First dates in Sweden: sabotaged by social welfare

While Sweden's social welfare system is cherished by many, The Local's Scarlet St. Clair learns the hard way about the system's unintended consequences for single women.

First dates in Sweden: sabotaged by social welfare

There’s nothing quite like the rush of sharing that first few hours together: awkwardly asking questions, selecting words ever-so-carefully to impress one other, avoiding foods with high risk of becoming lodged between teeth (broccoli is a definite no).

And all the while secretly thinking about what’s beneath each others’ clothing.

First dates are always a challenge, however, even under ideal conditions.

But as I’ve learned during my brief time in Stockholm, dating in a foreign country requires one to bring their game to a whole different level – especially when that country is Sweden.

My first Swedish date took place about a month after I’d moved to the nation’s capital. And about two minutes into it, I realized whatever dating ‘expertise’ I thought I had gained during my single years, was useless.

The evening felt like a cavalcade of one hopeless moment after another. The dinner went like this: I asked a question. He answered. I asked another. He answered again. Not once did a question come my way. Was I that boring, or was he just that rude?

When the bill came, I offered to help pay as I always do; a well-rehearsed token gesture of kindness, which I expected to be duly rebuffed.

Instead, my Swedish companion “allowed” me to pay for half the meal. And then left me to cover our after-dinner coffee—another sure sign in my book that things were heading in the wrong direction.

Three hours later, my stomach full of non-free food and my mind reeling from the piss-poor conversation, my first Swedish date was finally over.

I returned home dejected; tucked myself into bed and curled up in the foetal position to watch reruns of classic movies.

How had things gone so horribly wrong?

Sharing this tragic tale with Swedish girlfriends over cocktails did little to life my spirits.

They all stared at me blankly, failing to understand my concerns.

“He let me pay!” I protested repeatedly.

No reaction.

“He hardly asked me any questions!”

More blank stares. Obviously, Swedish girl talk wasn’t going to help.

Frustrated, I decided to call an expert: Swedish author and dating guru Marie Hagberg.

I needed to know: was my foreign blood the cause of my first date failure, or do all Swedish women boldly face the torment of horrible first dates every time they embark on such missions?

“Swedish guys just don’t get it,” she says.

Whew! Ok, it’s not just me.

“You expect a guy to make the first move, but in Sweden he won’t unless he’s really drunk,” Hagberg said.

Her observation was certainly confirmed by my experience, as my would-be Swedish beau had undoubtedly downed a healthy dose of liquid courage before we struck up our conversation.

“Men here are very timid,” Hagberg continues.

“I am constantly trying to educate our male population about things like this, but I haven’t succeeded. Swedish guys don’t do anything and don’t make progress. At the same time they don’t want a girl to do anything either, so nothing happens. It’s very frustrating.”

Hagberg’s insights are anything but reassuring for my prospects for finding love in Sweden. Apparently I shouldn’t make the move, yet he won’t either.

But why? Are they shy?

According to Hagberg, there is truth to the old stereotype about Swedes not being the most outgoing types.

“Swedes are known for being kind of dull and boring,” she says.

No kidding.

“We are more closed than Americans or Brits,” she continues.

No argument there.

“Though we are still nice!” she adds.

Somehow, that promise of “niceness” feels empty at this particular juncture. After all, my first date companion simply talked about himself for three hours!

According to Hagberg, this self-centred pathology is common for Swedish men. In fact, their behavioural incompetence so deep and widespread that she has resorted to offering lessons about how to behave on a date.

“The most common thing I tell guys is to ask questions,” she explains.

That’s a good place to start.

“They get so excited if she is asking questions, they then forget to be polite and ask questions back.”

I don’t want to be critical of Hagberg’s teaching methods, but it seems to me her message isn’t getting through.

Then there’s that whole not-picking-up-the-check-thing.

“People in Sweden are so confused about this,” says Hagberg.

You don’t say.

“Most girls want a guy to pay, and most guys also think they should pay. But a lot are still confused, wondering whether to pay or split. I think the guys should pay the first time; it doesn’t mean he should pay every time, but just the first time. It has to do with manners and style.”

But why don’t they pay?

“Men think women earn almost as much as they do, so why should they pay? I think that’s bullshit,” she said.

Amen to that sister.

With Hagberg’s help, I slowly start to realize that a Swedish man on a first date is like a lost puppy trying to find his way. He knows not how to approach a lady, carry a conversation, or to offer to pay.

Poor things. I almost feel sorry for them. And I couldn’t help but wonder what could be responsible for stunting the dating intelligence of Swedish men so severely.

Hagberg’s answer catches me off guard.

“It has to do with our social welfare system,” she exclaims.

Come again?

“Here nobody is supposed to take care of their own life or future and people consider the government responsible for everything. That has coloured the world of dating, and gone overboard.”

So my dating failure can ultimately be attributed to an unforeseen side-effect of some grand experiment in social engineering?

Not exactly the culprit I was expecting, but then again, growing up in a capitalist system across the Atlantic, I had always been told that socialism is the root of all evil.

And now…it’s also the reason I’m still single in Sweden.

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Top ten expat complaints to their Swedish partners

From ketchup to driving skills, when The Local once asked what expats complain about most to their Swedish partners, the responses were mixed.

Top ten expat complaints to their Swedish partners
Why do you love your tech gadgets more than me? Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

1. Ketchup on… well, everything!

Swedes have an obsession with ketchup. They dollop it all over their pasta, their lasagne, their mashed potatoes – you name it. And it's not just a little splodge either, this is a true dousing. Strange, right? I mean, Swedes wouldn't put jam on their meatballs, would they? Oh that's right, they do.

Ketchup line up. Photo: Don Ryan/TT

2. Texting while driving down Vasagatan? No problem.

It's nothing strange to see a Swede talking, or even texting on their phone, while driving. And do you know why? Because for years it was pretty much perfectly legal, although this is beginning to change

Just watch out for red lights! Photo: LM Otero/TT

3. Passive aggressive notes

Swedes tend to avoid conflict, but only of the verbal kind. If you've left a little bit of lint in the laundry room's dryer, or if you've left a mug in the office sink, then you'd better be prepared to face a passive aggressive note the next day. In the picture below a Swede is complaining in very colourful language about garbage disposal etiquette.

'Keep your sh*t in your own apartment!' Photo: Petter Palander/Flickr

4. Too much coffee and no decaf!

The biggest problem is the lack of decaf, some Twitter users suggested when we once asked what rubbed people the wrong way about their Swedish partners the most. In a country where coffee is (probably) consumed more than water, you're in the minority if you prefer yours without caffeine. And if you don't like coffee, then you'd better rectify that immediately. It's easier than saying “No thank you, I don’t drink coffee” and then explaining yourself 14 times a day.

Mmmm… fika time… Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

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5. Tradition over spontaneity, no exceptions!

“You'll be here next Christmas, too, right?” your Swedish mother-in-law will ask as the last present is unwrapped on Christmas Eve (yes, presents are unwrapped on the 24th). Tradition triumphs and spontaneity is dead, that's the fact in Sweden. Expect raised eyebrows if you don't commit early to birthday celebrations, Easter, crayfish parties, and of course, Christmas. You will be there, and you will enjoy it. And we dare you to try to plan a weekend away with friends instead!

A silly Christmas Chihuahua. This is not a Swedish tradition, we just liked the picture. Photo: Mary Altaffer/TT

6. Laundry comes first…

Swedes will sometimes use their laundry time as an excuse. “I'd love to come out with you tonight, but I have a laundry time reserved – I really can't miss it.” In Stockholm, at least, most people live in apartment blocks with a communal laundry in the cellar. Reserving a good laundry time (like a Sunday morning or Tuesday after work) can be treated as the holy grail of weekly achievements.

No time like laundry time! Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

7. ‘Did you really pass your driving test?’

Nescience of road rules is one of the complaints we heard the most. More specifically, people we asked were peeved at the lack of indication when turning corners or using roundabouts. Others moaned that Swedes don't know how manage traffic flows on motorways. One even said Swedes drive just like a Volvo, which, upon checking the online urban dictionary, apparently means the driver is, in short, conservative and ‘boring’. 

No Volvos in this picture! Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT

8. “Let me drink!”

A complaint we heard a few times was that Swedes often turn a disapproving eye when it comes to having a casual drink on a school night. “You're having a glass of wine? On a Tuesday?!” This could have something to do with the fact that alcohol is hard to come by in Sweden, as it is only sold in the monopoly chain Systembolaget at certain times of the day, and drinking is an exclusive weekend activity.

How is he holding that wine glass? Photo: Gorm Kallestad/TT

9. Too much snus

A quick explanation of snus in case you're unaware: snus is a moist snuff packet (imagine a tobacco teabag the size of a piece of chewing gum) that you wedge between your lip and teeth. Well, maybe you don't, but the Swedes do. A lot. If you think a snus packet sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen one dangling from a Swede's upper lip mid-conversation, or perhaps you've seen a used one in the gutter or in the toilet, spat out and forgotten.

The snus-ing shadow… Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

10. “I can't find a Swede to date… and then complain about…”

Yes, complaints about Swedes aren't just for those dating them, but for those still looking. And meeting new people might be hard, especially if you refuse to use popular dating apps such as Tinder. Then you just have to rely on a classic ‘Hollywood-romance’ meeting, which isn't necessarily easy in a country not exactly known for its open and sociable citizens. Good luck!

READ ALSO: How to never be single again in Sweden

Romance in the moonlight. Photo: Charlie Riedel/TT

This article was first published in 2013 in our old gallery format and was revamped in 2017.