Developing a deeper understanding for your host culture allows you to feel more immersed in the environment, but also show more respect to the people around you. That is exactly how I felt after my meeting with Sophie. Sophie helps to organize some of the events for the school with the local community and was happy to answer some questions for me. She was raised in Switzerland and has lived in here most of her life so she has a good understanding of the culture.
One of the areas we focused on was formality vs. informality. It can be seen as simply as the way people dress. The Swiss people are very formal. It is a bit more relaxed in the Italian part of Switzerland, but in both the French and German parts it is even more ingrained in the culture. Unlike back home, you do not leave your house in sneakers and sweatpants unless you are actually going to work out. It is important in the culture to dress a bit more formally. If you walk downtown, you will certainly see numerous men walking around in suits and many women dressed up in heels to do some shopping. There is formality in the way you address people as well. The language itself has more levels of formality for simple greetings. “Ciao” many be the way that you greet your friends, but when speaking to someone older than you or that you don’t know, you should greet them with “Buon giorno.” This is done purely out of respect, as a considerate gesture of formality.
We also discussed the concept of independence vs. dependence. Swiss society as a whole is far more independent than American society. It is easy see on a daily basis. On my walk to class I will see children seeming to be as young as five or six years old walking to school alone. This is something that would never be seen back home. Obviously, there needs to be consideration given to the fact of safety, which does not pose as much of a factor here as back home. However, society at large in Switzerland puts much more emphasize on independence. Sophie told me stories of walking to school alone when she was seven and staying home alone when she was six. Children are expected to be much more independent and bear much more responsibility at a young age. Another topic she discussed was the schooling system. The somewhat traditional American way of going to college right after high school is not typical for the Swiss. Only 25% of the youth in Switzerland go to college and most of the rest begin intensive apprenticeship training for their career. There is less of a gap for young individuals to try new things and figure out what they want to do and more of a focus on getting into the workforce and establishing yourself. An idea that likely stems from the focus on independence in Swiss culture.
One of the most interesting topics we talked about was equality vs. hierarchy. Sophie gave me an explanation about the political system in Switzerland. Switzerland operates under direct democracy. This means that any change within the country comes from the people. If the population is able to get a certain number of constituents to petition for a change the governing bodies must consider it. For example, a few years ago a large group of constituents motioned to make the minimum wage in Switzerland $25/hour. Since enough people got behind the idea it was put to a nation wide vote. Ultimately it was not passed, but it provides an example of how change in Switzerland comes from the bottom up. This provides the feeling of having importance in the society. The lack of hierarchy allows citizens to feel as though they have a say in what happens to their country.
Sitting down with Sophie gave me not only a better understand of how certain cultural practices work, but also the reasons behind them. Sophie was able to share personal experiences that gave me insight into the impact that these culturally identifying factors have on the locals.
When I think of local communities that I have not gotten involved in on campus, greek life comes to mind. Coming into college I had numerous negative stereotypes of what greek organizations were and ideas of what joining one would be like. The longer I have spent around these organizations, the more I have seen some of the amazing individuals involved and some of the wonderful things they do. It is easy to have preconceived notions and not take the time to dive deeper and understand things. However, when you take the time to get to know people for who they are and not just how they appear, you develop a new understanding of what it means to be human.