I realize that in many of my entries I’m hard on the Swiss, making them out to be pretty provincial. In this post, therefore, I’d like to flip the script, and tell you about how I, as a Canadian, sometimes am left feeling uncouth in Swiss society. There are a number of ways that this happens, actually, but one stands out for me.
It’s pretty simple: I’m accustomed to not acknowledging the presence of other human beings.
Generally, in the world that I grew up in, unless someone is your friend/family member/acquaintance, or unless you need to have some kind of transaction with them, it’s acceptable not to greet each other. This means that if you find yourself riding an elevator with strangers, for example, or sitting in a waiting room with them, you don’t have to say anything to them.
Here it is different. For example, last week I went to the doctor’s office (relating to my anemia issues, which I’m still “ironing out” — ha, ha) and, after checking in at the front desk, I went to the waiting area, where everyone looked up at me. I took a seat, thinking, why are you all staring at me? In the course of my 1o-minute wait, other people arrived, and none of them failed to offer a “Grüezi, mitenand” (how the Swiss greet more than one person) to the group, which made me realize my faux pas. As we continued to sit, a nurse came to ask one man if he’d eaten anything yet that day. “I had a coffee with sugar,” the man said. “Oh, this is no good,” replied the nurse. “The doctor wants to take your blood on an empty stomach. We’ll have to reschedule for tomorrow morning.” The man was understandably annoyed, and went on a mini-rant about how he wouldn’t have wasted his time if someone had communicated this to him in advance. Then, even in his worked-up state, he turned to those assembled and offered a polite “Ade, mitenand” (how the Swiss say goodbye to more than one person).
I was impressed.
Of course, the Swiss don’t feel compelled to offer a greeting to everyone when they ride buses or enter supermarkets, or in other situations where it would be impractical. But they do it when they’re in close quarters with other human beings. And doesn’t that just make sense?