In this episode, we speak to Ben Crawshaw from Zurich Together about how newcomers can use expat groups to build long-lasting friendships.
Originally from Manchester, Ben moved to Switzerland as a child. He is an event manager and the founder of Zurich Together, a large international community that hosts a wide range of events in and around Zurich.
Join us as we explore the Swiss social scene. You’ll learn how to get started as a newbie and why expat groups are perfect for meeting both international people and Swiss locals. And don’t forget to share this podcast with your friends and subscribe to our newsletter at rigby.ch/newsletter for more great content about living in Switzerland.
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Article in Tagesanzeiger about Zurich Together (German)
Basel Together on Meetup
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Today, we are joined by Ben Crawshaw, an event manager based in Zurich. Ben is originally from Manchester, but he has been living in Switzerland for most of his life. Six years ago, he founded Zurich Together, an international community that hosts a wide range of events in and around Zurich.
- Thank you. Thank you for having me.
- Let’s start by talking a little bit about you. So, tell us a little bit more about where you’re from and when/why you came to Switzerland.
- So, I came at a very young age. Originally I'm from Manchester and my dad had a job offer in Switzerland for UBS, the Swiss Bank. And so the whole family moved over. It was, I think it was 1989. So it's been over 30 years since I've been here.
And to be fair, it was probably one of the best decisions my dad has ever made. He gave us a great opportunity to be brought up in Switzerland.
- So overall, you're very happy being in Switzerland.
- Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, life is, the life quality in Zurich is amazing. I was very lucky to grow up in Zollikon, just a village outside of Zurich. And school, education was good.
First, I went to international school. So my English never left me. So, but then my dad decided or my parents decided to that we're going to stay for longer and it will be probably best option to go to the Swiss school.
So I think I struggled, I can't remember too much of it, but I think I struggled at the beginning obviously with no German knowledge at all. Going to Swiss school I think was probably the better decision long term, just to do the whole Swiss education I guess, and then going to high school as well. So I think it was a good choice.
- Yeah, that's right. So I have the same experience that I went to international school part of my time. And I did in Bern, the one in Bern. And a lot of the people, they would only come for two or three years and then they would leave.
So I think the expats who decided to stay long term, they would send their children maybe to Swiss school.
- Yeah, well, to be fair, now, knowing from the school system, I think English has actually been pretty much integrated in the school. At the time, it was only French. And I think only in high school, you had English.
So actually, my godchild is actually learning English in kindergarten already, which is completely different to my times.
- Oh, wow. Yeah. No, because I think in Zurich, they learn English before French and then Bern, the parts closer to the French-speaking part, they learn French first.
- It's been a long time since I've been to school. So for me, it's…
- That's right. So today we're mainly talking about socialising and how to build up a social network. Did you ever struggle with this in Switzerland or has it been easy for you?
- No, it's definitely not one of the easiest places in the world to meet people. People are very career-focused, I would say. But I would say the social scene over the last five to ten years has really, really picked up and it's really become a special place.
I'm talking more about Zurich now than from my own experience. I think a lot of expats have the opportunity now with social media, with the great apps that are existing to actually become a part of a community or find friends a lot easier.
When I was growing up, that wasn't as easy as it was. Obviously with the software, which wasn't around at the time.
But yeah, now I strongly believe there is so many opportunities, there's so many events happening every day from language exchange to going hiking. And I find the platforms that are existing very, very good and high standard.
- Yeah, because the reason we decided to do two socialising in Switzerland episodes is that a lot of people seem to find socialising very challenging, but it sounds like you don't.
- Yeah, well, six years ago I founded Zurich Together. Zurich Together is basically a social network on Facebook and Meetup and all the other channels that exist, where it's just literally going together and making new friends. Nothing networking or dating.
I think there's enough out there for that, but it was basically just a group of people coming together every Thursday for after work drinks and having a good time and meeting for, I don't know, just to make friends. And that small group at the time was, I think was, we started off maybe 10 people. By the end of the week, it was 70 people. By the end of the month, we were 1000 people, it spread so quickly.
- Now it's like 36,000 people and there’s events almost every single day from brunch to hiking to language exchange to going to the cinema. So there is a lot going on and obviously it's all for free and it's all voluntary based from the organizers.
But yeah, I think if you can find a group that does events like that, I don't think it will be that challenging anymore.
I think the only challenging is to keep the friendships alive where it's kind of like in a relationship where you just have to, you know, commit to friendships, you know, and if you, I guess if you're not the most outgoing person, I can see it could be quite challenging. But I think you have to put yourself out there to, to, yeah, make new friends, meet new people, discover Switzerland with these people, and then I think it becomes a lot more easier.
- Yeah, it's interesting what you said about keeping the friendships alive, because for example, I live in London. And sometimes that's a bit tricky because people come and then a little while later, they leave again. Do you find the same in Zurich and Switzerland or do you find that many expats then stay for longer?
- Well, obviously, some expats have, depending on their permit, they only have a limited time, I would say maybe half a year or a year where they can stay here. But in general, I would say 95% of all expats I meet, and I meet a lot every single week. Most people really love living in Switzerland or in Zurich, and they don't want to leave.
So, but it does happen obviously because people get married and new job opportunities. But in general, I would say a lot of people love living here and do try to stay here as long as possible.
But, you know, that's, I mean, I can see the other side as well, when when you actually don't have the courage to come to these groups or try something out, I can see people actually feeling quite lonely, especially outside of Zurich in the little villages around Zurich, that can sometimes be a lonely place because those villages are not necessarily always this English-based, as Zurich is always international.
- Yes. Yeah. Yeah, that's true. So as soon as you go outside of the city, you don't hear so much English. So people really have to sort of come to the city to socialize, maybe especially at the beginning.
- Exactly. Yeah. I think most people that live outside of Zurich, they join some kind of football club or some kind of other club that exists, you know, hiking community. And then that's when you kind of meet these people on a regular the basis.
And then I agree, it's not easy always to find or keep the friendship was alive, right? Because I guess our society has become very fast-paced and a ‘swipe’ sort of society. So it's not always so easy.
You know, I think it's kind of like a relationship as well, where you have to commit and you have to, you know, take the phone, pick up the phone and phone them to actually make arrangements to meet up.
- So what do you suggest that people, maybe people knew to Zurich or those looking to meet others? How do you suggest they overcome that or make these long term friendships?
- Well, first of all, I would join a Facebook group like Zurich Together or Meetup. There's a lot of groups out there from hiking to, I would say there's literally from every kind of hobby, you can find a community, which is nice. So from from chess to anything you can imagine.
So I would suggest that you download one of these apps like Meetup or Facebook and then just see when the next event is and most, actually, most events I have been to the hosts are always really outgoing people and welcome you very quickly and help you integrate.
You know, I can only imagine because I haven't had this for many years, but I think it is quite scary sometimes. It's kind of like the first day of school, going to be 20 people around you, and it can be quite frightening. But mostly these admins and organisers are really, really outgoing people and just help you integrate easily.
- Yeah, as you know, I have first-hand experience because I came to your group the other day, and I didn't know anyone. I mean, I'd obviously met you online, but I didn't know anyone, and I just came to the group, and it really was like that.
You get welcomed by the hosts and then you find whoever you want to sit next to and you start chatting to them, and I felt like everybody was included.
- Yeah, I mean, the group is so big, obviously. You will always find someone, and you will always find that connection and…
How we have built Zurich Together, it should always be in a natural way. Nothing's forced. No, like, name tags on your, on your chest or, you know, it should be just a natural way and not, yeah. And people kind of, they like that way, and, well, the feedback is good and yeah, and they seem to come back.
And then you meet a couple of people the first time and you get quite excited, the ice is broke. You come a second time and then you start to become a regular, and then as soon as nothing, you will have a group of friends and have your own WhatsApp chat and hang out on weekends and go hiking together or go for brunch.
And yeah, that's kind of how it will happen. And mostly people use Zurich Together, for example, exactly for that reason.
And they have their friends after a couple of weeks and they don't wanna meet new people. So they kind of have their closed group and if it doesn't work out, they'll come back in a couple of years later, start again. But in general, Zurich Together and many, many other communities are perfect to meet friends.
- Yeah, that's right. And I think what's important about, for example, your group as well, is that some of the meetups are based around a challenge like the language exchange, you have to speak a language you might not be comfortable with.
And I think that breaks the ice quite quickly. When everybody's a bit uncomfortable, and you have to sort of overcome that challenge together, and then that really helps to quite, get to know people quite quickly, and you feel like you know them well even after maybe only one or two evenings.
- I totally agree because I actually believe that the language exchange event every Monday is a great door opener because there's literally 80 to 100 people every week and I can generally say there's always 20 to 30% of new people joining every week.
So the ice has to be broken every week. So it's always a challenge for a host to catch those people. So sometimes you can see them from a distance being quite shy. And do they join? Do they not join? And you have to kind of go up to them and greet them and give them the confidence and help them get integrated. And that's kind of what what we do every week.
But yeah, because then it's the language exchange is literally sitting at a table of the… every table has its own language. And if you're comfortable with French or English or German, then you just sit there and have a good time and talk and have a beer or two and just talk about anything you want, I guess.
And that's, that's the nice thing about it. There's no ever, no pressure at all, I think.
- And people can leave and come in their own time. So if they've got something else on, they could just stop by for an hour. So that's really convenient as well.
- Yeah, I guess I mean, the language exchange is great for that. I mean, from 52 weeks a year, I think there's only one or two that ever doesn't happen because of Yew Years or Christmas. But in general, it happens every single Monday, and it really does help a lot.
- Yeah, so that might be a great one to get started with if you don't yet know anyone.
- In terms of meeting new people in Switzerland, do you think… This is something we talked about in the last podcast. Do you think it's important to meet locals, like Swiss people, as well, or do you think that meeting expats is enough?
- Well, for me, in general, it doesn't really matter where they come from, because I became Swiss in the meantime anyways. But in Zurich Together case, we have at minimum, I think something between 10 and 50% every single event.
I did a hike trip to Stoos this weekend. From the 50 people on the bus, I counted nine Swiss people. I think a lot of Swiss…
People are quick to judge that there's quite hard to meet Swiss people, but it's not always the case. I think it's quite a hard outside of the city centre, but I've met some wonderful people from Switzerland in these communities or expat communities and most of these Swiss are the ones that have been travelling somewhere in Australia or they've done the US tour, and so they're very outgoing people anyways from nature.
But in general I strongly believe there's a big core of Swiss people now, and I don't think actually a lot of Swiss people knew about these communities themselves because they grew up in their village.
They went to high school and did the football school and scouts and everything that is existing, but they never realized that there's a whole new world of expat scene or an app called Meetup or Facebook that do this kind of group things.
So I guess that is catching on. Zurich Together was in a newspaper just lately, exactly for the same reason. And from that moment on, we had an injection of maybe 2000 people from Switzerland joining the group. And I can tell you now, we have incredible amount of numbers of Swiss people at these events.
- So yeah, so you can even if you go to an expat event, you're likely to meet Swiss people as well.
- Yeah, yeah, cool. I mean, it's amazing. I mean, I personally don't think it's nothing cooler, right?
When you go to a bar and after work drinks and you meet people from Poland, from somewhere in Scandinavia and the British and the Swiss and the mix and the cultures and the stories and how they actually have… The journey to Switzerland is just really, really special sometimes.
Dalai Lama said once, everything you say you already know. And if you learn how to listen to these people you learn a lot more. And I've… some of my best trips are thanks to just interacting with people from from other countries and other cultures to actually see a whole new world, from secret insights or little gems somewhere on an island, somewhere around the world.
So yeah, it's definitely something cool to do.
- And that's probably why some of these Swiss people want to come to the group as well, if they're maybe quite open-minded or they've been travelling, and they want to keep learning more or keep meeting new people.
- Yeah, totally agree. That is for sure one of the main reasons why Swiss people join as well.
- Or I've found also going to various expat groups that some of them maybe are married to an expat or something like that.
- Yeah, well, you know, I mean, sometimes in the relationship, it's nice to have friends outside, you know, like, I mean, sometimes we actually do couple events where you can also meet other couples, which it's not always so easy.
But yeah, I mean, I strongly believe when you're in a relationship, you can still go out and still have a good time and meet new people.
And yeah, it's just amazing to do something like that. And if your relationship allows you to do this, it's become very special.
- Yeah, I think that's a great idea doing couple events as well. If maybe someone comes to Switzerland with their spouse who has a a job here and then they can come together. Maybe that's a bit less, sometimes a little bit less intimidating than going on your own. Do you have any other suggestions for people who are maybe new or looking to socialize?
- Well, outside the communities, I would also try and think about joining any, if you have a hobby, for example, bouldering or football, maybe joining your local football team or the local bouldering gym or something that that is always a good one.
- Do you think expats should strategically choose where they live, depending on maybe where it's easiest for them to socialize?
- Well, I think we do that automatically for tax reasons. So we hope to choose a village or a city that is quite good with tax.
But I would suggest for sure at the beginning, just until you find your circle or find your way around, I would definitely choose somewhere closer to the city centre.
But I can tell you, finding an apartment in Zurich is not, it's one of the hardest challenges out there. So, but to be fair though, the public transport is so good in Switzerland. I mean, you can literally cross the whole of Switzerland in just a couple of hours.
I mean, living in a village outside of outside of Zurich, you'll be still in in the center in 10, 15 minutes where if you think about where you are currently living in London, that is just not the case, right?
- Yeah, it's just much harder to get around or the city is just much bigger as well.
- I mean, you're, you're currently in Bern. I could, I could meet you in one hour in Bern.
- Yeah, that's right.
- And it seems far away when you live here, but in the world perspective wise, it is so close.
- Maybe a good tip is to just before you decide where to live, look at the transport options. So try to find a place where maybe you have a train every 15 minutes or a bus even or something. So you don't have to wait each time half an hour an hour.
- I agree. I would actually suggest even being close to a train station because then it's to access get to Zurich.
But if you are in a village where you still about… you go to the train station in the village and you still have to catch a bus up the mountain, then obviously you're quite restricted from the times because these buses don't always go as frequently as in a city. So if it's close to a train station, you're probably the safest option.
- Yeah, I would agree. And train station doesn't have to mean a massive one. It can be a little regional train station, and it can be a still be a very nice little town.
- Yeah, somewhere more adorable, very small, it's not, yeah, I agree.
- It doesn't mean really busy or really—
- No, sometimes only two or three people get in on the train, I guess.
- That's right, yeah. Because I think people from certain countries, maybe they hear train station and they think, you know, centre of the town, very noisy, but it's not really like that in Switzerland.
- Not at all. Yeah.
- All right. Let's talk a little bit more about your group, Zurich Together, and why you actually founded it. So tell me how that came about.
- Well, from the beginning on, all my friends were, I went to Swiss school. I had my friends from football and for work, what reasons I couldn't play football anymore.
So I was starting to lose contact with them. I wasn't also committing too much as well. And some of my closest friends, they all got married and had kids and it was obviously quite hard to meet on a regular basis, right? Because life changes when you start to have kids.
So it was kind of like finding a slot, like a doctor's appointment between nine and ten, they would have time to for a beer and then they would have to go home.
And I was still not on that level. So I started to feel quite lonely. I was walking down town and see these groups of people at the lakes hanging out together and I thought, where's my group gone? Why can't I have that?
So I literally met a group of people or individuals in the pub and that's kind of how I slipped into this expat scene. And we decided, we decided to, because everyone seems to have similar issues when it comes to meeting new people. It's not, it's not so easy sometimes.
So we said, let's, you know what, let's meet every Thursday for after work drinks. We all make sure we're all there from the beginning so everyone that joins were very welcoming and that's what we did.
It was actually very simple. The idea was just book a place, a couple of tables and just have a good time and everything, networking, everything should happen naturally. We talk about work in the days or so.
Yeah, we met once a week on a Thursday for after-work drinks and we called it "Zurich Together" and then one thing led to another and it just became this huge monster of a social network, which yeah, then it started to have two events a week and three and now it's literally, there's an event every single day and anyone could become an admin. You just have to have a good heart I guess, and you want to bring people together for passion and for a good reason.
And so yeah, we literally do any kind of events, any, every single day. And a lot of people really appreciate it.
It really, really helps a lot of people to find and get into the bigger… and also on some of the platforms, there is kind of like a forum, like a Facebook where you can write on the wall and say, ‘Who, where do I actually bring my bottles?’ You know, the empty bottles. Or ‘Can someone help me move a table from IKEA back home because I don't have a driving license’ or something that…
So there's many many, that's how the group actually grew. It became a community where people would help each other out. You know, ‘I'm, I've locked myself outside the door. Who can, who knows a good key service?’ Right, or from the craziest stories but,
- but yeah, that's what's helpful. That's where people I think feel, feel the pain of being an expat if they are in a situation like that. And at home they might have people to help, but in this new country that's what they need.
- The Swiss system is so good but at the same time it can be quite complicated, right? That language you know what kind of health insurance, what kind of, where do I look, even which websites do I look for an apartment to?
And where Facebook has become that kind of space for Zurich Together, not only for the events, but it's also people asking, ‘Hey guys, does anyone have any good suggestions where I could leave my cat over the weekend?’ Or ‘Where do I look for a new apartment?’
- Right, just everything. Really helpful.
- Yeah, yeah, because these are the daily challenges. And, you know, sometimes it's always the same question, but we were all in that space once and it's nice to help the other person out with our own experiences as a guest.
- So would you say that joining the Facebook group is the best place for expats to start?
- Yeah, well if you're looking for events I would suggest Meetup because that is just becoming more trendy than Facebook.
But when it comes to asking questions like, you know, who can help me out or in any way, I think Facebook is still the place to be on these social networks.
- Yeah, it's almost like in London, every little area has a parents’ group or a local group. And then that's where people post maybe job adverts or just, ‘Oh, I need help with something.’ And yeah, it sounds very similar.
- Yeah. So you've talked a lot about certain events, but what are some of the other ones that are very popular? I know you also do day or week in trips and parties.
- Well the parties are nice because a lot of people come together, Zurich Together parties can be up to 1,000 people from the room. So it is a great thing.
You walk onto the dance floor and it seems like you know everyone and you will have, I don’t know. You, you'll have every kind of dance rhythm from people from the Latin part from the Scandinavians or English, they will dance their own way. And it's just wonderful to see.
But another very, very popular one is a couple, I think it's a year ago now, we started doing it. I saw Speed Friending on on YouTube, which happens in America quite regularly. And thought, that would be really cool thing. And so not speed dating, it's just Speed Friending.
So you sit one on one with seven minutes. And obviously, you know, instantly, if you have a connection or not, and if you don't, you know, seven minutes is still only a short time to always stay respectful and kind to the other.
But Speed Friending is usually one that is very, very popular. It’s always fully booked up to 100 people.
But if you really, really… Sometimes these events, you might think, ‘oh, this is just small talk’ but if you join, I don't know, a day trip for example you meet in the morning, we get a hired bus, we go to somewhere in the Alps and then you actually… It's kind of like a school trip where it's just not a couple of hours, where it's actually the full day and that's when people really really start to connect, have deeper conversations and actually become friends.
Or the weekend trips where you actually sleep in a hotel overnight and wake up together and have breakfast, you go to do some activities like power gliding or river rafting.
And then you have this, you've made memories together, which makes the connection deeper and the bond.
- Yeah, like with the language exchange where you actually have a challenge together or when you have an experience together, I think that's important. You're not maybe just sitting, talking, but you're doing something together.
So yeah, do you have any tips for anyone visiting an event alone? So someone who might, as you mentioned before, who might feel a little bit shy or just isn't as confident just going out alone to an event full of people they don't know?
- Well, I'll be very, very honest. I would say literally 80 to 90% of every person that comes for the very first time, they actually come alone because they're very new to Switzerland, and they don't know anyone yet.
Some of them reach out before and message and say, "Hey, I'm coming. I don't know anyone. Is it okay if I join?" Or, "How does it…?" So people actually do reach out.
And some people just literally just show up and say, "Hi, I'm Ben. I'm here for the first time." And then you have that small interaction at the beginning and yeah, we're all very outgoing people.
So in… I would actually, like I said before, We're all, from every community… Most admins are very, very outgoing people and they're very used to having new people joining on a regular basis. So yeah, I would just suggest come try it out. Maybe it's not for you, maybe not, but at least you're trying.
And maybe that one event wasn't as nice as you thought, but I wouldn't say, God, don't give up yet. Just try another one. I'm sure you'll find someone or find a community that suits you best to your interests as well.
So it's all about just having that first ice broken and just taking that challenge on you and just showing up, I guess.
- Yeah, I agree. So as I said, I was at some of the events and you might not, sort of, meet your best friend on the first event, but you're definitely going to meet some interesting people.
And I think within, sort of, five to ten events, you'll have met someone that you really want to meet again and maybe start a longer friendship with. So, it might take a few weeks or depending on how often you come, but definitely keep trying and and you'll be welcomed.
I, actually just thinking about it now, from the question before, I actually from speaking to others, a lot of people meet on these German courses. So obviously, you're going to the daily class to the German class.
And that's where a lot of expats come for the first time and actually meet. And I've actually talked to many people that met loads of people on these German classes and all that stuff. So maybe that's another way to get integrated as well and find your friends.
- Through your language class. So I suppose, yeah, someone going to the French speaking part would be taking a French class maybe or but yes, if you're taking out your group language class, that could be a good one as well.
All right, so maybe to finish you can tell us a little bit about how people can find you or the group online.
- Well, in the meantime, Zurich Together has become very big. You can find us on Facebook if you just type in on the search bar, Zurich Together in English written, or Instagram or Meetup, or even the website.
So it's www.zurichtogether.ch and then you will find all the links to every channel.
And I would suggest you just come to any event because there's literally one happening every single day. So I hope to see some of you people there soon.
-Yeah, and if you need the information again, you can always check the show notes so everything's going to be there, all the links.
So that's it for today. Thanks once again to Ben for joining us and to you for listening.
- Well, thank you for the opportunity and good luck. You guys are doing a great job. Thank you very much.
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