Swedish clichés: Why things in Sweden aren’t as well-organised as you think

The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden. The clichés, he writes, rarely outlive experience.

A teacher in a Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) course writes on a whiteboard.
A teacher in a Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) course writes on a whiteboard. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people, don’t get far past the usual clichés. As did I.

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flat-pack loving, slightly distant, Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much needed state-controlled booze to get through the never ending cold and dark winters.

In this series I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.


The Nordics have such a firm reputation for being well-organized that it had not even occurred to me as a factor to consider when moving to Sweden. During my first visit to Stockholm, arriving from Switzerland – a country that famously runs like clockwork – I was not disappointed. A modern pleasant airport with a fast train taking me right to the centre of the beautiful well-kept city where everything is cashless, contactless and seemingly frictionless.

Even the loud and messy building site that was the area of Slussen at the time was covered with posters jokingly inviting visitors to join the locals in complaining about the mess. This chaos was obviously not the normal state of affairs in Sweden.

A year and half after moving here, however, the first cracks are starting to show. It has gotten to the point where my Italian husband at times jokingly refers to Stockholm not as the Venice, but as the Naples of the north.

It was small things at first. The entrance gate at Coop was broken; not for a couple of days but for 8 months and counting. The commercial Covid test in a barely converted metro station kebab shop, executed by two teenagers. The disorganization at my Swedish language school, that gives me low level anxiety to the point of me just wanting take over and run the school myself.


You may rightly ask whether any of this matters. There are other entrances to Coop. The kebab shop Covid test came back on time so we could travel, and when an actual teacher shows up at my Swedish language school, I am indeed learning Swedish.

On the other hand, it makes you wonder: why not organize things well, if you go through the trouble of organizing them in the first place? And some things, like the backlog in the processing of personal number requests at tax agency Skatteverket, are causing more serious real-life problems for people.

The question that looms large is whether this is ‘lagom’ related. Has the Swedish philosophy of ‘just enough’ led to a ‘good enough for now’ attitude? On the face of it, a more ambitious philosophy could lead to a better-organized society.

But you also have to be careful what you wish for. In my experience, in a country that runs like clockwork, you will find yourself surrounded by clockmakers. Sure, you don’t have to wait long for your personal number but there is more to life than administrative tasks. Every other aspect of life is also steeped in a culture of efficiency and that is not necessarily pleasant to be around.

In Sweden on the other hand, every time I dialled a helpline to express my polite wonder about why things were taking so long, there was without fail a friendly, cheerful and perfectly English-speaking person making sure my question was being taken seriously. Even if there was not much they could do for me.

Would I prefer not having to call at all? Sure. But maybe I should also accept, like the person on the helpline, that ‘good enough for now’, is sometimes just enough.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander previously wrote a series for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.