11 tough-love ways to integrate in Sweden

The Local Sweden
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11 tough-love ways to integrate in Sweden
Feeling alone and unhappy in Sweden? Read this. Photo: Maskot/Folio/

A tough-love guide to integration in Sweden, from librarian and pre-school teacher Amy Johansson who has been there, and done that.


My own journey has been a long, dark, twisting, at times humiliating and frustrating road to my current satisfying happy life in Sweden. Home ownership, permanent job contract, and total fluency in Swedish evaded me for a long time until I took the cold unpleasant headlong plunge into reality. And now when other immigrants ask me how I did it, I have a tough time mincing words or cushioning it the way that the folks at Migrationsverket or any other Kommunalråd do.

Here are my 11 tough-love ways to a better life in Sweden for immigrants.

1. Get over yourself, who you were in your home country. It is a gift to a blank slate in your life. Don't believe me, just watch 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Try something new. Reinvent yourself. Create a new narrative. Rewrite your goals and your destiny. And if you really are as good as you say you are, you'll be able to land on your feet here. Maybe not tomorrow, but you know the adage, the cream rises to the top.

2. Always see the positive inverse. There's always a positive flipside to any negative experience. As a cynical optimist, I am good at scouring any given situation to find something positive, a silver lining or a hidden opportunity. You say that they don't have X food that you miss from your homeland? Maybe blog about it or prepare some for a stall at a holiday show. Start an e-commerce boutique and import something you don't see here. Start an intresseförening to get more local people interested in whatever you miss and wish was here.

3. Be humble. Keep your head down and LISTEN carefully to which values are prioritized in your new homeland. If you are unable or unwilling to put your ear to the ground and figure out the currency of your new country you might very well be frozen out forever. That adage "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is true and relevant for a reason.

READ ALSO: Six ways to boost your Swedish skills now

Don't worry, you'll soon get used to life in your new country. Photo: Tina Stafrén/

4. Share, don't dictate. Don't just go around preaching the vast superiority of your home culture. That's not helpful to anybody. You come off as an arrogant cultural imperialist, or in more base terms, an asshole. Instead of bragging about your culture, SHARE it. Invite people into your home culture and maybe your new fellow countryment will learn something new in a social and fun way. Wear your heritage with pride, with sharing in mind.

5. Stop whining about the system. Study it. Observe it. Hack it. Try to understand the why behind it. Chances are it's not just arbitrarily there to mess up your life. Just don't whine about it. Whining has never started a revolution. If you do have to vent, make sure you do this to an audience who won't use your complaints against you. The most effective way to whine in Sweden is to admit you don't understand something, and humbly ask for help.

READ ALSO: Seven tips for making firm friends in Sweden

Ask people for help and maybe you'll even make new friends. Photo:  Faramarz Gosheh/

6. Take a job, any job. Taxable income is a step forward. Especially in socialist European countries. If you take a job, even a job "below" you, you are paying taxes on your income. Those taxes pay for your fellow countrymen's livelihoods and for that everybody is grateful. Once you get a job, the State is no longer your sugar daddy. And Swedes like Swedish job references, so finding your next job will be considerably easier as an insider. You may not believe me, especially you Americans, but a cleaner or barnskötare or personlig assistent with steady taxable income is seen as more trustworthy by banks than a freelancing media executive with unstable overseas income. I started as a ten-hour a week hemspråklärare and am now a full-time teacher at a great school with a nice income and lovely students and colleagues.

7. Stop playing the "us" vs "them" game with your new countrymen. People are people, the world over. You are inevitably going to click with some, and not click with others. That's just a rule in life, wherever you are, but never forget that we are all humans sharing oxygen.

8. Stop "learning Swedish" and start USING Swedish. You will never become fluent in a language from a book or from listening to your SFI classmates' warped pronunciations. You need to learn from native speakers. I learned my fluent Skånska from working as a fritidspedagog in a förskoleklass with 25 very vocal, very direct and very loving children who wanted me to understand them and wanted me to be understood in their dialect.

READ ALSO: 17 Skånska dialect words you need to survive in southern Sweden

Try to use your Swedish. Or Skånska, if you live in southern Sweden. Photo: Lina Roos/

9. Just say yes. Stop saying no or arguing with facts. Just say yes. Stop shutting everything down and try to be a little receptive. Have a mental micro-adventure.

10. Manage your expectations. Swedish time is not unlike Narnia time. The timeline in Sweden is resolutely lagom, and it will do you no good to get frustrated or try to rush things. Also, what you might consider the zenith of success in your homeland might not be desired here. Different cultures come with different values. Fortunately, the Swedish definition of success is more attainable than say the Manhattan definition of success. While an American may define success as fame, fortune, a household staff and a media-perfect body, Swedes are more likely to define success as a permanent contract job, owning a home, plenty of time to see family and friends, and a little money left over for travel.

11. Don't send your CV in Swedish if you don't actually speak Swedish fluently. It's like going to an interview at Playboy magazine wearing a pushup bra – you're going to be exposed sooner than later, so just get the truth out there.

Amy Johansson used to be a gatekeeper, tastemaker and generally not-nice person in the upper echelons of Manhattan's Public Relations world. Since moving to Sweden in 2011 with her Swedish husband and three Swemerican children, she's gone through a soul-detox/makeover and career change, and is now a librarian and fritidspedagog at a lovely school in Kullabygden, southern Sweden. Though she's usually reading aloud in monster voices (and in Skånska), making paper crafts and stomping around in the muddy forest, she does occassionally contribute essays, op-eds and book reviews. Read more at her Facebook page.


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