland: Taming the northern newcomers

A Swiss football fan at the World Cup in Cologne in 2006 (AFP)
A Swiss football fan at the World Cup in Cologne in 2006 (AFP)
Die Tageszeitung (Berlin)

The German  Finance Minister who has a hard line on tax havens is especially unpopular among the Swiss, and he is not alone. His compatriots who have chosen to live in Switzerland are often criticized for being too loud, too pushy, and too arrogant. A new “integration course” in Zürich is aiming to change all that.

The Germans are coming. They enter the room smiling a bit bashfully, and speaking softly. They don’t fit the stereotype now. No one is talking too loudly. Perhaps they figure, our reputation is marred enough as it is. After all, they are foreigners and immigrants who want to be accepted as members of Swiss society.

It’s a little before 7pm in Zürich. Welcome to the “Integration Evening for Germans in Switzerland.” Surprisingly, the first page in the batch of handouts lying on the table reads “Grüezi ('hello') Rubber-Necks. Why the Germans sometimes tick us off.” Rubber-necks? The epithet refers to German medical interns who are always nodding vigorously when engaged in conversation with chief physicians. But in a more general context, it denotes the opportunistic manner of the Germans, at least in the eyes of the Swiss.

Christiana Baldauf greets the guests. We came to the conclusion that a course like this was needed, begins the head of the Zürich Office for Cross-Cultural Issues, because Switzerland isn’t just another German state, as some immigrants seem to think, but a real foreign country.

In June the Swiss newspaper Blick declared Peer Steinbrück “one of the people most hated in Switzerland.” Steinbrück, the financial minister of Switzerland’s sometimes seemingly overbearing northern neighbour, threatened to send the cavalry into the tax havens, including Switzerland, which he then likened to an African banana republic. The expression prompted an angry response from one Swiss Christian Democrat bankbencher: “Steinbrück reminds me of the generation of Germans who used to walk down the alleyways 60 years ago in leather coats, boots and armbands.”

A quarter of a million Germans in Switzerland

Caught in the middle of this war of words, the Germans in Switzerland are more numerous now than ever before (a quarter of a million at last count), which makes them the fourth largest immigrant population behind the Italians, Portuguese and Serbs. Since the Freedom of Movement Treaty between Switzerland and the EU came into force in 2004, the number of Germans has more than doubled: and every month nearly three thousand more pour into the land of mountains, full employment and high salaries.

The large numbers of new arrivals have caused more than a little apprehension in these parts, explains Baldauf, displaying an overhead transparency with the Blick headline “How many Germans can Switzerland take?” The Germans are becoming the new scapegoats, she says, replacing the Albanians, and the Italians before them.

At the same time, the Germans and Swiss have much in common — more than enough to outweigh their differences. “We both have a work- and achievement-oriented society,” she argues, “a Christian background and the same language.” Nevertheless, today’s meeting is about their differences.

And this is where the didactic part of the evening begins. Give and take is writ large in these parts. “Throwing your weight about at work is frowned upon.” But the large contingent of management-level German staff in Switzerland often tend to forget this, because in Germany the mild-mannered are more liable to be labelled weak. Nor do the Swiss take to the self-assertive style of Germans who impose their views on others. Criticism here, the etiquette instructor explains, is a question of gentle hints couched in positive noises: “But you know, well, what you’re saying really is totally positive. But you know, it could be that…”.

How to order a beer without being noticed

The conditional is all over the place in Switzerland. In restaurants, for instance. “I’ll have a beer,” a widely-used formula in Germany, does not go down well, nor does calling for the tab from across the room. You’re much better off using a double-padded conditional: “Would it be at all possible to maybe have another beer please?”

Germans who have now learned to show due restraint on the job, and employ the conditional and even the Swiss “Grüezi” greeting, will nonetheless find themselves on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to Schwyzerdütsch (Schweizerdeutsch). It’s a catch-22 situation—if they go on speaking standard German, they are considered too arrogant to adapt; but if they try to use Swiss German, they may be suspected of making fun of the local language.

Deliverance comes with the closing topic of the evening: affairs of the heart. Germans must not expect too much emotion too fast from their Swiss significant others. Still and all, over 20,000 Germans are married to Swiss spouses. So maybe the differences aren’t all that great after all.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.