OPINION: The pandemic showed me that neither writing nor life abroad should mean isolation

The reality of life as an expat is different from the romantic tropes, and the 'exile' of foreignness is often self-imposed. Here’s one experience of letting go of your preconceived notions about going native from the founder of the Stockholm Writers Festival.

OPINION: The pandemic showed me that neither writing nor life abroad should mean isolation
For Catherine Pettersson, writing has meant community, even during the pandemic. Photo: Birgit Walsh Photography

When I first moved to Sweden, I had some romantic ideas. Among them, I imagined myself as a writer in exile, drawing on my foreign experience for novels that would feature my new home country as a backdrop. It worked. Kind of.

My first novel had a Swedish protagonist who won the American Green Card Lottery. But, despite my best laid plans, my main character only spent a total of three chapters in Stockholm before moving to Chicago, which is, not-so-coincidently, my hometown.  

Another romantic notion from my early days here: I would not, under any circumstance, seek the friendship of Americans. Exiles don’t roll that way. Nope. I was becoming äkta svensk (true Swedish) and would hang exclusively with the locals.

This notion lasted for about two years until finally, desperate for genuine connection, I broke down and joined the Stockholm Writers Group where I found my people: a group of English-speaking writers with whom I could learn about writing and bond over the pitfalls of foreignness. Like that time I told my Swedish father-in-law he was a tremendous kuk (penis) instead of a tremendous kock (cook), a word which still seems wrong to this day.  

Years later, although the idea of “writer in exile” is sexy in an Ernest-Hemingway-day-drinking-in-Havana kind of way, it is also destructive.

Yes, writing is lonely. But it should never be done in isolation. Because at one point, to grow, a writer has to come out of the garret and lean on their tribe. There is no other way to learn about craft or about the complexities of the business.

For me, my writers group fulfilled the tribal yearning. But it also made me realize how many other would-be writers I knew toiling away in their own self-imposed exile. So, in 2017, I started the Stockholm Writers Festival. I’d lived here long enough and knew enough people to cobble together the faculty for the first edition. And here we are four festivals later (including a fully virtual one in 2020)…

The irony? By dropping the notion of writer in exile, I’ve woven myself much deeper into the fabric of my new home country. Through the Stockholm Writers Festival, I’ve gotten to know Swedes with whom I have a shared bond, which, after all, is the best way to make true friends.

Now, as we’ve all lived in another kind of exile thanks to the ‘p word,’ (don’t make me write it!) isolation has never been more unappealing.

Given the realities of our current “unprecedented times,” (another phrase I’d rather never see again), this year’s Stockholm Writers Festival will take place online in May. Bringing writers out of their garrets to meet agents and published authors to celebrate the written word. Together.

So, whatever your thing is—writing or basket weaving or whatever—if you’re toughing it out in a self-imposed exile because you think you need to “go native,” my advice to you is this: Don’t. Because as the great exile Ernest Hemmingway said, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

Catherine Pettersson is the founder of the Stockholm Writers Festival, an annual event that helps emerging writers become published authors. Her novel, A Daughter of the King, will be released in the summer of 2021 thanks to connections she made at different writers festivals.

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IN DATA: Why you’re not alone if you feel lonely in Sweden

It's not much consolation if you're a foreigner struggling to make friends, but you are not alone. According to official statistics, foreigners in Sweden feel lonelier and report fewer close friendships than Swedes. The Local's intern Rita Cruz carried out an open survey to learn more.

IN DATA: Why you're not alone if you feel lonely in Sweden

You arrive in Sweden to work, study, or start a life with your partner. You join five or six international groups on Facebook, you are friendly to your neighbours, and take fika with your classmates and colleagues. You start collective activities and hobbies, you take Swedish lessons, you put yourself out there. But it seems you can only connect with other foreigners – why can’t you get through to Swedes? Is it in your head or is there some truth to it?

It’s an old debate, expat online forums and social media groups go through it over and over again, and researchers have been discussing it for decades. By now, Sweden’s cold, unfriendly reputation seems to be irreversible.

We asked The Local’s readers for their insight and they said it was indeed very hard to make friends in Sweden – with Swedes, that is. Looking at the issue with a scientific eye, data from Statistics Sweden (SCB), Sweden’s official statistics agency, shows that foreigners report feeling lonelier and having a harder time making friends.

While there may be many straightforward answers, like a feeling of not belonging to a new society, negative experiences while seeking housing or employment, or just a language barrier, a lot points out to cultural aspects.

Is it a matter of culture?

The Expat Insider Survey, organised by the expat networking organisation Internations, constantly ranks Sweden as one of the unfriendliest countries for international residents. When looking at topics like how easy it is to settle in, how welcome society is, how friendly the locals are and how easy it is to make friends, Swedish culture seems to be the root of the problem.

In 2022, Mexico dominated in all categories of friendliness and openness, and countries like Brazil, Portugal and Spain, or Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand all make an appearance in the top 10, while the Nordics are completely absent. Are Latin American or Southeast Asia countries culturally more open and welcoming? 

For decades, academics have discussed what constitutes Swedish culture and how that can be seen as an obstacle by foreigners. Åke Daun, a professor at Stockholm University, has produced the most well-known research. He found that a clear separation of the private and public spheres was puzzling to non-Swedes.

“Swedes find it completely natural not to socialise privately with colleagues even if they have worked together for years. This doesn't conflict with the fact that many Swedes actually count those with whom they work as among their closest friends”, he wrote in the 1980s.

Since most internationals’ contact with Swedes is at work, it makes it hard for them to make Swedish friends.

“Even Swedes can - to the surprise of many foreign observers - work side by side for years without ever having been to each other’s homes,” Daun wrote. 

In many countries, it is perfectly normal, and even expected, that after a few years working alongside someone whom you’ve come to consider your friend, you would meet them for coffee or invite them to your home. 

This public/private divide extends to other areas, such as public displays of emotion, which translate in the way people communicate, making them come across as cold and distant.

“I have found that, culturally, Swedes take a while to let people in. This, in a way, can make it hard to make friends initially. However, once they get to know you they are incredibly kind and loyal friends”, says Madeline Robson, 31, who’s been living in Sweden for three years.

She recognises that Swedish culture requires more time and effort when trying to connect with people.

This seems to be an experience shared by those who answered The Local’s survey: 40 percent say they have not befriended any Swedes, while almost 30 percent say that it took them a year or more to make a Swedish friend. 

More recently, researchers Bengt Brülde and Filip Fors dove deep into the question of Swedish individualism and set out to debunk the myth of the lonely Swede. They concluded that Swedes actually do better than most Europeans when it comes to the numbers and quality of their friendships.

“A possible explanation for this is that Swedish individualism makes it easier to choose one's own company, and that this leads to more and better friendships,” they concluded. 

This means Swedes feel freer not to spend time with people they don’t want in their lives, making friendship a bigger commitment to those they actually let in.

Before moving from her native Canada to join her Swedish partner, Madeline Robson had already had a certain image of Swedes painted for her.

“I was told Swedish people were hard to get to know and that I likely wouldn’t have Swedish friends," she says. 

Eager to build a community she could lean on, Madeline thought the best way to achieve that would be to connect with other internationals, with whom she had common experiences.

Like many other newly arrived people, she actively worked on building new friendships, and her community slowly started to shape up. In that journey, she found that her own insecurities were the bigger obstacle.

“I didn’t know the language or understand the nuances of the culture. I felt like I was a burden for making people accommodate me, even though everyone spoke English and didn’t mind. So at first, I had a hard time opening up to people. But after a while I learned that the more I opened up, the more people were willing to get to know me. And that’s when things started to get a lot easier and it felt more natural to make friends.” 

“When you live abroad, everything can feel like it requires extra effort to fit in”, Madeline concludes.

On her Instagram and TikTok she shares her experience of life as a foreigner in Sweden and gets lots of questions on how to make Swedish friends.

There is no formula – and that’s also not the point, she says. “I always say that that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to connect with others who make you feel good about yourself, who support you, and who you share interests with. Go on friendship dates, join in on community events, attend meet-ups. It’s ultimately about putting yourself out there”.