Second-Class Commuter – Showing Status in an Egalitarian Culture
...can be cheaper than dining out.
…can be cheaper than dining out.




Have you ever wondered about your social status in Switzerland? Has it occurred to you that status shows in mundane details such as the coach class you choose when you are riding the train? It also shows in the health insurance system in Switzerland, and it does not always show in classical status symbols such as a car. Even a suit does not necessarily mean that a person is wealthy. Status shows in the job you have, the restaurants you go to and the language you choose to speak.


In Switzerland, the trains have a first and second class. The second class is usually for the “normal” people, the first class full of business executives and professionals on their daily commute. We love our public transportation system. It’s very effective, on schedule and trains are exceptionally safe and clean. So really, there is no reason to travel first class other than status.

I only went first class on a few business trips. I am a second-class commuter.  By choice. I like to tell myself that I don’t care about my status but in all honesty, this is not true. Often expats and local foreign hires come from a high social status and an elaborate lifestyle in their home countries. Many of my clients tell me that they had at least two maids and a cook, sometimes a driver. They are not used to doing housework or handling their children the whole day. They come here thinking they will thrive in the land of milk and honey (or cheese & chocolate).

And then…the Swiss reality is different.

Life is beautiful in Switzerland – for professional men. Women carry the full burden of running the home, educating the children and if they are professionals they often take a step back in their career once the first child is born. Even if you might be able to afford a cleaning person you will not always be happy with the quality you get for the price you pay. Childcare is expensive and we do not have enough qualified educators around.


Egalitarian Cultures value Modest Behavior

Another culture clash is that “status” here is defined differently than in other countries. Even CEOs take the bus. They do not necessarily drive big cars or wear expensive watches. Their houses seem small. The Swiss tend to be modest. They do not like to show off. They rather define status by the luxury they can afford as in traveling the world, a large number of children and a cottage in the mountains. Luxury is a longer period of time taken off work to follow a dream, being able to volunteer, support an NGO or support the “commune” by being in the fire brigade or in a “Verein”.

Luxury in some families is that one person (usually the woman) can stay at home raising the kids. What can happen that once you arrived in Switzerland unpacked your boxes and got used to the life here, that you feel like a “second-class” citizen? You might feel like you are struggling, working too hard and not going to the mountains as much as you would like to. You might also notice that you have underestimated the need for learning German / French. Often in this phase expats and foreign hires doubt if Switzerland is the right place. Some of them move to the next place.

Remember that this step will cause a bit of pain

This is normal when you build up a new life in a new country. It takes time and real integration in my view only starts about after two to three years. That is when you build a social circle outside of the expat community and when you really feel “at home”. I used to have status in Germany. I was an Executive, a “Leitende Angestellte”. I had an apartment, a nice company car, and a team. I also had a cleaning person, a tailor and enough money for several holidays and trips. Then I moved to Switzerland and suddenly my status changed. You probably wonder how I could let that happen as a Global Mobility Leader. I should have made a net-to-net comparison and request a better package. I should have insisted on coming to Switzerland with an appropriate corporate title AND I should have known that there will be social security risks when I move on a local contract. And yes, despite the fact that I am a Global Mobility Expert I made a few miscalculations. I did not get the deal I deserved and I suffered a few years from this mistake. I accepted the terms of the contract because I was following a dream. I wanted to be in Zurich no matter what. And when you are emotional about a goal in life, you easily forget the pain.


Today, I have status again but I still don’t take the first class on the train. I assume I haven’t convinced myself just yet.


Further reading:–in-a-class-of-its-own/35827762



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