One of the biggest complaints I hear at our Welcome Coffees from recent arrivals to Geneva is how difficult it is to meet friendly people in the shops, on the street or at the gym. The perception is that Swiss people just aren’t nice. But consider this; when you walk out your door only one in two people living and/or working in Geneva are actually Swiss.

Take a look at the following 2014 statistics provided by the Canton of Geneva and then think about what influences are at work in our city.

Genevois: The total population in 2014 of the Canton of Geneva was 482,545 of which 35% were Genevois, 24% were “confédérérs” (a.k.a. other Swiss) and 41% were foreigners.

French: The French population living in Geneva is 29,361 and another 77,900 are crossing the border to actively work in Geneva.

Portuguese: The Portuguese are the largest foreign group living in Geneva with 37,388 citizens. In the 1980s, Switzerland had a special agreement with Portugal which invited workers to come and fill the gaps in the Swiss work force with the understanding they would return to Portugal. Twenty years later, when my son was in elementary school, the Portuguese students were excused Tuesday afternoons to attend Portuguese language classes arranged by their country.

Italian: Historically Italians started coming to Switzerland already back in the 1870s with the building of tunnels. However, the Italians I have met are first or second generation Swiss though many have not naturalized. They are the third largest foreign population in Geneva with 21,059 citizens. Like the Portuguese, they have been granted special access to Italian language classes during school hours.

The other large numbers of nationalities in descending order are Spanish, British, Germans, Kosovars, Americans, Russians and Brazilians.

A few more interesting statistics:

Language: Nearly three quarters of the Genevan population speak only one language. Of that group 61% are not Swiss.

Religion: Ironically the city of Calvin now consists of 37% Roman Catholics, 35% no affiliation, 12% Protestant, 5% other Christian, 5% Muslim, 1% Jewish.

So what do all these numbers mean? To me it indicates that the Genevois have a high tolerance and openness to foreign nationals. Can you imagine living in your own country where half of the population (when you include the work force) is non-Swiss? The positive aspect, is the “live and let live” attitude. One of my Swiss teachers once shared that she felt she could only live in Geneva. Her husband was African, and thus her daughter was bi-racial. She believed that in any other canton, her family would be stared at and ostracized.

The down-side is that many nationalities keep company with their own nationalities. My neighbors are Turkish, Belgian, Italian, Swedish, English, French and Swiss.  It seems hard to find a common ground amongst us to be social. However, I did notice that doors started opening up to me once people had seen my face around for 5 years and I had learned some French. This has held true on the playground, at the grocery store, around the neighborhood and at our mountain home.

Lastly, notice how the cantonal statistics separate the Genevans from the other Swiss. Historically, Switzerland’s cantons prefer to keep their autonomy. Geneva, surrounded mostly by France is far removed from the rest of Switzerland. My non-Genevois Swiss friends like to explain how Geneva is not representative of Switzerland. Our citizens tend to not follow rules, be a bit less tidy and a lot more laissez-faire.

With all that in mind, the question arises “what is Swiss?” I would love to expand on that in another blog.

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