As cross-cultural trainers, one of the hardest things we do is provide our clients with useful guidelines to Swiss culture and behavior without peddling mere stereotypes.
Clare O’Dea’s new book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation behind Ten Myths, achieves the same difficult balance. Using a set of clichés as a jumping-off point, O’Dea examines political neutrality, banking practices, women’s suffrage, the ban on minarets, and a range of other controversial topics in an even-handed way. Although light in tone and highly readable, the book approaches its diverse subject matter with the seriousness it deserves. After years of working as a journalist in Bern, O’Dea knows how to get to the heart of her subject, combining liveliness with impeccable research.
Each stereotype the author approaches is placed in its proper historical and cultural context and then brought up to the minute with interviews and anecdotes. We are fascinating to learn about the Swiss fight for women’s suffrage through an interview with a 98-year-old leader of the movement, to read what former Federal Councilor Pascal Couchepin has to say about the behavior of the Swiss during the Second World War, and to find out what an ETH professor does when his application for Swiss citizenship is rejected by his local community. The words of private bankers, Verdingkinder (indentured children), lesbian mothers, and even Anne Frank’s Swiss cousin mingle with O’Dea’s own prose to offer a variety of perspectives on what it means to be Swiss.
One of the many interesting subjects addressed in the book is how this idea of “Swissness” is legally defined. In order for food products to be labeled “Made in Switzerland,” for example, 80% of their raw materials must be of Swiss origin. (So where does that leave “Swiss” chocolate?) We also learn that international consumers are willing to pay, on average, 50% more for a watch or luxury item that is Swiss. Swissness has a calculable monetary value, as the counterfeiters who produce and sell forty million fake Swiss watches every year obviously know.
The Naked Swiss grows out of Clare O’Dea’s skills as a researcher and journalist. Its roots, though, lie in her personal life. As an Irishwoman married to a Swiss and raising three Swiss-Irish daughters in the bilingual canton of Fribourg, she is confronted with the complications and contradictions of Swiss life every day. Writing about people from other cultures who have chosen Swiss citizenship, as she herself did in 2015, she says, “We are not typically Swiss, but we accept the Swiss project as a worthwhile undertaking, and we have adopted the Swiss way of life, whether we realize it or not. We tut-tut when the train is three minutes late…. In much the same way that we have learnt to understand the importance of gender identity as opposed to biological gender, there is room in [our]…definition of Swiss for anyone who feels Swiss inside.”
The Naked Swiss: A Nation behind Ten Myths was published by Basel-based Bergli Books in 2016. It can be ordered from the publisher and is on the shelf in a number of Swiss bookstores. It is also available from Amazon.de.
Clare O’Dea has been writing about Switzerland for more than ten years, most recently at swissinfo.ch. She speaks five languages.
Kim Hays was born in the US and has lived in Puerto Rico, Canada, Sweden, and, for the past 29 years, Switzerland. She has worked in the cross-cultural training field since 1999. At present she’s writing novels.