Chronicles of a writer abroad

7 ways in which the Supermarkt is a microcosm of Swiss society


The supermarket: a microcosm of society?

I think so. And it makes sense: everyone has to go to the grocery store, and we do so in order to meet one of our most basic needs. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we behave in very characteristic ways in these spaces.

If you think about it, many quintessentially Canadian things are in evidence when you pop into your local supermarket. I’m not referring to just the plenteous bacon and maple syrup. I’m talking about the way in which people say “sorry” (in a way, I’ve learned, that Americans who say  sah-ree find amusing) when they merely graze each other. Everyone queues politely to pay. A generous bubble of personal space is granted, whether you are in the produce section or the checkout line.

Here in Switzerland, the workings of the Supermarkt are different — and these differences, I believe, help to illuminate important aspects of Swiss culture. Here’s a list I’ve been mentally forming during my many trips to my local Migros and Coop stores.

No apologies. The Swiss have actually adopted the English word “sorry” as a more informal alternative to entschuldigung or es tut mir leid. Whether they say soh-ree or sah-ree is hard to tell, but you’re unlikely to either one in this context. There seems to be a rule that in order to get your shopping done, it’s perfectly acceptable to push, bump, and squeeze past with nary a word. This used to really irk me, but I’ve grown somewhat used to it with time.

Workers are intensely productive. To put this in context, it’s important to understand that Swiss supermarkets are not staffed in large part by teens/young adults, as is the case in Canada. Instead, most of the workers are middle-aged, and I’ve learned that this is actually considered a career track for those who get spat out of the very complicated Swiss schooling system (where tests are highly determinative) at an early stage. So first you have to get used to the idea that people work as stockpersons and cashiers their entire working lives, and secondly you have to accept the fact that they work like crazed automatons. It is not uncommon to see a person asking “where might I find X?” as a stockperson continues to unload boxes at lightning speed, not seizing this opportunity for momentary rest. They work so continuously, so ardently, that I have wondered if they are operating under some kind of threat or quota system. Also, the “push, bump, and squeeze past” rule reaches its highest octave here — the customer is not someone to be deferred to; no, the customer is someone who better get the heck outta the way when a certain area is being stocked.

Aversion to queuing/merit-based queuing. It’s every person for her or himself in all areas of the Supermarkt. There’s little sense of you-were-waiting-so-I’ll-let-you-use-the-scale-before-I-barge-up-to-it. There is (to a Canadian eye) discourtesy and disorder until shoppers enter the corral-like structures that lead up to the cash registers and force people to stand one behind the other. But even then, there is bargaining and place-swapping: some degree of filial piety means that the elderly will sometimes be ushered to the front of the line, and there will sometimes also be requests by people buying only a few items to go ahead of you when you have more. I don’t disagree with either of these practices, but I have become bewildered when a request to do one of them is being issued in Swiss German.

Lots of small talk and advice. Living in Zürich, I sometimes feel that I have a few thousand well-meaning but overbearing grandparents. Standing in line to pay, I have been scolded, chatted up, interrogated, sometimes all at the same time. The Swiss love to be a part of each other’s lives (I have many other stories about this in other contexts, too). I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much if this didn’t often constitute a language bomb situation for me.

Peaceful Sundays mean hectic Saturdays. I have previously lauded the tradition of no-business Sundays that Switzerland observes, but I must add that these Sundays come at a price, and that price is the all-out havoc that is Saturday at the Markt, as everyone tries to do their shopping at the same time. As someone who shops during the week and on the weekends, I would say that on Saturday there are at least 400% more shoppers in the supermarket. It is a blood-pressure-raising experience…for me, anyway.

Decadence in everyday life. Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to reiterate in case the foregoing comes off as sounding uniformly negative — the amount of gorgeous chocolate and cheese in these Supermarkts is enough to bring a tear to the eye of a hardcore dairy-lover such as myself.

Trim, healthy figures. I’ve said this before, too, but the customs of a people who load up their carts with fatty milk, chocolates, starches and meats and still manage to have healthy body weights, as well as a very impressive average life expectancy, are worth paying attention to.

Anything I’m missing? Care to share any of your observations of supermarkets in other countries?


5 thoughts on “7 ways in which the Supermarkt is a microcosm of Swiss society

  1. Astute observations here. I have encountered all of these in Zurich myself. I always have to calm myself when the employees are blocking the already narrow produce aisle with a five-foot-tall cart of carrots and have no intention of moving it aside to let through the mass of people trapped behind it.

  2. I think we will stick with our local supermarkets, specially Thrifty’s where stock boys not only stop what they are doing to answer your question but they take you directly to the spot where the item you couldn’t find lives. And people occasionally smile while in line to check out; certainly the cashiers do.
    Maybe this has to do with living in a small town where there is not such a rush to do anything :). In any case, I’ll take it thanks.

  3. My biggest surprise moving to a smaller centre was that the grocery stores here still employ “baggers”! As for moving about the store, it’s always fun “running” into somebody – just watch out for them in the parking lot!

  4. Today I had a checkout experience of note. The cashier was a female approximately 60 yrs old. She greeted me with a smile, as she did the person in front of me and behind me, was efficient as she did her thing, but somehow managed to make me feel her politeness was completely and utterly genuine, and honestly offered and received. It was lovely. None of this “have a nice day” slid out of the corner of a mouth in a half-hearted rejoinder to my “thank you”, or worse: “no problem” or “no worries”. She brightened my day. How can someone do that repetitive job and seem genuinely happy to serve me, then 15 seconds later repeat again with the same level of happiness to the next customer? She certainly was in the right job! Fabulous!

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