At the age of five, my family moved from Switzerland to the small town of Kemptville, Ontario. So I grew up in a Swiss household in Canada.
As part of my formative education in Canada, I learned about staring and how rude it is. (In fact, I remember how well through elementary school, teachers would scold me for staring at others.) During high school, my sister and I would go to the city with my dad and we realized how much he stared – suddenly it was us saying: “Dad! Don’t stare – it’s rude!”
Years later in Zürich where I was working as a German teacher, many of my expat students would complain about the staring to me, too. Thus, it was interesting to come across an article in the Tages-Anzeiger about this very topic. It is worth a read and the author, David Hesse, comes to a conclusion that might put many who have moved to Switzerland at ease…
Here is a free translation of the piece which was originally published in German. David Hesse has given us his approval:
“About the Swiss Stare” by David Hesse
Immigrants to Switzerland are often left wondering: Why are they so shamelessly stared at by the Swiss? The answer is complicated – and somehow sobering.
She’s leaving Switzerland, flying home to the United States of America. She will miss a few things, she says: Jumping into the lake in summer, the light in the Engadine, fountains with drinking water at every corner and the cleaning cart armada that polishes our public spaces. But she will not miss weighing her vegetables in the shop, high fog, and DJ Bobo. Or the dreaded “Swiss Stare.”
“The first time, I thought: Shit, I’ve got another cornflake stuck on my cheek. Then I realized: They’re staring. At me.”
Whether it is in the S-Bahn, entering a pub, or waiting at the post office with a numbered ticket in hand: The Swiss stare, men and women, young and old alike. They stare at your face, at your stomach, and into your eyes. Switzerland may be a somewhat inhibitory culture in many areas of life (speaking, singing, etc.). But when it comes to staring at others, there seems to be no restraint.
The “Swiss Stare” is longer than what many consider acceptable
Anyone who now thinks that this is a subjective feeling is wrong. The “Swiss Stare” is a problem among expats. “People look at me longer than what is decently acceptable,” complains an American living in French-speaking Switzerland on the Reddit website. And on englishforum.ch, someone anonymously asks for help: “We are constantly being stared at, the glances seem to last forever.”
Someone who has apparently been living in Switzerland for quite some time answers shortly and bitterly: “Welcome to Switzerland.” The staring is something cultural, and no one should feel like they are the reason for the extended gazing. Not like the young woman from the US who writes on her blog: “The Swiss can smell non-Swiss. I can feel them staring at me everywhere. It is frustrating.” That’s the wrong conclusion. The Swiss gaze at everyone, foreigners and locals alike.
In short: It’s not you. It’s us/the Swiss.
If you start to pay attention to this, it will quickly become clear that the immigrants are right. We stare at each other often and without shame. In the tram, through the hairdresser’s shop window, when passing by on the sidewalk. Why do we all look at each other so intensively? Are we jealous, afraid, or attracted?
Sometimes, it is grotesque, as an Australian living here explains: “When a glass drops and breaks in a restaurant, the room becomes silent, and everyone stares. They’ll turn their heads, and some will even stand to get a better look.”
When you are in a foreign culture, you need to adapt to the local customs, of course. For many Anglo-Saxons, however, cultural understanding ends when it comes to being stared at. “It is weird! In the United States and Britain you learn as a child: don’t stare at people, that’s rude. The Swiss probably skipped that lesson though,” wrote a Zug based woman from Georgia on her website.
Staring is not appropriate, it is rude. If you start typing in the phrase “Why are the Swiss…” on Google, the search engine will try to autocomplete your query with “Why are the Swiss so rude?” Staring is the most frequently mentioned problem – apart from disinterested service personnel, an inability to queue and interestingly enough, repeated pushing and shoving done by pensioners. Do we need to revise our self-image?
Maybe, though, as one Canadian believes the Swiss stare is a mark of “honesty and openness”, and not rude at all. Follow his logic: Anyone who opens their eyes is somehow open. But that argument is not very convincing. Our staring is not inviting. The stare is vigilant, writes an ethnologist, who is also from Canada, on his blog How to be Swiss.
Staring is an indication that, as a small country amidst stronger neighbors, Switzerland has agreed on a kind of collective early warning system. “By keeping an eye on everything, the Swiss ensure that everything is right in their world.” In other countries, people look when someone has cornflakes on their cheek, so something has already happened. In Switzerland, however, staring is preventive.
It is a sobering thought. We are living a life on alert. Maybe that explains the certain tension around here. One could actively oppose it and look at the world with more curiosity rather than scepticism. It would be good for us. Sometimes, you need to look at yourself from another person’s perspective to truly understand yourself.