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.