Dis/Connect: An expat's perspective on why it's so hard to make friends in Sweden
We recently spoke to Emma about her experiences of moving within Sweden from Gothenburg to Malmö. But what’s life like for someone who’s completely new to Sweden? Olga works for Ikea, one of the largest and most international companies in the world. Despite this, making real, lasting connections has been a challenge for her. We chatted with Olga to find out more.
Panion: Tell us a little about yourself
Olga: I’m originally from Russia and I now work for Ikea at their Malmö head office. I started working for Ikea in Russia, then moved to Canada for six months before coming to Sweden in December 2013. I also lived in the US for a year. I’ve basically been travelling ever since I was 18!
P: Wow that’s quite a lot of moving around.
O: I guess so. I suppose it’s because I’d consider myself a very adventurous person. I’ve done a lot of exploring. I find it genuinely exciting to explore and meet new people, and I’m really interested in the cultural differences between us. For the most part I’ve been working the whole time, so it’s perhaps a little easier for me to move around. I’m certainly luckier than some.
P: So what’s your experience been like here in Sweden?
O: I spent the first three years living in Helsingborg which is very small and very… Swedish! It’s strange because there’s lots of international people there, particularly at Ikea. But despite that I think it’s not a very easy place to be an expat. I moved to Malmö which is much more multicultural and so much easier to make friends!
P: Why is that?
O: I don’t know exactly. In some ways I feel like Malmö is more accepting. Because it’s so multicultural you don’t feel so strange, or like an outsider like you might in Helsingborg. When I first moved there, I looked at the list of names on my apartment building and noticed they weren’t at all typically Swedish names —so I didn’t feel so weird anymore. I would say I had a few friends here after a month or so (even if most of them weren’t Swedish) but Helsingborg wasn’t like that. One of my colleagues was Swedish himself and moved there from Stockholm and even he said that after five years he had no friends in Helsingborg.
P: So it’s not just about being a literal “outsider”?
O: No, and I think it’s a cultural thing. As I said, Helsingborg is very “Swedish”. People are very nice, very polite, they’re not rude at all. They’re interested in you and they’ll ask what your plans are for the summer and all that stuff. But they don’t want to cross that line. You’re not going to meet up outside of work unless you’re really close friends.
P: You’ve lived in quite a few different countries. Is it more difficult to make friends in Sweden?
O: Absolutely, yes. I think it’s because of the way the society is set up. For the most part people’s friends are from their childhood or maybe university. Social interaction is based on planning, it’s not very spontaneous. It’s really tough to get yourself into someone’s schedule. I actually gave up on the idea of having what I guess you’d call “authentically” Swedish friends. I found it was much easier to be spontaneous with non-Swedes.
P: How did this affect your daily life?
O: I guess it’s mainly when I’m in the mood to do something social I might not necessarily have the options that others have. Without that special connection I mentioned you might find, your social demands aren’t really met. For example if I want to go out for drinks on a Friday after work I might not have any option other than my boyfriend!
P: What advice would you give to fellow newcomers or expats?
O: I was very optimistic when I came here, I was so excited to come to Sweden. But soon the social reality hit and I found it really tough. I went through phases where I wanted to pack my bags and leave even though this is a wonderful country and I really love it a lot. But despite my job and the money I was earning, that wasn’t important to me when my social needs weren’t being met. But I kept saying to myself “give it a chance, give it a chance”.
Every time I felt like leaving something made me stay. And eventually I got through it. I really want to encourage people to not give up because even if you’re finding it tough, you can get through it. If you’ve got a goal or a mission you set out to accomplish in a new place you just need to keep at it. The reality is that despite the initial challenges, I do now have friends, even a few Swedes! I love this country, I love the nature, I love being here. I’m so glad I stuck with it so I can really appreciate it. Anything is possible, you’ve just got to get through it.
We’ve been really inspired by Olga’s determination not to let loneliness hold her back. Our company was founded in response to our own experiences of how hard it can be to make new friends in a new place. We’ll be sharing more stories like this in the coming weeks. If you would like to share your own experience please email firstname.lastname@example.org.