About the time in Switzerland

When talking about Switzerland, people usually think about mountains, chocolate, cheese and watches. In the 16 years I’ve lived in Switzerland I have adopted several habits, but one in particular seemed quite impressive to me. It’s the swiss perception of time, the swiss punctuality.

When I moved to Switzerland at the age of 18, I already knew the country. I grew up in Northern Italy, next to the Southern border of Switzerland and spent many holidays in the Confoederatio Helvetica (i.e. CH for Switzerland). But living in Switzerland was something different.

During the first weeks I realized that I had to reconsider my concept of time. It were the 80ies and I came from Italy, where being punctual meant to be more or less 30 (sometimes even more) minutes late. So, when I knew that I had to spend a few years in Switzerland, I decided to first observe people and their swiss way of life.
I quickly realized that Swiss people have a special connection to time. They seem to have an innate feeling for it. You always know the exact time, as there are clocks at almost every corner. – Yes: Switzerland and watches go hand in hand. If a bus or tram is supposed to leave at 08:32, it doesn’t wait any second longer. Public transport is aligned such that you don’t have to wait longer than 10 minutes to change to the next train, bus or tram. – It took me a while to get used to this. Every time I had to take more than one means of transportation, I started up to one hour earlier (depending on the distance I had to travel), because I was afraid that one bus, tram or train would be cancelled or that I would miss a connection.

Time is important in Switzerland. Not only when you travel. If you’re invited at 7pm, you are expected to show up at 7pm. In the western and southern part of Switzerland, people tend to be more relaxed and do even appreciate if you turn up at 7.05pm (or a bit later).

Even groups of people manage to be very punctual. I remember that we rarely waited for late comers. If you were late, you had to find another way to catch up the others (we didn’t have cellphones back then!). And “late” was everything exceeding 15 minutes. – Nowadays people would call, but still: being late is a sign of rudeness.

After 16 years in Switzerland and subsequent 12 years spent in other countries, I still consider punctuality as very important. Even my children who grew up in Italy and the Netherlands don’t like to come late and consider being on time as a sign of respect even if I didn’t teach them. –  I believe that they were born with that skill – they are all half Swiss though…

I adopted a different sense of time in Switzerland. I never really managed to be as punctual as Swiss people, as I’m always too early, but I adopted this habit of not being late. It is one of these things of another culture that we embrace without questioning, sometimes even without realizing that it becomes part of ourselves.

Do I expect punctuality in other countries or from people who didn’t experience the „Swiss-time“? Not always. I do expect people to come on time for meetings or to more formal appointments. But I also enjoy the more relaxed paste at social meetings. With people who have another, wider perception of time, I usually fix appointments in a way to be sure to meet on time: one of my friends who always comes 30 minutes late, I set the meeting 30 mins earlier to be sure she comes on time.

Did you have similar experiences with cultural related time-perceptions? What kind of time-perception do you have?

This is an updated post called “Swiss punctuality” that I originally wrote for the “Adopt a Culture” series  on Nomad Parents.

Categories: Switzerland

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17 replies »

  1. I was always a late person until my kids arrive. My husband and children hate being late so I have adjusted to their ways. I am never early though…ever. Usually I make it just in time. In Southern California everyone is very relaxed about time. Not only are people late, so don’t call to say they are late and some don’t even show up. It makes it very difficult to make plans with people. My mother used to lecture me on the being late all the time saying it shows a lack ot repect for those waiting. As usual, she was right. Congrats on the guest post!

    • Nate, I must apologize. I don’t know what happened, but I did reply to your comment weeks ago. It just didn’t appear and I realized only now (!)… I’m sorry!
      It’s very interesting what you say about the Southern Californian time-perception. It’s similar to the mediterranean countries I guess 😉 I’m convinced that if I hadn’t moved to Switzerland and if I hadn’t made this experience, I would probably still arrive “a bit later” than expected. Unless motherhood would have changed this habit… I was a quite relaxed person before moving to the “clock-country” where time is gold(en).

    • That’s interesting! Did they borrow these 15 minutes from the “quart d’heure accadémique”? Usually it’s indicated as c.t. (cum tempore: “with time”) – the “opposite” would be s.t. (sine tempore: “without time/sharp”) in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium, as far as I know.
      – I didn’t know that “les Vaudois” have a name for it 😉

  2. Oh yes, I guess. I love the expression “Il n’y a pas le feu au lac”: it’s the lac Léman, right? [engl. “There is no panic” ;-)] Do you know the expression “Ya pas le feu dans les montres”? I heard it somewhere in CH, but can’t remember who said it, where he or she came from… hm…

  3. One of the things that nearly stopped my relationship with my wife (she was then my girlfriend) was her attitude to time. As a Brazilian she has a very fluid definition of time and it used to drive me mad. I have had to become less obsessive in order to survive in this country, and she has become a but more punctual in order to keep our relationship going.

    • Stephen, I can really understand your problem with punctuality. I have a few friends who have “a very fluid definition of time”, like you say, and it’s very difficult to combine outings with my other friends who are much more strict. With some of them I adopt the trick mentioned in the post (by telling them an earlier time). – It’s funny that you consider being “obsessive”: I imagine you’re much less “strict” than many people I know 😉
      Can you share what would be the average time one can wait for an appointment in Brazil (and where in Brazil)? That would be very interesting to know.

      • That’s a difficult question to answer. For social occasions it is not uncommon for people to say they will go and then never turn up at all. In private business, especially those that deal with international companies, they are quite punctual. For the public sector, forget it.

  4. Great post. I also have a very “fluid concept of time” that I have grown up with in Southern California. My husband is from the North of England and he was taught punctuality as a sign of respect. We have been at odds with this difference on so many occasions! Of course, motherhood has helped me step up to punctuality a bit, and I hope to improve even more so especially with an upcoming move to Switzerland! I think I might have to have x2 watches set! With more strict time keeping, I’m sure I will look forward to the weekends and “free time” as times where I can be more relaxed about it : )

    • Tanya, that’s an interesting point: motherhood and our time perception. I think that’s a moment where many parents change, right? I became less strict about time thanks to my children. Someone else would become less “fluid”. – I think, once you live in Switzerland, you’ll find a way to adapt to this. And like you say: you’ll still have the weekends 😉

  5. I grew up in Colombia where the view of time is similar to Italy’s, but as an adult I learned that being late was disrespectful to people who were expecting promptness. My wife (a Colombian) tries very hard to be prompt, but somehow doesn’t calculate the full hour it takes her to get ready into our preparations, so we are still frequently late.

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