‘How do you like it here in Sweden?’

As an immigrant to Sweden there will be many difficulties to overcome -- but there are few questions on earth more dastardly than this, writes Paul Jackson.

'How do you like it here in Sweden?'

You’ve lived here a few years. And you’ve learned some Swedish. But how do you answer the number one all-time favourite question without upsetting local sensibilities?

Be warned: there’s a question Swedes like to ask immigrants. But not all immigrants. If you come from a country south of the Mediterranean or east of Berlin you can stop reading here.

But if your home country has a) a sought-after culture (i.e. France), or b) a higher standard of living (the US) or a top place in any happiness index (Denmark), you are in the danger zone.

The question is easy to spot because the natives, without fail, use the same five words “Trivs du här i Sverige?” Now, a straight-forward translation would read “Do you like it here in Sweden?” But don’t be deceived. This is not a multiple-choice question. You do not a have a choice of boxes to tick: Yes, No, Don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong, I have never committed the crime of answering “no”. But I have, in the past, tried to reply honestly.

When I was young and green, I’d try the intellectual approach: “Yes, it’s a very civilized country, but people can be very rude. The other day I was down town and this older couple just cut straight across me.”

As I began to mellow, I’d keep it to the level of the weather: “Well, the winter is a bit dark and long, but Swedish springs…ah!” I even tried the subtle, best-left-unsaid approach: “Well, it’s a great place for children to grow up …”.

But I’m a slow learner. What I have come to realize over the years is that the questioner is not looking for a balanced, nuanced reply. They are not actually interested in your answer. In fact, they are not interested in you. What they want is confirmation. What they are really asking is: “Am I not living in the best country on God’s green and pleasant earth?”

Now, there’s a lot to be said for living in a country with less than 10 million people. Things tend to work, for example. The Swedes are also, by and large, a humane lot. But you do get the sense that you are not in the centre of things. Plus, there is that long, dark and cold winter. And “schlager” music. But should you reply to the question with anything but an unequivocal, enthusiastic “yes” you are guaranteed to invite a hurt look.

If you find it difficult to offer a bright-faced affirmative, take heart: there is a quintessentially Swedish answer to this quintessentially Swedish question. And it is just one word long: “jorå”.

It translates, somewhat deceptively, as “I suppose so”. But don’t worry, Swedes will not get offended. On the surface, the word has that chirpy brevity so loved by the natives; however lurking beneath is that no-nonsense bedrock of reality, covered with a sprinkling of melancholy, that is one of the chief charms of the locals. You do, though, have to be fluent in Swedish to deliver the reply with any conviction.

So, how do you answer the question if you are not the gushing type or enjoy perfect command of the language? 1) Pretend your mobile phone has started to ring. 2) Lie. 3) Talk about the weather – but only in positive terms.

Paul Jackson

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OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.