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

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Why is it so hard to make friends with the Swedes?
Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se
This content was produced independently by The Local and contains advertiser links.
07:59 CET+01:00
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.

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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."

A 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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