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26.02.2024 |

Culture shock in Tokyo: Swiss manners under the microscope

In everyday life in Japan there are rules clearly defining who should behave how towards whom. This has given me food for thought. Unfortunately, my stay last year was far too short for me to attempt a more in-depth analysis of Japanese communication. However, the impressions I gathered have helped me reflect on the peculiarities of us Swiss.

Especially at the beginning of my trip through Japan, I didn’t like the politeness of the people. I found it exaggerated. For example, if a shopkeeper thanked me with a bow and eloquent words when I hadn’t even bought anything, I just wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Grand gestures of gratitude don’t tend to sit well with the Swiss understanding of modesty. I quickly dismissed them as unnecessary niceties.

It’s not that the Swiss lack politeness in the way they communicate. But even in our neighbouring countries, the customs are very different. The most common error for visitors from across the border is probably being too direct. Whether we’re writing business emails or ordering in a restaurant, in Switzerland we tend to formulate requests in the subjunctive. Otherwise it would be possible that someone might feel offended. This type of behaviour isn’t always met with understanding in other cultures.

Saying it how it is

Conversations in Switzerland also have a clear framework that defines how we communicate. Despite the abundance of subjunctives, we speak clearly. We usually say it how it is. Our approach is pragmatic: as long as you formulate a request in a friendly and respectful way, you can address many things openly. In Japan, on the other hand, I sometimes found myself having to decipher empty words or work out what message someone was trying to get across, as certain topics are simply not discussed directly – especially not with a stranger. That was strenuous, especially because I’m far less familiar with this world than I am with Switzerland.

Of course we have taboos here too, but the way I see it, culture-specific codes are less common. Here you also have to read between the lines, but fortunately not as often. You can’t generalise, of course, but while gestures and facial expressions are also important for us, we use more explicit language.

The Swiss way

The question is, would Switzerland be a better place if we were more or perhaps less polite or direct with each other? Not surprisingly for a Swiss person, I’m a fan of the way we do things here. I think we’ve found a happy medium that allows clear communication but always leaves room for an expression of respect.

Ultimately, formal factors create the framework, but they don’t necessarily make interactions more friendly in terms of what’s actually said. Even so, this framework is important, as it sets clear expectations as to the minimum requirements of a conversation. While I initially thought that with their seemingly exaggerated politeness the Japanese were putting on an act, as time went on I learnt to appreciate it more and more as a sign of universal respect for the other person, irrespective of the relationship. Such customs need to be nurtured, otherwise they become diluted over time. Even though the Swiss way rarely involves grand gestures, it has proven to be an important part of our culture, something to be valued and cultivated accordingly.

About the author 

For Simon Helbling, local manners add flavour to stays in other countries and make every trip a unique experience – and after protracted sojourns abroad tend to leave their mark on his writing as well.