'Why can't Swedes look me in the eyes?'

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'Why can't Swedes look me in the eyes?'
Canadian expat Mitchell Rearden. Photo: Private

Living in Sweden offers nature, culture and the chance to live in a highly efficient society. But Swedish shyness, unstable housing and employment issues are forcing people to move home, says 29-year-old Canadian Mitchell Rearden.


Don't get me wrong, I think Swedes are lovely people, but I don't think I realized quite how much more open Canadians are until I moved here.

Right from the beginning I noticed that people had problems walking in public spaces - they kept bumping into each other. 

Eventually, I realized that Swedes rarely look each other in the eyes, especially not strangers. This seems to reflect a broader pattern where people are uncomfortable in certain public situations. Even passing another adult on a quiet street can feel unusual. 

I came to Sweden six years ago to do my masters in Urban Planning and I figured I would learn as much on the street as in the classroom by moving to a new city well-known for its sustainability and liveability efforts. I’m still really grateful I had the chance to do this.  

I wasn't one of those expats who didn't integrate - I met a supportive group of Swedish friends through school and through snowboarding - but I still found social interaction between strangers or casual acquaintances to be different here. When you add alcohol to the mix it does change things. But what I missed most was those informal connections - starting up conversations with strangers in queues or on the bus.

Mitchell snowboarding in Stockholm. Photo: TT
My second reason for heading home is the unstable housing situation in Stockholm. It's something that most international professionals in the city will know lots about. Having lived in eight apartmemts in six years, I am sick of moving around because of the housing shortage here. I'm fed up of undefined contracts or contracts that can be broken. It is hard to live with the constant uncertainty that comes with second hand sublets. Even if you find somewhere for a while and make it feel like your own, soon you will have to move on because of Swedish laws that limit the length of sublets. Stockholm is a landlord's market.
I even got involved in a housing sting. One of my colleagues paid a deposit for an apartment but the person they were planning to rent from kept putting off their move in date. Then I ended up finding the same apartment online and being invited for a viewing. Eventually the police got involved and they were arrested.

Mitchell and his girlfriend Jessica. Photo: Private
Finally I am leaving because although I found it easy to get a job here, my girlfriend didn't. 
I met my partner on a trip home to Vancouver and she moved here shortly afterwards. She grew up in Canada but is originally from South Korea. She has a strong background in events management and fashion merchandising and managed to secure some fantastic unpaid experience working on sustainable fashion projects in Sweden. But while unpaid work like this may be rewarding, it does not pay the bills. Without fluent Swedish, she even struggled to find work in restaurants, despite the fact that most staff there spoke English.
She also felt that she was treated differently to back home in Vancouver. People stared more. Maybe because she looked different?

Would I advise people to spend a stint in Sweden? I’d let others decide for themselves.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here, and I will definitely miss my friends. I will miss the amazing views on my daily bike ride to work. I will miss the amount of culture there is in such a small capital city. I will miss the effective way that the state works, from organizing taxes to making healthcare appointments and arranging time off work.

But I can't wait to get home and start having random conversations with strangers on street corners, before heading upstairs to some stable accommodation that feels like home.

Mitchell Rearden is an Urban Planner and Fellow at the Nordic Centre for Spatial Development


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