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Dating in Sweden: Is it really as tough as they say?

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Dating in Sweden: Is it really as tough as they say?
"One of my clients described Sweden as a 'socially underdeveloped country'," dating coach Linnea Molander says. But finding love in Sweden is possible. Photo: Faramarz Gosheh/imagebank.sweden.se
12:18 CEST+02:00
Navigating the Swedish dating scene is a common struggle for newcomers, from worries over whether and how to make the first move, and defining the relationship in a country whose population has a reputation for reservedness and privacy.

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Among immigrants who arrived single between 1998 and 2007, only around a quarter were in a relationship five years later, according to a study from Statistics Sweden. And even for those who did find love, it was far more common for them to couple up with someone of their own nationality than with a Swede.

"Swedish culture is a little bit lonesome. It's true in the cities, where people often put the priority on their careers, but also in rural areas, where traditionally people have always lived more remotely. I live in a small village and see lots of lonely people," says psychologist and author Ingrid Tollgerdt-Andersson, whose book 'Relationships: Heaven or Hell?' has just been translated into English.

Swedes typically place a lot of importance on privacy and independence, factors which contribute to the high proportion of single households and the difficulty in forming non-romantic relationships and making friends. They also affect dating culture in the Nordic country – or rather, the lack of it, according to many frustrated expats. Dating site Match.com's blog states that "not showing emotion is considered polite in Sweden" and that the locals "tend to fully analyze the person before determining whether that person would be a good match". 

"You don't get as much open flirting in Sweden as in other countries, so it might be hard for foreigners to tell if someone likes them," says Tollgerdt-Andersson. "I think people often move here, especially women, and feel unattractive because people aren't making so much eye contact or looking at them. But it just takes a bit longer to build that connection."

The researcher also points to the role of technology in dating, saying that if you go to a restaurant or cafe in Sweden, it's common for most of the customers to sit staring at their phones. "In other countries, like France of the US, it's also more common to approach people who are alone and ask them a bit about themselves," she adds. 

READ ALSO: What they don't tell you about moving to Sweden for love


Ingrid Tollgerdt-Andersson's book explores both the pros and cons of relationships, as well as the psychology behind them. Photo: Private

The flipside to the reliance on technology is the many online options for dating which have sprung up over the last few decades, allowing people to meet without this kind of face-to-face interaction. These include the sites Happy Pancake, Match.com, OKCupid, eDarling, Elitsinglar, The Inner Circle, and Mazily, as well as apps such as Tinder and Bumble.

Everyone knows a couple that have met through one of these methods, but while apps have made it easier to get an introduction to someone, they can't solve some of the other problems foreigners face when dating in Sweden, and sometimes even compound these problems. For example, it can be hard to understand how the other person is feeling if they're reluctant to talk about emotions, particularly with an added culture and language barrier, and technology removes the possibility of interpreting their body language, which Tollgerdt-Andersson says accounts for up to 70 percent of communication.

Kathy, who asked not to share her surname, moved to Stockholm in 2015 and says that Tinder was responsible for around 95 percent of the dates she went on. This was one of several differences in the dating culture she noticed compared both with her home country of Greece and with Scotland and the Netherlands, having spent six months working in each.

"I didn't have any expectations [of Swedish dating culture] to begin with; I didn't know much about the stereotypes, but from discussions with girlfriends who are single, I think I had a very stereotypical experience!" she tells The Local.

"In Greece, it's still a big taboo and is seen as a bit desperate to be on a dating site. There, and in Amsterdam and Glasgow, it's easy to meet people on the street and the conversation just flows, but in Sweden it's the opposite so 'traditional' dating seems more weird."


Dating sites and apps are popular in Sweden. Photo: Leo Sellén/SCANPIX/TT

Though she found it easy to make connections through Tinder, she had the impression that many men didn't take this seriously. As an expat, she also found it hard to interpret how her date was feeling, and was often surprised with the way things turned out.

"One thing that really surprised me and had never happened before [in other countries] was 'ghosting'," she says, using a term referring to people who cut off all contact with a partner with no explanation. The word officially entered the Swedish language at the end of 2016. While it's not an exclusively Swedish term, Kathy says that from conversations with friends, the concept of ghosting is unusually common here.

"In other countries, I found it easy to tell if a guy was interested or not. But in Sweden, several times we'd go on long dates, with no indication that it wasn't going well – more than just a couple of hours at a bar, but an entire afternoon or day – and then they would just stop replying. My assumption is that it's a way of not hurting you and avoiding confrontation, but it actually has the opposite effect," she explains.

In her case, there was a happy romantic ending, and she met her Swedish partner around six months after arriving in Sweden. He turned out to be an exception to the rule, as she met him in person first of all, approaching him at a bar on the advice of Swedish friends (he later told her he never made the first move, something Kathy puts down to a combination of the Swedish focus on gender equality and her partner's good looks).

Kathy says her experience of dating and being ghosted taught her that communication was key, even more so as a foreigner. "You need to show you're making an effort to understand the culture and are serious about staying here. I was planning to stay [in Sweden] long-term so I made sure to let him know; Swedes might feel too awkward to ask those hard questions.

"It's the same when it comes to having 'the talk' to define your relationship. After meeting, it actually evolved quite fast into a relationship; we didn't really have a casual phase."

READ ALSO: What happens when you move across the world for love, then break up?


File photo: Stefan Berg/imagebank.sweden.se

Kathy's tips are backed up by counsellor Veronica Lax, who works at Turning Point in Stockholm, where she offers couples therapy as well as 'Love and Confusion' workshops primarily aimed at the international community, while a colleague runs a year-long group aimed at international men.

"There is an added dimension when one partner is Swedish and the other is new to Sweden," Lax explains. On top of the language barrier and need to adjust to new social norms, she notes that "the expat partner can become more reliant on their Swedish partner to navigate this new world which can become problematic for the relationship. If the expat partner isn’t happy living here then the Swedish partner may feel responsible."

Lax adds that people from certain cultures and personality types are more likely to clash with a typical Swede, noting that in the US and the Netherlands for example, the value placed on assertiveness might not mesh well with the Swedish philosophy of 'lagom'.

The Swedish view of gender roles can also influence romantic relationships, both in a positive and negative way. While many people might find the focus on equality refreshing, Lax says she has worked with some women who are shy or from more traditional or macho cultures who feel uncomfortable approaching men or admitting a preference for traditional gender roles in their relationships.

Of course, it's not only in cross-cultural marriages that communication is key. "No research has completely explained why people fall in love, or why some couples last and others don't," says psychologist Tollgerdt-Andersson. "There's chemistry and hormones, but it's also a choice. It's always very important to talk and talk and talk. That's important in all relationships; it's not just foreigners who struggle, lots of marriages between Swedes also end in divorce."

She cites one study which showed the main difference between couples that had been married or cohabiting for over 20 years and those that split up was the amount of time they spent talking to each other.

"You can never change any other person. But you can change yourself. A lot of conflict comes from misunderstanding, so if you change your reaction, become more smiley and open-minded, you'll find the people in your life will also change," Tollgerdt-Andersson concludes.

But how exactly should you try to change? To learn a bit more about how foreigners can adapt to the Swedish dating scene, The Local spoke to Linnea Molander, a dating coach and blogger with a background in psychology and the study of happiness. Her clients are mainly Swedish, though some live abroad, and she says even Swedes tend to find it easier to date outside their own country.

"One of my clients described Sweden as a 'socially underdeveloped country'," Molander laughs. "She lives in London, where there are more people for a start, but there's also a more sociable culture." Molander also draws a comparison with America, which she recently visited and realized was home to "a long, long culture of dating, which we just don't have in Sweden".


Linnea Molander teaches people the skills they need to improve their romantic success. Photo: Anna Gustafsson

Before the creation of Tinder five years ago (many of her clients are "obsessed" with the app) and the rise of online dating sites around five years before that, Sweden had no real dating scene at all. Molander says the country lacked an "explicit social context" of asking people out on dates. Instead, she admits that there was a lot of truth in the often repeated cliche of people often getting drunk and hooking up before eventually deciding they were in a relationship. 

"I would also say a lot of people met at work, when you're forced to go there every day and spend time together, or in similar contexts like at a shared course or club, but otherwise really people weren't meeting or dating much. So we don't really know what to do; there's a lot of confusion. And the 'protocol' that we do have isn't really working," she explains.

So is it ever acceptable to approach someone in a public place? "I'd say that it is OK, but they might be hesitant at first. And it makes a big difference what approach you have. We Swedes are often so out of practice that an approach might be very awkward, whereas people are more OK with it if you're foreign. So it can actually be a perk – people know you're not a 'weird Swede', but you're from a different country where this is normal! So it's a great life skill to actually be able to approach people."

As for transforming that first date into a second and even potentially a long-term relationship, Molander says that again, this is a common problem for native Swedes as well. 

"In many other countries, I've noticed an ease around chatting that we don't have in Sweden," she says. "Dates [in Sweden] are often quite boring conversations based on facts and 'safe topics'. We are very extreme in how individualistic we are; we don't have the same family values and sense of community as southern Europe, or the same friendship and dating culture as in the US. We're just not used to it."

READ ALSO: So when is a fika a fika, and when is it a date?


Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Instead, she says many people find themselves going for a fika or drink which you're fairly sure might be a date, but can't be certain, and spending a few hours "sitting and talking politely about facts". This is either repeated a few times in similarly ambiguous conditions, or you may never hear from that person again – the ghosting that Kathy experienced. To avoid this kind of confusion and to take some of the pressure off the fika-date, Molander suggests inviting a date for a more involved activity, either a fitness club or an event like a concert, providing more common ground and easy talking points.

The good news is that Molander says becoming a good dater is "very teachable". 

Her top tip is to focus less on thinking and facts, and more on feeling and emotions: "One big act of self-sabotage is getting stuck in your head. I coach a lot of high achievers who are brilliant, but not in touch with their emotions. You can't just sit there thinking, you have to figure out how things feel, otherwise you'll never get that flirty atmosphere and never find that click, no matter how many people you date or how awesome they are."

The coach points out that while most people accept they need to learn new things and be proactive to foster success in their careers, health, and other relationships, there is a perceived notion that romantic success should happen on its own. But Molander is hopeful that the tide is turning in this regard, and says that more and more people are coming to her after googling the term 'dating coach', whereas only a few years ago, very few people searched for the term.

"People here aren't that good at being vulnerable," she says. "But once you learn about how dating psychology works, it gets much easier, so there's nothing wrong with you if you aren't going on successful dates."

What's your experience of the Swedish dating scene? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Helio - 27 Apr 2018 18:21
Ghosting is definitely the rule over here...
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