Swiss People, Mentality and Demography


Statements about social phenomena are always more than a bit risky: even if based on polls or other statistical data there is much more room (and need) to interpretation than with basic geographical facts or economic figures. Talking about the mentality of any group of human beings is what the Swiss would call hiking the ridge and prone to end up in prejudice.

But while silence may be golden, it won't help you to understand the Swiss - whether you intend to spend your holidays in Switzerland, to study at a Swiss university, to do business with Swiss companies or to immigrate.

Swiss Mentality

Switzerland is deeply rooted in western European culture

If your own background is non-European and you did not have the opportunity to follow grim political debates whether Switzerland should join the European Union or not, you might think this is trivial. Seen from a global perspective, minor differences and subtleties will disappear: Swiss mentality is basically (western) European mentality, based on concepts of freedom, liberalism, pluralism, tolerance and last but not least secularization (which marks a common European difference compared to the U.S.A. many people are not aware of both in Europe and in the U.S.A.).

All efforts by some right-wing Swiss patriots to mark a fundamental difference between Switzerland and Europe must be put into this perspective. (When talking here of right-wing Swiss patriot, I mean the so-called «Schweizerische Volkspartei SVP» and Mr. Christoph Blocher, you might compare this party in some way with the Tea Party in the U.S.A., the UKIP in the UK or the Front National in France.) But one should always keep in mind that Swiss philosophers, politicians and scientists have made major contributions to the common European heritage and Switzerland was among the first nations on the continent to adopt a modern democratic constitution and implement it in real everyday life. This being said, we might try to find some subtle Swiss specifics.

The Swiss like smallness

Most Swiss would agree that small is beautiful and there is a widespread reservation if not resentment in Switzerland towards anything and anybody boasting with greatness. The Swiss love for smallness is perfectly expressed in the Swiss German ending -li added frequently to nouns (as in Guetzli [cookies], Müesli [the Swiss variant to granola cereals] or the famous Chuchichäschtli [cupboard]). -li is derived from an old German equivalent to the English word little. The German speaking Swiss (74% of the total population) share their fondness for -li with southwestern Germany (there the ending is -le). Though this would suggest that liking smallness is a common Alamannic heritage, even most French and Italian speaking Swiss would probably agree that small is beautiful, especially if that implies that the German speaking majority in Switzerland does not become too dominating ...

Hedgehog mentality

Confronted with danger, a hedgehog will convolve and show its pricks. The hedgehog metaphor became popular before and during World War II when little Switzerland was surrounded by Nazi Germany (including Austria), fascist Italy and Vichy France ruled by a regime depending on Hitler. The so-called hedgehog syndrome has been perpetuated during the Cold War.

There is a significant difference, however, between the German and Italian speaking parts of Switzerland vs. the French speaking part, rooted in the fact that both Hitler and Mussolini claimed that all German and Italian speaking regions should be incorporated into Germany respectively Italy. The German and Italian speaking Swiss population was heavily exposed to these claims and to the corresponding propaganda while the French speaking Swiss population was somewhat screened off behind a language bareer and France did not make any similar claims. Up to the present there is a significant difference of attitude concerning foreign politics between Switzerland's language regions.

That's why the German and Italian speaking parts of the country stick to their dialects in all areas of public life (including politics and science), while the French speaking minority seems to emphasize "francophonie" to mark their cultural autonomy against the German speaking majority in Switzerland by eradicating all but minor traces of dialect - dialects would separate them from France which has always been seen as a strong big brother helping against the German-speaking majority in Switzerland.

Perfectionism, Precision and Punctuality

Precision and punctuality are quite highly estimated throughout western Europe, but there is little doubt that the Swiss are model students in these disciplines. Perfectionism as the major ingredient to celebrated Swiss quality may convert into impatience or pedantry sometimes, however.


Switzerland used to have one of the highest savings rates some decades ago and every child got acquainted quite early to the piggybank. Appeals to cut public spending are still relatively popular while it seems that on an individual level attitudes towards spending and saving money are converging to European average values.

The beautiful Swiss machine

Some 40 years ago former Swiss Radio International entitled a country profile with these words still valid today. Living in a vulnerable ecosystem (the Alps), and tourism being a major source of income, the Swiss have been forced to learn to cooperate with nature rather than fighting it or exploiting it ruthlessly. Neverthelessthe lack of raw materials and the high population density have led to an early industrialization. The result is a habit to seek the fragile balance between nature and technology: While bringing latest high tech equipment to the most distant backcountry village is a widely accepted strategy of regional politics in Switzerland, the preservation of awesome natural monuments is rated equally important. Of course in everday politics this is not something that is happining automatically, it is rather the result of intense political debates. The specific Swiss aspect is probably just the fact that a large majority of the population is at least aware that economic growth and all those modern things making life so comfortable are also a danger to nature.

The Swiss may not be more ecology-minded than other people from a "moral" point of view and in fact as individuals they often decide in favour of convenience rather than sustainability but politcally they are certainly quite environmentally conscious taking into account mid- and long-term cost of large-scale investments. Though tax paying is not more popular in Switzerland than in any other country, the Swiss electorate is willing to invest large amounts of public money into railroad infrastructure aiming to reduce road haulage and metropolitan commuter traffic by car.

Participative (direct) democracy

The Swiss have elaborate mechanisms of finding a compromise in every issue instead of taking majority decisions. The Swiss system of direct democracy with frequent referendums is quite exotic when compared in detail with other European systems of parliamentary democracy. Though often criticized as being slow and inefficient by foreign scholars of political science, no political party in Switzerland really wants to change it - neither conservatives nor social democrats and ecologists and even the liberals are foxy enough to realize that long-term political stability and broad acceptance of laws are better for the economy than frequent change of government. Whether the Swiss have a more distinctive need for harmony than other European nations or whether they simply stick to a system that has proved to guarantee stability for decades is difficult to say. One by-product of direct democracy is a high acceptance of decisions taken - once they have been taken.

If you compare large-scale investments to infrastructure in Switzerland vs. Germany you will find that Germans may be faster to get a decision in parliament, while the Swiss will most probably have a referendum after the basic decision in parliament. But when it comes to putting things into practical existence, the Swiss accept what has been decided by a majority in a referendum while protests by movements of citizens just start during that phase of a project in Germany. After all, a large scale project in Switzerland is usually realized at least as fast or even faster and chances are better in Switzerland that they stay within budget.

Federalism and subsidiarity

Taking decisions at the lowest possible level is deeply rooted in Swiss tradition and all efforts taken to change this in any particular field have been fruitless as long as the situation has not become obviously inopportune or even intolerable. This is definitively a major difference compared to most European countries. Germany and Austria do have federal structures too, but Switzerland . While finding out who is competent for a decision might resemble a walk through a jungle of paragraphs for foreigners, the Swiss authorities know quite well what their competences and duties are and act correspondingly - and native Swiss people also know very well who to address with a specific request.

Swiss federalism does, however, not mean that everything is decided on the local level and things don't remain forever as they are. The Swiss federal constitution consists of three major parts - fundamental rights of the individuals, competences and duties of the federal and cantonal authorities and organization of the federal authorities. For the last 150 years the basic principles have remained untouched, but there is at least one minor change to the constitution per year - mostly concerning the responsibilities of the national and cantonal authorities.

Changes to the Swiss constitution must be approved in a referendum and sometimes proposals are rejected, but generally the electorate is willing to accept constitutional changes when administration and parliament are able to present good reasons. Stability as the Swiss practise turns out to be more flexible than one might suppose at first sight.

Multilinguism and multiculturalism

Multilinguism can't be mentioned without addressing a common misunderstanding: The Swiss are not born as natural language talents nor does everybody speak three or more languages fluently. The key (and the limitation, when it comes to modern multiculturalism caused by migration!) is federalism: let the regions have as much autonomy as possible. This helps a lot with the four native languages/cultures because they do have their well defined regions within the country, but federalism does not help with immigrant cultures as the immigrants - coming from more than two dozens of quite different cultures - settle all over the country.

Humanitarian tradition

Keywords like Red Cross, Human rights, asylum and "good services" (substitute diplomatic representation of nations being at odds with each other, for example the USA and Iran) refer to a century old tradition and reputation of Switzerland. While a part of the population is quite proud of this tradition and willing to pay (in terms of money as well as immaterial efforts), others try to undermine it without tearing down the façade all too obviously.

A particular field of debate is asylum politics. Some people cultivate an idealized view on Switzerland's asylum tradition and forget that granting asylum to Huguenots (17th century), liberals (19th century), German/Austrian antifascists (1930's), Hungarians (1956), Tibetians (1959) and Czechs (1968) was strenghtening the position of the majority in Switzerland (or at least in some regions), so it was not really as unselfish as one might suspect. On the other side Jews threatened by Nazi persecution (1930's and 1940's) and more recent groups of refugees did not represent majority views and have not experienced the same warm welcome.

Emigration and Immigration

Reversing Trends: from Emigration to Immigration

Switzerland's population, amounting to 8.3 million in 2015 has tripled since 1880. Since the end of World War II the total population has risen by 75%, while the number of foreign residents has increased by a factor of more than five in the same period (despite naturalizations). Once a poor country sending mercenary soldiers to the service of foreign kings and more than 100,000 emigrants to the Americas during the 19th century, Switzerland has become an immigration country since and foreigners make up now more than 20% of the Swiss population.

Cosmopolitanism vs. xenophobia

Needless to say that this development could not get unnoticed by the native population. While a strong group of (predominantly) liberal urban intellectuals sees immigration as an enrichment and multiculturalism as a chance to cure what they regard as Swiss provincialism, others (predominantly) conservative rural people see Switzerland's identity in danger and demand for restrictions to immigration.

The conflict cosmopolitanism vs. xenophobia has been the dominant political theme in Switzerland for the last 40 years, dividing the country and affecting almost all other issues in some way. The debate has been verbose, heated and sometimes turned quite nasty, but some fundamental questions have hardly ever been touched.

Cultural Identity

One of the undebated questions is cultural identity. Every nation claims a right to maintain its own culture, especially those countries the immigrants to Switzerland come from. What is ignored by cosmopolitans is the fact that you need a "minimal critical mass" to keep a culture alive. And that's where Switzerland's smallness (only 41,000 km2 area and 8 million population with four native sub-cultures) comes in. If there is no "vehicle" to "transport" a specific Swiss culture different from the big neighbours (Germany, France, Italy), an identifiable Swiss culture (and with it the Swiss nation) will simply cease to exist.

On the other hand some conservatives pretend that what they claim to be their cultural identity is a century-old tradition and should remain basically unchanged and untouched forever. They forget or repress the historical fact that most elements of traditional Swiss folklore culture are either common European heritage or have been imported from other parts of Europe or even other continents. Every era in Switzerland's history had its own processes of incorporating and assimilating foreign elements of culture.

Unlike many other issues that have been resolved by a well-accepted compromise after some period of intense political debate, the discussion on immigration, integration of immigrants and further development of Switzerland's culture seems to be stuck in a sort of "trench warfare".

Pluralism, Tolerance and Limitations

When European philosophers defined the principle of tolerance 250 years ago, this was a cultural revolution - and it took Europe 200 years to accept this new principle. Switzerland was among the first European countries that tried to find a way of putting this abstract principle into practice - which was not easy. A major point in implementing tolerance was making sure that religions (institutions) have no right to force their view of life upon any individual.

Today, Europe is experiencing a culture clash between native Europeans and immigrants from non-European countries and one of the major issues is the very concept of tolerance itself (and can't be settled just by appealing to tolerance, therefore): While immigrants claim to have freedom of religion for themselves, based on European guarantees of tolerance, a strong group among them is abusing tolerance granted to them to try to enforce their cultural / religious rules among members of their families. If this takes the form of violence at home or even so-called "honor-killings", religious freedom collides with even more fundamental human rights and that's where European tolerance ends in practice, based on a hierarchy of human rights that puts physical inviolability of the individual person on top of all abstract values.

Most European natives still know that implementing a liberal society with far reaching guarantees of human rights has cost great efforts and they are not willing to abandon again what has been reached and built up over centuries in the name of some "global tolerance". As long as this basic problem is not really addressed, uneasyness and fears among the native population tend to lead to a general xenophobia.

Practical Issues Related to Immigration

The mere overall statistical figures giving a 20% quota of immigrants do not reflect, however, that in some districts of major cities like Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern and Lucerne native Swiss people have become a rare species and in some schools only two or three children per class do have Swiss nationality while in smaller villages the ratio is inverse. Some classes have become new Babylons with more than a dozen different mother tongues and very few children having a clear inner feeling for the rules of the language that is being used for all public communication (administration, business, radio, television and newspapers - unless imported from the countries of origin). Regardless of political choices - multicultural or nationalist - this does pose some challenges to teachers and demands for extra efforts.


Demography: age pyramid of Switzerland's population
Demography: age pyramid of Switzerland's population

Another tendency shared with all other western European countries and in fact all industrialized countries is ageing. In 2005 the excess of births over deaths has sunken to only 11,779. The effect is aggravated by a still increasing life expectancy. Today, Switzerland has more than twice as many inhabitants of age 65 and four times as many over age 80 than back in 1950. Politicians are alarmed about the workers-to-retirees ratio: fewer and fewer workers will have to support more and more pensioners.

Switzerland from A to Z
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