Swiss Business Etiquette

Bienvenue en Suisse! (‘‘Welcome to Switzerland!” in French)

Wilkommen in der Schweiz! (‘‘Welcome to Switzerland!” in German)

Benvenuti in Svizzera! (‘‘Welcome to Switzerland!” in Italian)

Bainvegni en Svizra! (‘‘Welcome to Switzerland!” in Romansh)

Switzerland conjures up images of snowy mountains, known as the Swiss Alps. The Swiss Alps are one of the three major geographical features of Switzerland, a European country nestled between France, Germany, and Italy. Because of its central location, Switzerland has a diverse population and several national languages.

A famous fact about Switzerland that many joke about is its neutrality. Switzerland is the oldest neutral country in the world. A neutral country is one who does not pick sides in a war. In fact, Switzerland has not fought in a foreign war since 1815, when the Treaty of Paris was signed.

In industrial terms, chocolate is a major Swiss export – if asked to name a famous hot chocolate brand, you may immediately think of Swiss Miss. Ironically enough, even though the cocoa box prominently features a picture of the Alps, Swiss Miss is actually sold by American company ConAgra Foods. However, Lindt chocolates are a real Swiss product produced in Bern.

Before you ski on over to the Swiss Alps, let’s first learn about the dos and don’ts of Swiss business etiquette.

The Lowdown

  • The de facto capital of Switzerland is Bern, although Zürich is the largest and (arguably) most well-known city.
  • There are four official languages of Switzerland: French, German, Italian, and Romansh.
  • Switzerland is a federal multi-party directorial republic – try saying that three times fast.
  • Switzerland is predominantly Christian (a mix between Catholic, Swiss Reformed Church, and other forms of Christianity).
  • Fun fact: Switzerland is one of only two countries with a square flag – the other is The Vatican.

Dressing Sharp

  • A snazzy outfit is appreciated in Switzerland. However, a neat and clean appearance is more important than an expensive suit.
  • Men should wear: dark, conservative suits and ties.
  • Women should wear: dark, conservative suits (with either pants or skirt) or dress.
  • You may want to check to see if your host’s company has a more lax dress code before packing your clothing selections.

Make or Break Meetings

  • As usual, punctuality is crucial! Make sure to arrive on time and keep your appointments!
  • Be certain which language your Swiss contacts use before arriving – that way you can determine which titles to use (ie, “Herr” for German speakers or “Monsieur” for French speakers).
  • Shake hands with everyone present and use the proper title and last name for each individual.
  • Business cards are exchanged at the first meeting. It is wise to print one side of your card in the native language of your Swiss counterpart.
  • The Swiss tend to be reserved, so it’s best not to ask questions about their private lives unless they open up that channel of communication first.

Dining Decorum

  • Business meals will normally be conducted in a restaurant, since the Swiss are private people. The meal will either be lunch or dinner, not breakfast.
  • Dining will be formal unless otherwise specified, so wear a suit or dress to the occasion and arrive to the engagement on time.
  • Wait for instructions on seating arrangements before you sit down. The place of honor is the seat in the middle of the table.
  • A toast may be given, but depending on the language spoken by the Swiss party, the wording of the toast will vary. Check here for some common toasts.
  • The customary tip is 10% and is typically included as a gratuity in the bill amount.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • Because Switzerland is such a reserved, neutral nation and the Swiss will not typically invite foreign visitors to their home, gift giving is not common practice.
  • If you are given a gift, you should reciprocate with a gift of your own.
  • A proper time to exchange gifts is in celebration of the closing of negotiations.
  • Do not give: sharp objects, expensive gifts (these are seen as too personal or inappropriate), red flowers, white flowers. All of these items have connotations which are better avoided.

Down to Business

  • Swiss business people will typically be assertive and confident without being aggressive. This is in pursuit of the best deal possible.
  • Negotiations may go long if the Swiss feel that they are capable of getting a better deal.
  • The Swiss are “no nonsense,” so there will not be much small talk or dilly-dallying during negotiations.
  • Do not rush a decision! Swiss professionals like to make decisions responsibly.
  • Swiss business is hierarchical, so final decisions will be made by top executives.

Now that you're well prepared for your next jet-setting trip to Switzerland, don't forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb!

Au revoir! (‘‘Goodbye!” in French)

Auf Wiedersehen (‘‘Goodbye!” in German)

Arrivederci! (‘‘Goodbye!” in Italian)

Chau! (‘‘Goodbye!” in Romansh)

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