12 May 2008

Accepting Applications?

Most Swiss are not currently accepting applications for new friends.

Allow me to elaborate...

When I lived in Ireland for a year as a student, I purposely kept separate from the very large group of American exchange students who also came to the same university. I theorized I had come on an exchange program to learn about a new culture and hanging out with Americans would not help me to meet this goal. And I was very successful. I had a large group of Irish friends, some of whom I am still in contact with after more than more than 15 years. Of course, I was fully emerged in the student culture and I spoke the same language, a different dialect, but close enough for the most part. But still, I made an effort and it paid off.

When we decided to move to Switzerland for GLH's job, I decided I would attempt to do the same. True, I would not have school or work to help me to meet people and I didn't speak the language. But I am a very friendly, outgoing person and I have never had difficulty meeting people in any place I have ever lived. Surely it would just be a matter of time before I had a circle of friends, many of whom would likely be Swiss.

Well, I was wrong.

Yes, I have a circle of friends. But the majority of them are other English-speaking expats.

I do know a few Swiss and would consider them friends by my own definition of friendship, but I suspect they would not consider me a friend. Mostly because I have only been here for 17 months and it takes 3-4 years to develop an acquaintanceship enough to be called a friendship. At least in Switzerland it does.

But in speaking with people who have lived here for several years and are fluent in the language, many of them have stated that they still do not have many Swiss friends. Most of their friends are also other English-speaking expats who live in the area. If they have Swiss friends, they tend to be very internationally-minded -- meaning they have either lived abroad or traveled extensively.

The only ones who do seem to truly have a circle of Swiss friends are the ones who "marry into the culture." And even then, one woman told me they aren't really her friends. They are her husband's friends, most of whom he has known since preschool, and she is accepted in their numbers and they are friendly towards her. But when introductions are made to new people, she is described as their "friend's wife," not their "friend." Even though she has now known them for more than 10 years.

This all seems bizarre to me and has led to a great deal of research.

My theory? It's the difference between a transient society and a non-transient society.

The United States is a transient culture and has been since the beginning of its history. It's the largest "immigrant culture" that exists. Pretty much everyone is from an immigrant family. Even if your family came over on the Mayflower, you are still an "immigrant family." And as a culture we are extremely mobile. Most of us move multiple times within our lives. We move as children with our families as our parents get relocated for their careers. We move away from home to attend college. We move about the country and the world ourselves as we begin our own careers.

The US culture has always adapted for this. The earliest immigrants had to make connections quickly or they risked failure. In many cases, failure meant death. They had no network of family and friends on which to depend and had to work with complete strangers just to learn how to live in their new environment. From the pilgrims to the pioneers to the influx of European immigrants at the end of the 19th century, an inability to quickly meet people and develop relationships usually resulted in a "failure to thrive."

Even now, people constantly moving in and out of your neighborhood is the norm in most American communities. It has led to the creation of groups such as Welcome Wagon and Newcomers Clubs. Most Americans have a small circle of very close family and friends, a secondary circle of local & work friends and a much larger circle of acquaintances.

In Switzerland it is completely different. I cannot now remember where I read this, but in one of the books on Swiss culture I read before moving here one statistic stuck in my head. Around 70% of Swiss live within 30-40 kilometers of where they were born.

Think about that for a moment.

When you live close to where you were born, and most everyone you know has always lived there as well, you really have no incentive to make new friends. Your spare time is already spent juggling the social obligations of your extended family and the friends you have known since childhood. Why would you make the time for friendship with new people? Especially when they come from a different culture and perspective and friendship would be more of an effort?

And that is why I believe most Swiss are not currently accepting applications for new friends.

Any other theories?


Expat Traveler said...

I think this is a rather good theory indeed.

Luckily the majority of my friends in Switzerland have travelled. I guess I would call this luck and the majority of my expat friends know people and seem to have accepted me for the most part..

I'm willing to say there has to be more of a theory than just that. Many Swiss are closed minded and don't accept outsiders at all of course. So if you just aren't part of "the Swiss" I guess they just don't totally accept you either!

Danie said...

Very insightful and likely spot on.

Marcy said...

Makes sense, except that isn't the non-transient cultural aspect a part of most European countries, including Ireland?

We are lucky in that our Swiss neighbors (one of which was born and raised in this little village) are extremely welcoming and friendly, inviting hubby over for fondue the day they met. When we first moved here I also was taking French classes, and most of the other women in the class were from all over but had moved here b/c of a Swiss or French boyfriend/husband. I never followed up with most of them to get to meet said boyfriends/husbands, but that was one channel I saw for befriending some locals.

That said, truly the best thing I've found for making friends with the Swiss? Have a baby. We have met so many more people from our village, and had them be very friendly and invite us over for tea, etc, since getting pregnant and having a baby. ; )

Global Librarian said...

Even though most of Europe is not as transient as the US, when you look at statistics they do tend to move far more frequently than the Swiss, even if it is only within the borders of their country. And the Irish have been relocating for centuries. During the Potato Famine, half of the population left for "greener pastures." Everyone I knew in Ireland had at least one set of "American cousins," not to mention their cousins in the UK and Australia.

Although your experience in the Romande area has been different than ours on the other side of the Rosti Line. Perhaps it is more a Swiss-German thing than a Swiss one? Other comments from the French or Italian areas?

Also, we are working on the "get a baby" thing. (See previous post regarding adoption.) Although our reasons for wanting a child have nothing to do with meeting Swiss people! We have been told numerous times that having a baby is a great way to meet your neighbors.

Unfortunately, fertility is not always a convenient method for a variety of reasons...

swissmiss said...

I agree. Even my Swiss husband now has trouble making new Swiss friends because his career path took him out of the circles he started in and then out of the country for several years. Most of his new Swiss friends are the Swiss husbands of my expat friends!

christina said...

100% correct! And everything you said applies to Germany as well, at least small-town Germany. Even though I'm married to a German I (or we, actually) have experienced all those things. Our friends are the friends my husband had before he met me and even he hasn't really made any new friends in the town we moved to 13 years ago. Most of the people here have never been out of their back yards and it shows. It's a very insular, exclusive society and it's REALLY hard to crack the code and get yourself into the club. And it's not just foreigners - when our youngest was in kindergarten I became friendly with a German woman woman who had recently moved to our town and she told me that other mothers had actually said to her face "Well, most of us have know each other since kindergarten, we have our circle of friends and we're not looking for any more." Case closed. She and her family moved shortly after that. Oof.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to state that this is the same "self importance" that most Europeans that I have met have that causes them to be inconsiderate and picayune in my mind.

I thank God that our grandparents had the ability to leave that continent.