Etiquette & Language

Language Greetings Quiet Times

French Language in Geneva

The good news about Geneva is that you can pretty much do everything you need to do with only the very basics of French if you speak English. Knowing how to say “bonjour,” “bonsoir,” and “merci” will go a long way. The bad thing about Geneva is that because it’s so easy to get by with English, people stay here for years without ever learning French.

Also, even as your French improves, the Genevois are still going to know that you are an English speaker, and even as you start the conversation in French, they will often respond immediately to you in English. It’s great for communication, but not great for practicing your French. Don’t take it as an insult, though – chances are their English is much better than your French, so it’s more expedient, and they simply want to practice their English just as you do your French.

Here are a few options for learning French in Geneva:

  • The University of Geneva offers excellent summer courses for all levels and of varying lengths. If you sign up really early, there’s also a discount on the price.
  • Cours au Parc is free group language learning, set in Geneva parks during summer afternoons. They’ll divide you into groups based on your language level, and there’s no need to come every day if you can’t make it.
  • Geneva’s CAGI office runs the Language Exchange Programme, a free service to all Geneva residents that will pair you with someone looking to improve skills in your language.
  • Duolingo, which is free, is also a great option.

Generally, you’ll find that French in Geneva is fairly similar to what you’ll use elsewhere, but there are two very important words you need to know. The Genevois do not say “quatre-vignt-dix” for 90. Instead, they “nonante”. (Some cantons, mostly Vaud, also substitute do not say “septante” for 70 “huitante” for 80, though you’ll rarely hear them in Geneva.)

For those of you not in Geneva on a carte de legitimation, you may be required to reach a certain level in French before receiving a residence permit due to new immigration law effective January 2019. Read more here.

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The Swiss are really big on saying hello, and it’s rude if you don’t say it, so if you don’t learn any other French right away, learn bonjour (good day / hello) and bonsoir (good evening). You’ll use both very often. Generally, the person approaching is the one who greets first.

As best as I can tell, there’s no specific time on when to start saying bonsoir, though you’re usually safe to do so startingaround 5:30pm or so, except in the summer when it’s more like 6:30pm. There will be so many times when you say bonsoir, and the other person responds with bonjour, and vice versa. They’re not necessarily correcting you as it’s all a bit relative – just take the greeting and move on.

That said, while you’ll be greeting more people than you probably do elsewhere, it’s not common to ask someone “how are you?” unless you know them. It’s too personal to ask as soon as you meet, so just keep it to saying hello at first.

When you are departing from a place like a restaurant, you’ll generally issue a group of phrases all at once, something like “Merci. Bonne journée. Au revoir.” (thanks, have a good day, goodbye), and they’ll respond similarly.

When you meet a Swiss person in a social or professional setting, you’ll generally shake their hand for the first time. After that, it gets a little weird. Sometimes you’ll have to give them three cheek kisses where you don’t actually kiss their cheek, but you kind of touch cheek to cheek and make a kissing sound, starting with the left cheek, moving to the right one, and then back to the left. It’s so confusing and awkward, and you’ll have to make the decision very quickly.

Watch this video for the best description I’ve heard regarding cheek kisses.
  • In Geneva, unlike in other parts of Switzerland, it’s quite common for men to do the cheek kisses, though a handshake is always sufficient.
  • If you’re greeting a non-Swiss person for the first time, you’re much more likely to do the kisses.
  • Hugs are generally never the appropriate greeting unless the person is American.
  • If you’re greeting multiple people, you’ll need to physically greet each of them separately, though you can use different techniques as addressed in the video linked above.
  • Overall, it’s important to just be ready for it. That will make it slightly less awkward.

Quiet Times

Geneva is a bit of a quiet city, generally, but there are particular things you need to know about exactly how quiet the city is before you run into issues.

Generally, Geneva apartments observe quiet hours of 10pm-7am, and this means different things based on the type of building you live in. In some Geneva apartments, the sound of a toilet flushing is so loud that it can wake people up at night. If you’re in one of these apartments, you will be considered rude if you flush the toilet or shower during the quiet hours. The basic rule is that you cannot make any noise during this time that would reasonably be heard in your neighbor’s apartment.

In other places, it’s not as strict, but you may want to refrain from washing clothes, vacuuming, playing loud music, or having guests over during quiet hours. Sunday is effectively quiet hours all day along, perhaps not necessarily so in your lease but by tradition, so be sure to make as little noise as possible. (That said, even in the year I’ve been here, Geneva has progressively become more lively on Sundays, so perhaps this tradition is fading as well.)