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THE PANEL

Is it hard to make friends with Swedes?

Every week, we ask a panel of readers to discuss an issue affecting the lives of immigrants in Sweden. This week: breaking the ice.

Is it hard to make friends with Swedes?

Sanna Holmqvist

Sanna Holmqvist

I always hear it is, so I suppose it is true. But at the same time, I don’t really believe it.

I think it all comes down to Swedes’ issues with expectations. In general, Swedes are shy and we often feel uncomfortable with what we don’t recognize. Not because we think others are strange, but because we want to be sure of what is being expected of us.

We are terrified of doing something wrong and making things get awkward and embarrassing. I often hear people say that you can talk for a whole evening with a Swede, thinking you have finally made a Swedish friend, but the next day the Swede behaves as if you have never met.

But that is because we Swedes get a little uncertain. We don’t know if something is expected from us now that we can’t live up to. And perhaps we also want to be polite (!) and show that we do not expect anything from you.

To a Swede, that is being polite. Because Swedes don’t want to seem demanding, the solution, I think, is simply to break the ice and start talking to your Swede again. They will appreciate it. We are, deep down, still a homogeneous people that struggles to understand (though we really want to!) people who are not exactly the same as us.

We are also products of a welfare state, where we rely on society and not other people to meet our needs. Being independent and not expecting or demanding anything from other people is very Swedish.

Robert Flahiff

Robert Flahiff

Yes and no. First, one would have to define “friend.” Swedes are famous for being a bit introverted, but out here in the country, give a local an alcohol-based social lubricant and introduce them to a person in the vicinity speaking English, and that English-speaker has a friend for life (or at least until closing time, whichever comes first).

I am sure that they are much more sophisticated in the big city and this does not happen as often. But in regards to real friends, I think that Swedes are no different than anyone else.

My best friends here in Sweden have carried me on their shoulders through thick and thin, and I am extremely grateful for their friendship, honesty, and understanding, even at times when things get lost in translation. Friendship is a two-way street and no social or language barrier changes that simple truth.

But if you want your friendship to last, remember the rule of thumb that “maybe” means “no”, and you will be just fine. And anyone who has lived here for any amount of time will know exactly what that means.

Claudia Tenenblat

Claudia Tenenblat

That depends on how bold and willing you are. Swedes tend to be a bit afraid of making the first move, perhaps because that would make them look different – not the done thing around here where everyone is supposed to be like everyone else.

I, on the other hand, am not at all afraid of being forward and looking a bit foolish, so I am used to making the first move (and the second and the third…).

Usually people respond very warmly, as if just waiting for an excuse to open up. I see that even with my in-laws: they shake hands with each other and with my husband but all of them hug and kiss me (of course, I started it).

As for real friendship, I am still working on it. Now that I can hold a conversation in Swedish, things are looking brighter. Swedes love to speak English and most are very fluent, but the “real life” language is Swedish, of course.

In this sense, I don’t think they are any different to other nationalities. In social settings, if you can communicate in the native language, it’s easier to get close to people all over the world.

Nabeel Shehzad

Nabeel Shehzad

Generally I have found Swedes very closed and conservative. Unlike people from some other countries, Swedes take a long time before you can call them your friend.

Swedish people are generally reluctant to talk to strangers unless they have consumed a lot of alcohol, when they finally open up.

From my experience I can say one thing for sure: Swedes may take some time to get to know, and may come across as being a bit arrogant in the beginning, but when he/she becomes a friend, then you get to know how uncomplicated, caring and honest they are.

In short, it is best to take the initiative, as otherwise it can be difficult to get over the first step.

Tiffany Hoffman

Tiffany Hoffman

Most of the Swedes I have met have been amicable, but they always seem a little uncomfortable because they don’t really know what to say to me.

To be fair, I think it’s always hard to make friends with people who don’t comfortably speak the same language you do, and it just makes me want to learn Swedish that much faster. Even though Swedes understand English and can speak it, many of the people I’ve met that are my age (who haven’t studied abroad or dated English-speakers) have been shy to speak it.

I also think Swedes are generally more reserved and candid than what I’m used to. But, as soon as formalities were aside and I was accepted into a group, the Swedes have treated me as warmly and graciously as anyone could wish their friends to be.

Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström

Yes. Incredibly. Swedes are notorious for being shy. And while this obviously differs from person to person and city to city, I have found it difficult to make friends with Swedes.

Other immigrants are much easier to connect with, maybe because of shared experiences in the move to Sweden, shared values that led to a move to Sweden, or just the fact that they don’t have any Swedish friends either and are looking for friendship.

Coming from the US, I am used to a bit more openness. A bit more willingness to get to know someone. Swedes often complain that Americans are overly friendly. They see this as a negative, something that leads to superficial relationships.

I just don’t agree. I see this friendliness as a sort of shotgun approach. Take a shot and you’re bound to hit something.

Obviously, a lot of those people will end up just being simple acquaintances, but out of all those people you are friendly with, you could find your new drinking buddy. Or your best friend. Or the girl of your dreams.

In the end persistence pays off. Just keep smiling at people. Talking to people. Introducing yourself. So while making friends with Swedes is hard, eventually you will have found a great group of Swedes to spend your time with.

For members

FRIENDSHIP

Why is it so hard to make friends with the Swedes?

Sweden tops international surveys in many areas, from gender equality to environmental policy, but it is consistently rated as one of the world's worst places for making friends as a foreigner. But how true is this – and is there an explanation? The Local spoke to experts to find out.

Why is it so hard to make friends with the Swedes?
Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

A survey, run by expat networking group Internations, has also seen Sweden repeatedly ranked as one of the worst places to make friends. And in the HSBC Expat Explorer survey in 2015, although Sweden was rated third overall for expat quality of life, it plummeted to the bottom of the rankings in the ‘friendship’ category – and has stayed near the bottom of the pile each year since then.

Both surveys questioned thousands of expats living around the world on a variety of topics relating to life in their new country, and this year 72 percent of Internations respondents said they found it tough to get to know the Swedes.

One Brit in Sweden commented: “people are quite private, closed, and…not that open to conversations with new people”. It’s clearly an issue that resonates with the international community here, as many The Local readers got in touch to share their own stories of struggling to find their way into a Swedish friendship circle– though several defended the locals as being very friendly with those who make the effort.


Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

One factor is pure practicality, Maris Gillette, a Professor of Social Anthropology at Gothenburg University’s School of Global Studies, tells The Local. Gillette points out that many Swedes, including those who have spent time living abroad or in other parts of the country, eventually settle near their hometown. If that’s not a possibility, it’s likely they’ll move to one of Sweden’s three major cities where the vast majority of jobs are.

“That means they’ll be near a large group of friends they’ve known from school; really long-term, close friends. I live in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, and I’ve found that to be the case, whereas in large cities in the US, you meet people who have moved around a lot but are less likely to move back to where they grew up,” Gillette explains. “So Swedes may already be very comfortable with the network they have, and not feel a need to seek out new friends.”

This is often attributed to Sweden’s history as a peasant society, with residents spread out across the country in isolated villages.

“We value the freedom of spending time alone, walking in the forest; there’s a big fascination with peace, harmony, nature, peace and quiet, rather than a pressure to always be doing lots of things with lots of different people,” explains Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux, who teaches foreigners the Swedish language as well as running workshops on ‘Swedishness’ and cross-cultural communications.


File photo: Pexels

There are also cultural factors, such as the importance Swedish society places on individual autonomy.

“We don’t ‘need’ a social network as such in Sweden because we have a very well-developed welfare state,” says Deveaux. “It sounds a bit cynical, but in other countries you have to rely much more on family and friends because there isn’t the same welfare state to turn to.”

1972 manifesto by Sweden’s Social Democratic Women’s Wing (“The Family of the Future: A Socialist Family Policy”) envisioned a society where individuals were entirely independent and able to sustain themselves outside the family unit.

The idea was to remove obligation from family links, so that people would have enough agency to leave unhappy relationships, for example, and no one would have the burden of caring for elderly parents alone. Instead, family bonds would be entirely down to choice, thanks to instruments such as a fair labour market, strong welfare system to help with childcare and illness.

This ideal of independence is reflected in the high proportion of single households in Sweden; the average number of people in a household is the lowest in Europe, according to Eurostat figures. This might be a shock to new arrivals from countries like the UK, where huge numbers of young professionals live in shared houses or apartments due to high rent costs, low entry level salaries, and the type of housing available. In Sweden, flatshares do exist, but they are typically made up of people who are already close friends, or who have specifically opted for a co-living lifestyle – it’s not the norm.


Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

So it’s not just the fact that you won’t have housemates to socialize with, but the idea of independent living that filters down to all areas of life. Gillette explains: “In Sweden, it’s common to have this idea that people should be ‘självständig’; autonomous and independent, and able to do things without needing help from someone else. But that cuts back on opportunities for social contact.”

She contrasts this with the cultural norms in China and Iran, both places where she has spent a considerable amount of time. “People prefer to be together than to be alone there, and it’s very common for someone to take your hand as you cross the street or put their arm around you while talking – even people you’re not particularly close with,” she explains.

Non-Swedes might feel comforted to know it’s not just them who are affected by the Swedish culture of autonomy; a Red Cross study some years ago found that 40 percent of Sweden’s adult population felt lonely.

“We [native Swedes] struggle to make friends with each other too,” says native Swede Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux. After leaving Sweden at 18, she returned several years later and remembers finding it difficult to meet new people.

Nonetheless, as a newcomer to the country, with no established support network, it can hit particularly hard. And in a country where jobs are often found through contacts, and house-hunting in the tough Swedish market is made much easier the more people you know, not having a circle of friends can have a big impact on other essential aspects of life.

One thing expats should bear in mind, Deveaux says, is the Swedish respect for privacy, which can often be mistaken for rudeness by newcomers. In fact, she says it’s more about having a different idea of what is polite.

“For us, the politest thing you can do is respect someone’s privacy. That’s also why we tend not to comment or apologize if we bump into each other; we sort of ignore each other in public spaces like walking down the street, which seems very rude from a British point of view, where the idea of politeness is to show consideration by opening doors and apologizing a lot,” Deveaux explains.

The desire not to intrude on other people’s lives can slow Swedes down when meeting new people, and the teacher says this is the reason Swedes will rarely ask colleagues or acquaintances personal questions; out of respect for their privacy, not a lack of care.

“For example, discussing our differences or differing views is something we’re careful to avoid. We prefer to talk about neutral topics, things like numbers or something quantifiable. I’ve seen my French husband try to talk to people by asking about their political views or current affairs, and that’s a big taboo in Swedish culture. It makes people close themselves away even more, and it makes people think we’re not interesting to talk to.”


Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

What’s more, a respect for other people’s privacy can make Swedes reluctant to introduce new acquaintances to existing friends, Deveaux says. She contrasts this with the UK, having lived in Edinburgh for several years, where most of her friendships grew organically from being introduced to friends of friends.

The Swedish avoidance of small talk can be very tough to adapt to for foreigners from more extroverted cultures. A documentary-film released in 2016, The Swedish Theory of Love, explored the phenomenon of loneliness and social isolation, with one scene showing a Swedish language teacher explaining to refugees how to answer questions ‘the Swedish way’: with short, succint answers. And a proverb often shared in Swedish language classes states ‘talking is silver, silence is gold’ – in Sweden, there’s no sense that silence between strangers should be filled with superfluous chatter.

But Deveaux points out that that rule goes out the window once you have clicked with someone: “We do have feelings and we have opinions! We just don’t show them to people we don’t know that well, so you might not tell colleagues deeper things because you respect that work is a more public context. A couple of times I’ve found I’ve got much closer to colleagues only after they or I have left a job, so we can talk about the things that matter.”

And a 1985 study by Åke Daun, who literally wrote the book on Swedish mentality with his much-quoted tome Svensk Mentalitet, suggested that Swedes don’t think of themselves as reserved, despite their reputation abroad. In fact, his study showed people in Sweden were no more likely to experience communication anxiety than Americans, and rated their communication skills more highly than their US peers.

This is perhaps because in Sweden there’s no expectation that being outgoing is necessary for communication or friendship. In general, Swedes are comfortable with silence and with spending time alone.

“I think less value is placed on having loads of people you can go and do things with. Swedish friendship involves deeper commitment; people you really trust, enjoy spending time with, and who are essential to your life, while Americans are much more likely to have a really broad group of people you sort of know and hang out with,” says anthropologist Maris Gillette.

“In Uppsala, my husband and I invited a couple over for dinner and when they invited us to their house, many months later, I had a really interesting conversation with the wife. She said they had been nervous as they didn’t want to create an expectation or obligation. It was difficult for them to invite people into their space, and came with worries that it might bring larger expectations, because friendship is such a commitment to them.”

This means that if you’re willing to make the effort, you could end up with a friend for life; something which is reflected in the fact that the same surveys which rank Sweden poorly for making friends give it high marks for finding love.

Swedish friends are often for life. Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

So, how can newcomers break through the cultural barrier and make Swedish friends?

It helps to approach friendships from a Swedish perspective, as a long-term relationship and more than a superficial acquaintance.

“You’re investing over the long-run rather than making an immediate friendship – for that, it might be better to talk to people in a Swedish class or expat group, with others in the same boat. So you need to make a consistent effort to stay in contact, show that you care about people and want to be friends,” explains Gillette. “It shouldn’t just be about your needs, but about getting to know them and showing you like them.”

This could mean checking in with a new friend about how their week’s going, or following up on an event they’ve told you about, rather than just getting in touch when you’re looking for someone to attend an event with. Learning Swedish is also important, since even though many people in Sweden speak English and often other languages to a high level, like most people their native language is the one they’ll feel most comfortable in.


Photo: Faramarz Gosheh/imagebank.sweden.se

Tracey Reid from Scotland moved to Stockholm several years ago, and though she already had some Swedish friends when she made the move, she and her husband were the only people in her network with a child so she was keen to meet other parents.

“Back home, a complete stranger will tell you their life story while you’re waiting for the next bus to arrive. I miss that,” says Reid. “It’s much easier to chat with random people and to connect with others in Scotland. Perhaps I feel this way because it is my home country, but I find there is a greater sense of community at home, and a general openness which is difficult to describe.”

She set up a Swedish branch of international women’s network, GGI (Girl Gone International) as a way of connecting with other people in a similar situation. Not only did she meet many of her closest friends through the group, but it has grown to include hundreds of women in the Swedish capital, and gave Reid the confidence to set up an organization for parents of children with disabilities.

“Joining a group like this can save you from isolation and loneliness, and there are many fantastic groups in Stockholm, catering to most interests,” she explains. Her other tip for socializing with Swedes is to take things slowly, rather than inviting people to a dinner or night out clubbing straight away. “An informal fika may be just the ticket. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you’re feeling lonely.”

Deveaux confirms that a more casual invitation is the best way to begin, and adds that planning an activity can be more successful than a simple dinner or drinks.

“It’s more appealing to a Swedish person as they don’t need to feel awkward if they don’t have anything to say. A common Swedish recipe for making friends is to become a member of a club,” she explains.

In general though, the key ingredients seem to be patience, understanding of Swedish norms, and willingness to put yourself out there. “When you actually get there we’ll be friends forever because we’re Swedish, so we know we won’t make any more friends!” jokes Deveaux. “We’re probably quite lonely and not very good at socializing so it’s always worth taking that risk and just inviting someone along.”

Update: This article has been edited to clarify quotations from Maris Gillette

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