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.