Switzerland. What comes to mind?
Skiing in the Alps?
Switzerland is a picture perfect postcard of a country. Switzerland’s tourism board has been bending backward to present a clean, proper, idyllic and somewhat fairytale image of our country. Sanitized cuteness, served with a side of gold. To round this off, Zurich repeatedly ranks as one of the top three cities in terms of standard of living.
And yet, as someone who has spent her life living in Switzerland, I am aware of what lies behind the postcard and the terrible price that Switzerland’s quest to look perfect can take on the society’s individuals.
First of all, yes. It is wonderful to be able to live here.
The nature, the landscape, the territory is so stunningly beautiful that it is humbling. Hiking, mountaineering, sailing, rafting, biking, skiing, camping, our love of the outdoors is… in our nature. And we place a lot of value on taking care of it. And yet, Switzerland isn’t perfect. It’s perfectionist.
Humans have flaws. We make mistakes. And, in any society, people struggle. So, when you’re committed to seeming perfect at any cost, you’re often just denying any problems rather than actually working through them.
However, before we dig into what lies behind the picture postcard image, let’s look at WHY Switzerland is such a perfectionist. Just like individual perfectionists, the Swiss culture’s perfectionism comes out of a deep, deep sense of insecurity. In Switzerland’s case, it’s a geographical insecurity.
France, Germany, Italy, Austria (and the countries, principalities and Empires that preceded them) have long looked at Switzerland like a piece of delicious Swiss chocolate that they wanted to break a piece off from and devour!
Why did the Swiss survive this long? Thank the Alps!
These massive walls of rock that run through are country seem predestined to serve as protection. They’re almost insurmountable (even to us; it’s a hassle to get cross the north-south axis, there are only very few actual roads connecting the north and the south of the country), so in case of a threat, let’s all hide and attack from there; ground troops would never be able to find us and conquer us, and—with our canons and weapons hidden in the massifs— they would never know what hit them. The Swiss developed a highly disciplined military culture that led to them being the most prized mercenaries in Europe and they often served as the personal guards of Kings. To this day, the Swiss Guard is in charge of protecting the Pope in the Vatican.
This military culture often comes as a surprise to people outside of Switzerland who think of Switzerland and think of neutrality. However, these are actually the two sides of the Swiss strategy for survival. Project neutrality and harmlessness but always be ready for a fight if it comes. Switzerland, like the infamous Swiss Army Knife, is ready for anything.
This strategy of acting harmless but actually being deadly is a classic evolutionary strategy that is used by many, many animals.
This precision, discipline and commitment to order manifests in the country running like, well, a Swiss watch. However, the historical fear of taking a side in any of the conflicts around us, leads the Swiss to often act without conscience.
In 1942, our Federal Council said “the boat is full” describing our country as the life raft in the midst of the unfolding hell of World War II. Well, the boat wasn’t full. Our highly restrictive refugee politics were soaked in anti-Semitic views and playing nice with the Germans was more important than the lives of thousands of Jews who were literally running from the devil. The boat was only full for them. This lack of moral conscience manifests in our arms dealing. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the World Bank, we are the fifth biggest arms supplier per capita in the world. So, we’re “only” sending some military equipment (like anti-aircraft guns, naval weapons, and planes). And we’re “only” sending them to regimes accused of human rights abuse… included Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and China.
In part, this comes back to the Alps again. There just aren’t that many ways to make a living in the mountains. You can raise cows and then turn that milk into cheese for long-distance transport. You can use Swiss neutrality to promise people a place to keep their money safe as a banker. You can be a mercenary. And you can promote a picture perfect image that BOTH drives tourism AND distracts people from your status as arms dealer and banker to the world’s criminals. However, talking about these problems with my fellow Swiss people is virtually impossible. The Swiss are always on guard. They remain emotionally bottled up and unwilling to reveal any sense of imperfection. If you’ve ever seen the movie Election, Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick is amazingly Swiss in her thinking.
Swiss culture operates like The Weakest Link. Reveal weakness and you get excluded from society.
Sometimes, cleanliness is achieved by cleaning up and dealing with problems. However, often in Switzerland, problems are simply ignored or swept under the rug. During the eighties, Switzerland could not figure out how to deal with heroin addiction. And so, with the typical focus on Swiss cleanliness, Zurich began handing out clean needles in its main park. By the nineties, “Needle Park” had gotten out of control. The whole world gasped in shock at the filth of Zurich’s drug scene, the obscenity of thousands of drug addicts in the streets, close to Zurich’s main station. That wasn’t quite the image we wanted to market to the world, so in came the police, and within a few days, there were no more drug addicts on the streets. Out of sight, out of mind. You guessed it: Those people are still out there, suffering in hiding, disavowed.
The Swiss obsession with perfection leads the Swiss to build invisible Alps between each other that leads to a deep sense of disconnection. In the densely urbanized, highly industrialized plateau, people tend to hide their—heaven forbid!—vulnerability behind accumulated degrees, sculpted bodies, fancy houses, well-groomed kids (often on Ritalin), impressive job titles or some sort of fame. (The “I AM somebody” trap.) In the more rural areas, people hide behind non-communication, closed-off-ness, vigilance and utter mistrust of anything that’s not exactly like them. (The “Everyone but me sucks” trap). This closed-offness leads to foreigners (people with different cultural blindspots) seeing things about the Swiss that they can’t see about themselves.
Why are you Swiss so uptight?
Why are Swiss so emotionally anemic?
Why are you guys working all the time?
Why are Swiss not spontaneous?
Why are you people so unfunny?
Do Swiss people have sex at all? (Dating in Switzerland is like trying to tunnel through the Alps. Hard!)
It also leads to Switzerland having a pretty debatable national identity. The emergence of the nation goes back to the founding oath in 1291, when the three original cantons (provinces) concluded an alliance. Gradually, other regions joined the confederation, and we became a patchwork country. Not really because of a shared identity, but rather because it was only by banding together for our mutual defense that any Canton stood a chance against the Germans, French, Italians and Austrians. We may not like the other cantons but we like being eaten by the Germans even less.
From a very young age, I realized I wasn’t perfect and that admitting weakness was social suicide. And so, as I’ll detail in my own cultural confession, I went to extraordinary lengths to try and be something I wasn’t. As a person with some fame in Switzerland, I’ve tried to address this there. While the world was ready and eager to hear my real-ness, my thoughts, my questions, the Swiss were not. I am not surprised. Why would they admit weakness? That would be social suicide.
Like Tracy Flick, on the inside, many Swiss people are picture perfect facade but, on the inside, we’re emotional “Swiss Cheese.”
(By the way: What Americans call “Swiss Cheese” is actually one of the most boring, bland kind of Swiss cheesese—entre nous: quite rubbery. It’s “Emmentaler”, and I hardly EVER see a Swiss person eat it. We call it “Rubber-Eagle”. Oh, and as for many of those “Swiss”-labeled goods I see in grocery stores overseas? Sorry to bum you out, but those are SO not Swiss. “Swiss Rolls” and “Swiss Miss”? Look. We wouldn’t dare to sell you such crap. Nor would we eat it. Why would we? It’s less than perfect. And that only makes the Swiss aware of their insecurities.)