Monday, 17 January 2011

Matters Social

The social occasion in question: Greg's work xmas/New Year party

The context: A midweek company dinner for all divisions, wives and partners invited, an international crowd and one rather nervous Helen

Cultural compare & contrast: To help illustrate the experience, below is a summary comparing and contrasting my general UK work Christmas party experience to the Swiss experience. 

Disclaimer: all social observations are based entirely on the author's own field work, and may not be typical or accurate. They are also meant very nicely and with great fondness for both cultures.

Item 1: Greetings

UK: Enthusiastic to friends, polite to colleagues, studious avoidance of eye contact with all others. Expect zero interaction with groups well known for being cliquey/introvert , e.g. finance (both).

CH: On arrival, grab a drink asap. Then greet as many people as possible, regardless of level of acquaintance, through the ingenious approach of toasting glasses, saying ‘prost’ (cheers) and then doing brief introductions as necessary. Any eye contact, accidental or otherwise, is followed with more or less alacrity by a rapidly approaching glass held at chin height. Seems to be no requirement for further lingering or small talk, as there is a whole room of other people to greet. The initial 20 minutes were excruciating, but as the room filled up with the sound of tinkling glasses and multilingual chattering the environment was most congenial.

Top tip: gleaned from one of our essential Swissness books – arrive early so others have to greet you, not vice versa. 

Helen’s top tip: if not especially Swiss/outgoing, get the first apero down you sharpish.

Item 2: Speeches

UK: Tend to be late in the evening and somewhat rambling, depending on level of alcohol consumption. Can cover almost any kind of topic, include injokes, ribaldry and general inappropriateness.

CH: At 7.15pm sharp, lasted almost exactly 15 minutes, 5 in English and 10 in German. The English version was (relatively) clean. It comprised: a warm welcome, including to an impressive number of retirees; a concise summary of the business performance; some techy jokes and a touching 1 minute silence for a colleague who died in service. This was followed by the German version, which lasted considerably longer, was delivered by a Dutchman, and contained a joke rude enough to make Greg blush and refuse to translate it - 

Top tip: I Must and Shall Learn German.

Item 3: Dinner

UK: A blur, with frequent refilling of glasses and much small talk. Can go on for a very long time, with much waiting between courses.

CH: A blur, with frequent refilling of glasses and much (multilingual) small talk. Delivered to a ballet of Swiss precision timing, choreographed by a man wearing very white gloves. Dispatched with German-Swiss efficiency.

Top tip: If leaving the table during dinner, check left and right wing mirrors, signal and manoeuvre, or risk a collision with somebody's incoming main course

Item 4: After Dinner Entertainment

UK: If a disco is involved then expect musical taste Russian roulette. Non-dancers head to the bar for safety.

CH: No Russian roulette about it. Euro-pop and power ballads all the way. A small number of intrepid couples took to the stage (yes really) to do a very square and formal style of quasi-ballroom dancing. We were assured that most Swiss young people attend classes of this kind.

Top tip:  It also seemed to be thoroughly acceptable to sit at the table and chat, or to take an early leave (see departures).

Item 5: Departures

UK: Late, stumbling, taxis, kebabs, 'I love you guys' and big hugs all round, even of people whose names will never again enter one's consciousness.

CH: A general level of sensible tipsiness prevailed, so overelaborate expressions of undying loyalty were not required. Leaving seemed to be acceptable as soon as coffee had finished. Style of leave-taking varied by nationality. The Swiss tendency was to say goodbye to as many colleagues as possible in a slightly more selective version of the Apero routine, in reverse. For all others, there was an awkward cross-cultural clash of hand shakes, waves, and cheek kissing (1,2, and 3 kiss variants in evidence with no way of telling which was coming in to land until the nose bump moment occurred).

Top tip: A general policy of smiling pleasantly and getting in a pre-emptive handshake seemed to deter most would-be cheek kissers.


  1. obviously a riotious evening had by all then Helen! Enjoyed the prose - I hope you will remember your own top tips for next time!!

  2. Love it - classic Helen!

    Also sounds rather like my kind of party... except for the German learning.... and the lack of kebab....

    omnomnomnom A large chicken shish with your finest garlic mayo, a dash of salad and a mere sprinkling of pickled chilies, my good man!