Swiss Saturday: Handshakes, Swimming Pools, and Annoying Foreigners

Swiss culture has hit the news in a couple of ways this week, so I thought I’d share my experiences. Keep in mind, I can’t possibly explain all Swiss culture because I don’t get all of it, but maybe a few of the things I say will make some sense.

First, there’s the lady described in this article: Left-wing Dutch vegan who moved to Switzerland is denied a Swiss passport because she is too annoying

Now, all of you might be saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea! Let’s deny citizenship to anyone who is annoying!” while fully understanding that “annoying” is a little hard to put into statutory law: Who decides who is annoying and how annoying does it need to be before you get denied due to getting on everyone’s nerves?

The process for obtaining Swiss citizenship isn’t consistent across the country. It varies from canton to canton (a canton is like a state, except because Switzerland is so small, they are quite tiny compared to US standards). The Swiss really believe in Federalism, and so each Canton gets to vary the rules to fit their local culture and needs.

Some things are standard–like the number of years you need to live here to apply. (For US citizens with no Swiss relatives, like us, we have to be here 12 years to apply.) The language requirement is also fixed: You have to have a B1 level in an official language (German, French, Italian, or Romansch.)

But, the wild card is the vote. Some cantons require your town to give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down. To be honest, I don’t know if my town gets to vote on us when that time comes.

As you might expect, in a larger town, this can be used to weed people out by their “undesireable” last names. (I’ve been told we’ll have no problem, because people will think we’re Germans with the last name of Lucas.) However, this woman appears to have lost her town’s support–twice–because she’s annoying.

This does not mean she sings loudly while walking the aisles of the grocery store, or that she paints her house purple (which would also be bad, by the way), but because she is actively trying to destroy Swiss Culture.

I used a capital C for Culture because it is a Very Important Thing in Switzerland. She specifically wants to get rid of cow bells. This is not funny for Swiss people. It eats at the heart of Swiss culture and people don’t want it.

Switzerland is a small country and the cantons are tiny, and the people want to maintain their way of life. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all. Why shouldn’t a country be able to maintain their identity? Cow bells are part of their identity. They just are, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be a Swiss citizen. Notably, they aren’t kicking her out of the country–they are just saying you can’t be Swiss because you reject Swiss traditions.

The other story sounds like a case of religious discrimination, but it’s really another culture thing.  Here’s the NYT article: Muslim Girls in Switzerland Must Attend Swim Classes With Boys, Court Says.

From an American viewpoint, this freaks me out. The girls say it’s against their religion, so dang it, it’s against their religion, and they shouldn’t be required to take the swim classes with boys. The Swiss (and the European Court of Human Rights) see it as a culture issue.

Treating boys and girls the same is part of Swiss Culture–you can be denied a residency permit if you don’t subscribe to that philosophy. This all went down in Basel–I live in suburban Basel–in 2008, but the court just issued the final ruling.

Now, one note of interest: the parents are Swiss and Turkish Citizens, so they weren’t denied citizenship like the cow bell lady, but the community pushed back when they attempted to circumvent a school tradition. (Incidentally, my son’s school does not have swimming lessons, which makes me sad because dragging kids to swimming lessons is one of the worst parts of parenting.)

The court ruled that “The public interest in following the full school curriculum should prevail over the applicants’ private interest in obtaining an exemption from mixed swimming lessons for their daughters.”

But wait, isn’t this a religious thing? To the Swiss, no it’s not. Why? Because the parents admit that Muslim rules would only require that separation after puberty, but they wanted to get their girls used to the separation before that. Since the girls (7 and 9 when this started), had not yet gone through puberty, the Swiss saw it as a Culture issue. Essentially, the policy is you can practice your religion, no problem, but you better make sure it’s actually your religion and not your culture. Since their religion doesn’t officially require separation at this age, they aren’t allowed.

When I wrap my brain around that, it makes more sense than my immediate reaction of “what in the heck?” And it reminded me of growing up in Mormon-heavy Utah and having Mormons saying they want a religious exemption for vaccination when the LDS church has a worldwide immunization program through its charitable arm. It kind of made me want to slap those people. (Also, for the love of Pete, vaccinate yourself and your kids!)

But, I also have a lot of empathy for the parents of these girls. They want to choose the way to raise their children and it’s frustrating to have the government push back and say “you’re doing it wrong.” They could, of course, move back to Turkey, and Turkey is a lovely place that is politically unstable at the moment. I’d pick Switzerland too.

There’s another Swiss rule that’s mentioned in the article–shaking teacher’s hands. The case involving that also involved a Basel suburb. (Basel and her suburbs have an incredibly high immigrant/expat population, which is why these things pop up here.) Hand shaking is so, so, so, important to the Swiss. I still don’t live up the expectation, which is to shake everyone’s hand when you enter a room and shake it again when you leave. I’m known to sneak in and out. Also, they like hugging and kissing on the cheek (3 times!).

When I was working with the children at church (I’m now doing the adult music), every Sunday all the kids would line up to shake my hand. They wouldn’t leave until they had done so. I was a teacher, so they must shake my hand. If I was trying to do something else, they’d wait until I was done, so they could shake my hand. Culture.

Hopefully, this was interesting and helps you understand where they are coming from. Also, more cow bell!



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13 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday: Handshakes, Swimming Pools, and Annoying Foreigners

  1. I didn’t know about that vegan lady, I’ll share that article with my friends! I moved to Switzerland very recently and I have yet to experience a great culture shock (lots of tiny ones though…); the Swiss are generally very welcoming, but very protective of their own identity, and that makes perfect sense, since they built their own little “paradise” amongst chaos. I’d want to preserve it too.
    I am still having awkward moments with the “3 kisses rule”, but as an Italian it doesn’t shock me much, as I come from a similar culture when it comes to greetings 🙂

  2. Fascinating! I did happen to see the news stories you referenced. The sources where I read them wrote them from an American cultural perspective and your explanation rounded those stories out very well.

  3. Thanks for the great cultural insights. Traveling is a wonderful way to see other cultures, and relocating is the only way to truly experience it. I appreciate your stories!

  4. This is a good reason to check our gut reactions, because mine would have been the same as yours. Your explanation of cultural importance of the homeland is still a bit jarring, but I also come from the U.S. where my own customs are vaguely rounded out by traditions from my varied ancestral backgrounds (Irish, Dutch, German mainly) but aren’t firmly defined other than “family customs.” I sometimes miss having a strong cultural identity that other countries seem to have, but I’m also fairly iconoclastic of the general American traditions that we do have, so who knows how I’d feel with a more strictly defined cultural background. (And I do like our fairly strong identity as “melting pot” of cultures without enforcing adherence, so there’s also that…)

    1. You know, we once asked a Swiss family if his family had always been Swiss and he said, “Well, we’ve only been here since the 1500s.”

      I’m like, “I’m an American through and through because my ancestors came over on the Mayflower!” and he’s still hesitant to say he’s Swiss through and through since his family has only been there 500 years.

        1. Blood but place even more strongly. It’s really fascinating to consider this. Switzerland is famous for being isolated and protected of course. The rest of Europe of course saw waves of different conquerors and migration with eventual mixing. But mixing in that place, not moving around. Where America (and Australia, which seems to be struggling similarly with modern migration) are defined very much by those who came from someplace else.

  5. Hahaha, nice job slipping in the more-cowbell reference. 🙂

    I saw the one about the Muslim girls but didn’t get a chance to read it. Thanks for explaining it. The cowbell lady just baffles me. I get that it’s because she’s vegan and cares about the animals, but isn’t she jeopardizing her ability to stay in the country?

    Also, the Daily Mail is a rag, so take it with a grain of salt. All my British friends call it the Daily Fail, LOL.

  6. You’re in Riehen still? Riehen is part of Basel-Stadt. It’s unimaginable to me that Basel-Stadt would have votes for citizenship, so don’t worry.

    On “blood ties”, I joke that in my (dad’s) isolated home town in Nidwalden, the male line goes back a thousand years, but the women come from everywhere. I did read once that a survey of Swiss Germans found their genes were closer to French than German, which could possibly be explained by mercenary work in France over centuries (or not …). Believe what you like.

    On immigration, it’s never bad to watch the “Swissmakers” movie.

    1. I’m not in Riehen. I’m in Münchenstein–other side of Basel, in Basel-land, so a different Canton. We’re suburban but a lot of the Canton is pretty rural.

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