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LIVING IN SWEDEN

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
A woman looks mournfully over an expanse of water. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

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”. 

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ECONOMY

EXPLAINED: What can foreigners in Sweden do about the weak krona?

The Swedish Krona last week hit a record low against the dollar, hammering the international buying power of anyone earning their salaries or holding assets in the currency. We asked Johan Löf at Handelsbanken what they can do.

EXPLAINED: What can foreigners in Sweden do about the weak krona?

How low is the krona right now? 

On Tuesday, September 27th, the krona to dollar exchange rate hit an all-time-low of 11.37, easily beating the previous record low for the currency of 11.04, which it reached at the nadir of the dot com bust back in 2001. At the time of the financial crisis in 2008, a dollar would have got you less than 6 kronor, meaning the currency has almost halved in value in less than 15 years. 

A euro now gets you 10.9 kronor, which is not quite a record, with it briefly topping 11.4 in 2009, but more than it has been for most of the past decade. 

The only major currency which is more or less stable against the krona is the pound, which will now buy about 12.39 kronor, down from 13 in February, but above the levels of around 10.5 the pound hit shortly after the UK voted to leave the European Union. 

Why is the krona worth so little? 

Johan Löf, the head of forecasting at the Handelsbanken bank, told The Local, that the krona always tended to take a hit at times of financial uncertainty. 

“The krona is a relatively small currency much like the Swedish economy is a relatively small economy,” he said. “You could compare it to a small boat sailing the big ocean, so when you don’t go on the course that you thought you were going, it can be a bit of a shaky ride,” he said.

“Right now with financial market conditions being volatile, with a lot of uncertainty and risks, the Swedish krona takes a hit. Investors and various agents of the economy don’t want to hold so much of this smaller currency. Instead, they they go to safe havens like the US dollar.

“So even though there are fundamentals that would suggest that the Swedish kroner will strengthen again over time, for the time being and for some foreseeable future, we think that the krona will remain quite weak.”

How are foreigners living in Sweden affected? 

It very much depends on their individual financial situation: which currency they earn their salary in, which currency they hold assets in, and which currencies they have the highest outgoings in. 

People who live and earn in Sweden, but travel regularly to countries with stronger currencies, or perhaps send remittances back to family at home, are likely be negatively affected, Löf said. 

“It makes you lose purchasing power in these other countries: you get fewer goods and less services for the money that you have in the Swedish currency.”

It’s a similar situation for people or small businesses based in Sweden, who need to, or perhaps only want to, buy goods outside of Sweden. 

On the other hand, for people who have substantial savings abroad in dollars or euros, this might be an opportunity to convert them into kronor for use in Sweden.  

“If you have savings abroad, and you feel the need to use some of those savings, when you then sell your foreign currency to buy Swedish kronor, then you will get more Swedish kronor,” Löf explained. 

What can foreigners living in Sweden do to lessen the impact of a weak krona? 

Change the currency in which you get paid 

The best way to protect against currency exchange shocks is to make sure that you’re paid in the same currency that you spend in, so if you live in Sweden but have a lot of your outgoings abroad, it’s an advantage to be paid in dollars or euros. 

If you’re considering getting a new job, perhaps favour international employers that can pay you in one of the major currencies, or if you work for a big international company, perhaps you can ask to be paid in a different currency. 

Get freelance or part-time work outside of Sweden

If you work as a freelancer, or have some spare time for additional work, consider getting part-time freelance gigs with companies abroad that pay in euros or dollars. The lower the krona sinks, the higher your real wage when you spend in Sweden. 

Time major spending for the best point in the market 

If you have savings in kronor and are considering, for instance, buying a holiday house abroad, it is probably worth waiting until the kronor has strengthened and the Swedish economy is back growing strongly. 

Similarly, if you have savings outside of Sweden in euros or in dollars, and have been planning on buying a property in Sweden, now might be a good time to consider doing so (although it may be worth waiting a few months until interest rate rises have been fully reflected in reduced Swedish property prices).

Get a multiple currency account 

It can be helpful to have an account in multiple currencies, such as those provided by banks such as Wise and Revolut. Keeping any cash in a combination of dollars, euros and kronor can reduce your exposure to any single currency. 

The advantage for foreigners living in Sweden is that you can set up US dollar, Euro and Pound accounts, each with their own local bank number, which you can use to receive and make payments domestically in each country. 

With the krona so low right now, it may not be a good idea to convert all your assets from krona to euros or dollars right now, as the currency is probably more likely to strengthen than weaken over the coming year.

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