City group hears of provincialism, earnestness of the Swiss

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Swiss industrialist Andreas Bruhwiler, left, president of Alrol of America Inc., talks with attorney Dan Gilmore at a Chamber of Commerce international business event in Chattanooga.

Andreas Bruhwiler emigrated from Switzerland to Dalton, Ga., in to launch in 2003 a company that makes coatings, coverings and industrial rollers. Mr. Bruhwiler and his wife, Daniele, have had to make many adjustments in their lives to account for quarrels in national character.

Mr. Bruhwiler spoke Thursday to business people at a Chamber International Business Council meeting in Chattanooga. His comparison to the Swiss as coconuts and Americans as peaches suggests how relationships among Swiss are deeper and more durable than are Americans’, and how American friendliness may have at center an unyielding pit.

The Swiss are like coconuts, having greater interiority than Americans, Mr. Bruhwiler suggests. They have a thick outer shell, and a rich area of meat and milk inside. The expanse of edible meat suggests depth of character. The Swiss are slow to get personal and maintain dealings at a professional and formal level far longer than Americans. Once you get through the thick shell, there is reward inside, much amity — lifelong friendships, loyalty, deep consideration, thoughtful dealings and consideration.

The thread of Mr. Bruhwiler’s deep — but gently framed — criticisms of Tennesseans and Georgians runs through his talk.

Blunt dealings of a provincial people

Mr. Bruhwiler, 58, seeks to connect with his audience by mentioning the Swiss flag, Swiss cheese and the erstwhile Swiss army knife which seems to encompass what many Yanks know about his fierce and politically neutral nation. He disabuses them of the confusion between the Swiss flag (white cross on a red background) and the Red Cross pennant. The instrument Americans call the Swiss army knife, particularly the red one by Victorinox, is really just a pocket knife. He holds up a standard-issue metallic Swiss army knife that until two years ago was given every inductee on entering universal compulsory military service. Swiss cheese? At Arby’s, it isn’t, he chortles.

The Swiss are respectful and expect courtesy titles. “Be very formal,” Mr. Bruhwiler advises. But the Swiss enjoy the first-name informality of Americans. Compel yourself to be early to a business meeting. In a presentation to Swiss executives, be prepared to answer 90 percent of all possible questions — or expect to make a bad impression. Shake everyone’s hand, always looking your Swiss counterpart deep in the eye. Avoid talk about religion, homosexuality, abortion and politics; Obama would be a “left conservative” in the Swiss multiparty election scheme, he warns. Ma’am, don’t call a Swiss man “hon” or “sweetheart” — “he will take it personally,” Mr. Bruhwiler laughs. Don’t suggest, “Hey, let’s go to lunch one day,” without having your iPhone ready to set a date. If you say, “Hello, how are you?” you are asking a question. So give time to receive the Swiss man’s answer about how he is; if you want no long accounting, simply say, “Hello, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The last point is clearly illustrated after the meeting when Dan Gilmore, an attorney with Chambliss Bahner & Stophel, asks Mr. Bruhwiler about Swiss neutrality versus the Vatican guards with their 16th century long pikes and dandy warlike regalia. Mr. Bruhwiler has the answer, and he expects Mr. Gilmore to stand by and absorb it in detail from a string of two dozen sentences that course back to the 12th century. The Swiss served as mercenaries through Europe because of the difficulty of eking a living from the stony slopes of their home cantons. Mr. Gilmore, who’s read about the matter, takes it all in. ‡

The Swiss want details of the F$100,000 piece of equipment you want to sell them, not merely a quarter-page executive summary. They dislike high-pressure sales tactics, and want the facts. Americans are dogmatic — they think in terms of black and white, Republican and Democrat and the like. Because the Swiss are neutral, they have the advantage of being able to see a conflict from both — or all three or four — sides and to serve as peacemaking go-betweens. “The Swiss think permanently gray. That’s how we live,” Mr. Bruhwiler insists. ‡‡

A trait that arises from Swiss circumspection, oddly, is loyalty. Mr. Bruhwiler said he has stayed at the same Dalton bank in the decade Alrol has operated. He has committed relationships with suppliers not easily disturbed by an occasional misstep. The Swiss commit to other people, and demand their due in a relationship, he says.

The American character dilemma

Whereas the Swiss is a coconut, an American is a peach. He speaks his mind quickly, reveals intimate personal details about wife and children, readily talks about politics and religion, and likes to address other people by first name, even if that person is a superior or a potential client. A thin outer skin covers the American exterior, and a new acquaintance quickly gets to the pulp of inner fruit, Mr. Bruhwiler says. But Americans have a hard seed inside, an impenetrable inner area that Mr. Bruhwiler sounded at, like a treasure hunter pinging down into a lawn for solid objects beneath.

But Mr. Bruhwiler permits himself to go only so far in the analogy of the peach. Analogies are dangerous if one puts too much weight upon them, or reads more meaning into them than they can absorb. He is a businessman, and diplomatic.

What follows is not his discussion, nor even his intended implication, but my perception alone. The pit at the center of the American is a hard thing that has more sources in history, religion, culture and commerce than I can comment on in 40 lines. The softness of the American exterior, the suppleness of his new relationships, his facile familiarity is the pleasing fuzzy covering of the richness inside are perhaps his strength.

Or his weakness

The pit, very possibly, contains his lack of long-term commitment, his disinclination to make lifelong friends, his willingness to be instantly familiar with a new person, and pass from that person’s life with scarce a word afterwards, when circumstances or shifting calendars have driven them apart. He lacks, if you will, the character of the Swiss that is neutral. The American is partisan. He takes sides. He is self-seeking, expansive, aggressive, profit-oriented and comes from a country willing to use military conquest to attain its ends.

A Swiss man knows that his American friend is his friend for the moment. He knows the American may break off the relationship in a change of outlook or interest or address. Malevolence or callousness is not the cause. But simply the American’s willingness to move on, to declutter from past connections that have lost value.

I don’t exclude myself from this generalization, and make it chiefly as a result of introspection and having a connection with Switzerland. I am an American, and share the faults of my people. It was told me by knowing friends in Lausanne that when I left they would hear little from me — and they were right. I was the American who left himself behind as a memory, and became a new man when he returned to his native United States, and made no connection between his new self, and his old.

An aspect of my fault of superficiality and disconnection is enhanced by the intergallactic TV and radio airwaves that homogenize distinct groupings and blend people from diverse locales. My superficiality and rootlessness are enhanced, too, by American legal and political centralization and my willingness to measure all things in terms of the paper dollar. Americans have lost in many ways their provincial leanings, their fierce local alliances and prejudices, their unreasoning biases in favor of their county, or their town. Newcomers to Soddy-Daisy live in a combined municipal corporation formed by two tough one-time rural rivals, the townlets of Soddy and Daisy. Older residents such as writer Bonnie Bryant have a vivid sense of this difference.

The localist core of globalist neutrality

If you’re a typical American, like me, you are starved for a sense of provincialism and belonging. In reading about the Swiss and hearing Mr. Bruhwiler I see something on the plate that is food for my soul. According to a history, the Swiss farmer is:

[A] man bound by tradition and the soil, of few words, reserved and circumspect, tenacious in the pursuit of his aims, clear sighted and realistic in his grasp of the world about him, harshly averse to any kind of romanticism or mere intellectualism, racy and concrete in speech, intent on the preservation of his heritage. (Bonjour, Page 315)

When I read about the fight in Switzerland over the national railroad in 1898, I howl in delight at how the stubborn local yokels in the cantons fought the national power, the Bund, to prevent what might be called an interstate rail system.

His bill was violently attacked both at home and abroad. The [private] railway magnates called nationalization an illegal appropriation of other people’s property. The voting campaign revealed the conflict between state and private economy, between industry and the peasantry, between state and private finance. (Bonjour, Page 322)

The parties for centralization won under the slogan, “The Swiss railways for the Swiss people.”

The Swiss mountain people share something with our own, the Scots-Irish, and when I read of them I feel a twinge of embarrassment at being a global citizen. Prof. Bonjour describes a ring of Alps and how they created “intercommunication”:

The circle is considerable, but it remains closed. Men could use it without finding occasion to emerge from the high valleys; in their travels they merely exchanged the localism of their own valley for that of the next, which would be little different in kind because it was the product of much the same conditions. Conservatism was the air in which much of Swiss history evolved; limitations of experience helped to engender it. (Page 9)

‡ At a diet at Baden in July 1503, all 12 cantons and St. Gallen and Appenzell formally renounced military service with foreign powers and the acceptance of gifts, pensions, annuities and other inducements to recruiting. But the lure of foreign money proved irresistible a long while after.

‡‡ Mr. Bruhwiler, who grew up in Hasliberg, Berner Oberland, says his advice for dealing with the Swiss serves well in working with Germans.

Sources: E. Bonjour, H.S. Offler and G.R. Potter, A Short History of Switzerland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952)