The basics of doing business in Zurich, Geneva, Switzerland

By Chris C., August 31 2016
The basics of doing business in Zurich, Geneva, Switzerland

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.

Also read: Building better business relations with Chinese New Year

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Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Mar 2014

Total posts 32

Although there is much more to business etiquette than can be mentioned in this article (labelled "the basics") that any discerning person who wants to seriously do business with the Swiss should research for themselves, I think a few small, important "basics" should be mentioned:

  • The titles in Italian are Signore (male) and Signora (female). One should note that female titles are a mark of respect and has nothing to do with marital status.
  • One should address others - especially superiors - by title and surname until invited to use first names. This includes outside of workplace interaction, and is especially true in German Switzerland.
  • Be punctual; in fact, "arrive early" is probably better advice. Again, especially true in German Switzerland.

06 Sep 2015

Total posts 24

these are good tips. when is it appropriate to use "bon apres midi". also is it better to say merci bien or merci beaucoup? thanks

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Mar 2014

Total posts 32

"Bon après-midi" means "(have a) good afternoon". It is appropriate to be used when saying goodbye to someone after noon and before the evening (about 5pm).

"Merci beaucoup" is expected in a formal situation. "Merci bien" is less formal.

10 Aug 2015

Total posts 117

To add, manage your expectations up front, Switzerland is incredibly expensive.The Swiss know this so to mention it again and again is rather dull. Also  one should be cautious if expecting to take a large group of people to a meal or for drinks.

Best idea coming in from the airport is to take the train and then from there either walk to your hotel or take a taxi (in Zurich). The saving is considerable and Swiss trains are excellent. Also consider using the train for journeys to cities in nearby countries such as Milan and Freiburg.

Small ice breaker factoid, the Australian 1901 Commonwealth Constiution was inspired and planned using the Swiss Federal Constiution as a source.

Public holidays vary by Canton and town / city. Similar to langauges, some take Catholic holidays, some Protestant.

Swiss German is different from traditional school boy German, with a different sound and different vocabulary. I've also experienced the common use of "merci" for thank you in Zurich.

If arriving on a Sunday this is (fortunately) still a day of rest in most of Switzerland. Shops are generally closed. Ideal day to do as the locals do and get out and explore nature - on the lakes or in the hills.

The chocolate is excellent, stock up in the supemarkets rather than the duty free to have the best choice and price.

In the winter months if invited to the sauna note this is nude and most likely mixed. As it would also be in your hotel.

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