Switzerland is a major hub for bankers and other travellers in the financial sectors with Zurich and Geneva attracting scores of high-end high flyers each and every year.
But in a country with four national languages and different cultural norms from one city to the next, visiting for the first-time on business can be a little perplexing: but don’t fret, navigating these waters is easier than you’d think.
Doing business in Switzerland: languages
For starters, take note of the main language used in each city – Zurich, for example, is a German-speaking metropolis, while ducking down to Geneva sees French becomes the norm, with Italian your go-to in places like Lugano.
Around one in four Swiss residents can also speak English, but you should research your host’s language skills before travelling – it’s expected that you as the visitor organise a translator to be present if both parties can’t speak and understand the same language.
That also doesn’t excuse you from learning a few choice words in your host’s local tongue, though, even if it’s just a basic greeting.
In German such as in Zurich, “Guten Tag Herr Schmid” (goo-ten tagk, hair ssh-mit) is a polite “Good day, Mr Smith”. Swap ‘Herr’ for ‘Frau’ (fr-oww) when speaking to women, regardless of their marital status, and ‘Tag’ with ‘Abend’ (ah-bent) in the evenings.
When Geneva is on the cards, a French and name-neutral “bonjour monsieur” (boh-zhour moh-see-er) will do when greeting gents and “bonjour madame” (ma-dahm) when addressing ladies. Again, replace the first part, ‘bonjour’, with ‘bonsoir’ (boh-swarr) when meeting at night, such as for dinner.
In Italian, the well-known ‘ciao!’ is considered a little too casual for business meetings – replace it with “buongiorno!” (boo-on-djoh-noh) to both genders during the day and “buonasera!” (boo-on-a-Sarah) in the evenings, either as a hello or a goodbye.
Doing business in Switzerland: customs
Much as the local language determines which greetings you use, it also suggests the format of your business meetings.
In German-speaking cities, expect a quick hello before getting right down to business – whereas in the French- and Italian-speaking regions, ‘small talk’ is to be expected and may even be accompanied by a round of drinks before business can be discussed.
Keep the conversation away from anything personal, including family and marital status, unless your host asks those questions first: Swiss culture, much like its banking laws, values its privacy above much else.
Also avoid making jokes unless you’re truly an expert on Swiss culture and humour. While well-intentioned, your comments can easily be misinterpreted as a mockery of the subject and will seldom be forgotten quickly.
Safe discussion topics include your flights; onward travel plans; things you enjoy doing, seeing or eating in Switzerland or back home in Australia and timeless basics like the weather.
Business cards are also given out like candy here, so bring more than you usually would: first to give to a contact’s secretary or assistant to keep in the rolodex, another for the contact themselves and then one for every person who attends every meeting.
Gifts are also exchanged only after any negotiations are finalised and signed off. Avoid giving knives and sharp objects which resemble ‘severing’ your newly-formed business partnership, and wait for your host to give a gift before you return the favour.
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