Do Swedes have no heart?

Working recently in India, one question I received was ‘why don’t Swedes greet us with heart?’ This was referring to when Indians visit colleagues in Sweden, or when they start working together in new constellations.

It is an interesting perception, and maybe not a new one. The experience of Swedes as cold, unfriendly and disengaged seems common, and genuinely baffles a lot of non-Swedish people.

Firstly, I would like to say that in general this is not true. It is just a perception. Many of the Swedes I know are kind, generous and affectionate. However, I do have a few theories as to why this perception prevails.

Expressiveness – how much it is appropriate to express emotion is something that we are trained in from childhood. Some cultures train their children to use their entire bodies when they communicate, others train their children to be more reserved. Generally Swedes are trained to be emotionally inexpressive. What they mean is clearly in their words, and not so much their bodies or faces. And this can lead more physically expressive cultures to presume they are cold. So it is important to understand that lack of expression should not be confused with lack of feeling.

Importance of relationships. Swedes do have many close friendships and family ties. However, this doesn’t necessarily extend to neighbors or colleagues. While in other cultures, strong close relationships with colleagues are essential for getting the job done, in Sweden isn’t the case. Relationships help, but they are not essential for carrying out the task. This means Swedes can go to work and be friendly towards each other, but don’t necessarily need to make friends or show a great deal if interest in each others private lives. This can be frustrating for people who come from strongly relationship-oriented cultures.

Independence. Swedish culture is amongst the most individualistic cultures in the world. In Swedish society, this manifests itself in the attitude that every able-bodied person can take care of themselves. This means that the Swedish attitude is generally if you want help you will ask for it. And you usually get it. The fact that help is rarely offered was a hard lesson for me to learn when moving to ‘unhelpful’ Sweden.

The peach and the coconut. Some cultures are like peaches – soft on the outside, easy to get into, open in communication, overtly friendly. Other cultures are like coconuts – hard shelled, difficult to get into and less open to people outside the group. Typically, but not exclusively, Swedish culture is ‘coconutty’ and Indian is peachy. This can mean it’s a challenge for people from peachy cultures to break into Swedish society and easy for them to form the perception that Swedes are cold and unwelcoming. My experience tells me, however, that once you break through the shell, the friendships that you make are very close and lasting. It is easy to assume when you meet a Swede that he or she is shy or introvert. This might be the case, but not necessarily. He or she might just be a coconut.

Is Sweden functional but unfriendly?

Sweden is used to being at the top of most indexes relating to quality of life, equality, life experience. But not always, as the latest results from the Expat Insider 2017 survey might suggest. The survey looks at masses of elements related to the expat and relocation situation and views the world through expat eyes. The research surveys 65 countries and, in fairness, Sweden has improved from position 42 to 20 overall since 2016. Sweden scores well in travel and transport, safety and security, health and well-being.

So where does Sweden do badly? One of the elements that the survey looks at is ‘ease of settling in’. Here, Sweden doesn’t fare so well. For ‘feeling welcome’ Sweden ranks 51 out of 65 countries, for ‘friendliness’ 56, ‘language’ 15 and, wait for it, for ‘finding friends’ Sweden places 65! Last place. Interestingly Norway and Denmark are 63 and 64 respectively.

What could this tell us about Sweden? Or at least the expat’s experience of the country? Is Sweden seen as a healthy, systematic, safe but cold place? A functioning but unfriendly society?

I have to say that it is not my experience. I have found Swedes to be open and welcoming and I have a lot of great Swedish friends. Friends for life. So why does this survey suggest otherwise? What makes my experience so different from the people in this research? Does it depend on who you meet? Or on how open you are yourself? Is it different if you are single or in a couple? Are the big cities different from the smaller towns? I have no answer, but it is interesting to reflect over.

If you want to read the whole report, here it is:

https://cms-internationsgmbh.netdna-ssl.com/cdn/file/2017-09/Expat_Insider_2017_The_InterNations_Survey.pdf

Swedish weather gods

rainstockholm

At the moment, I’m hearing a lot of moaning about the weather. It is raining a lot and unusually cold for the time of year.

Or is it?

I remember the first year I moved to Sweden and I was returning to the UK on May 13th to visit family. At Arlanda Stockholm Airport our flight was delayed – because it was snowing!! Snowing on May 13th! When I arrived in London, it was over 20 degrees and people were walking around in shorts.

I also remember another year – on Midsummer’s Eve – in June that we sat outside and it was so cold our breaths were steaming. It was the same temperature on Midsummer’s Eve as it had been on New Year’s Eve.

And I remember another May morning a few years ago when I was late for a meeting beacuse I had to unexpectedly scrape the ice of my car.

So is it so unusual that it’s this cold at this time of the year? Unfortunately not. Up here in the Nordic region, this is what we can expect from our weather gods.

The only thing that can make it change is global warming – not selective memory, collective denial or wishful thinking.