Last night, Bee Swedish hosted a workshop in collaboration with expat community Girl Gone International. With attendees from Scotland, Australia, Colombia, the US, Germany, Romania and Pakistan, who had lived in Sweden from anything from one month and one day up to twelve years, we enjoyed diversity in experience and perspective. The aim was to introduce Swedish culture and discuss personal observations, challenges and strategies to feel more at home in Sweden.
We started off from five topics of concern:
Equality and conformism, making plans and taking decisions, caring for others, public and private, and social consideration (politeness), and discussed how Sweden and countries of origin differed in these respects.
Sweden does have an inspiring level of equality, especially regarding childcare, parental leave and education. However, it is not a perfect country, and there is still a long way to go before we have breached the pay gap between men and women, and top positions are still dominated by men. Although parental leave is shared, fathers are proven to enjoy theirs during the summer months, whereas women are left with the harsher part of the year.
Swedish society can be very excluding for those not having a personal number. Without one, you have no access to primary functions in society; bank accounts, gym memberships, library cards. It is difficult to make friends.
Decision making processes can be painfully slow, with plenty of seemingly unnecessary meetings, but at the same time, when the decision has finally been taken, implementation is fast.
There seems to be a general lack of care for strangers. Swedes rarely apologise when stepping on one’s toe or bumping into someone. Similarly, but on a bigger scale, Swedes tend to stay out of touch when tragedy strikes, in order not to intrude into one’s privacy. This is somehow seen as polite from a Swedish point of view, as we believe we show others our respect by not recognising their pain.
In general, Swedish society appears to be governed by weird, unwritten, rules that are very different from continental Europe or other Western societies. A lot is related to the Swedish view of what is public or private, which is defined according to the view that anything that makes us different from each other is private - opinions, feelings, short-comings or problems. A polite Swedish person minds their own business, and let you mind yours. Read more about this here.
How do we overcome our cultural challenges for the next six months?
Understanding the local practice is essential, and so is the skill of knowing when to adapt it or not. Becoming Swedish is not the goal, but rather knowing how to navigate Swedish social life without losing yourself in the process. Use your international quirkiness as something positive.
Although Swedes speak seemingly good English, their skills do not cover all domains, and in the long term, Swedes prefer to speak their own language. This is, we agreed, understandable. To learn a language to an advanced level is hard work, requires time, effort and money, but is a wise investment, for your personal life and career. Knowing the language will also make you independent and help your confidence.
Making friends with Swedes is a challenge for Swedes themselves. Be patient, join a sports club or other association (book club, pottery class, voluntary association, …) where you will meet Swedes regularly and where you will have something in common to speak of. Being more friendly yourself and helping Swedes coming out of their shell is a good trick. Experimenting with different techniques of socialising.
Comparing Sweden to your home country will not lead anywhere.