This article was first published in 2016 for Your Living City.
I moved to Sweden 2009. That makes 7 years ago and yet, the other day, I caught myself saying to my friend Mikaela, “I think you are my first real Swedish girlfriend”. How weird is that? I did the math and after 7 years I can account for 3 real Swedish people that I would call my friend without a doubt. And that includes Mikaela and excludes my partner.
What is wrong with me I thought? Why am I such an unsocial person?
My personal interpretation for why I did not have many Swedish friends was that I had worked mainly with expats, that I was already working when I moved and already had a strong group of friends from university that I relied on and visited often, that I had my partner who played the role of the best friend most of the time, plus I was quite shy and, especially when I moved, was not 100% confident with my Swedish skills, making small talk feel like hard work for both parties. In short, I did not make it easy for Swedes to befriend me in the first place.
On second thought, I have friends. But most of them are not Swedish. So is it really my fault?
So I started googling around and researching the subject. Most of what I read seemed to place the blame on the Swedes.
I first thought it was some kind of urban legend, according to which Swedes are as cold as their winters. But then I came across this super-serious survey made each year by HSBC called The Expat Explorer Survey. It compares countries with feedback from almost 30 000 expats on criteria such as economy, quality of life, culture, entrepreneurship and, what interests us most here, integration and making friends.
Here is the result of the survey if you single out “making friends” as your unique criteria: out of 45 countries, Sweden is ranked last. That is to say, according to this HSBC Survey, it is easier to make friends in Russia or China, respectively ranked 6 and 28, than in good old Sweden. I do not know if you have had the opportunity to visit Russia and China yet, those are two very beautiful countries with amazing architecture, rich history and fascinating cultures, nevertheless, no offence but I honestly would never have thought of looking for my next best friends there before Sweden.
Surely though, we cannot blame everything on the Swedes.
After all it is a well-known fact that after a certain age it becomes harder to make friends. It can easily be explained by the fact that once we have started working we are busier and our priorities and focus are slowly shifting, as we become responsible adults. We eventually move into our own apartment, maybe sharing with a partner or a roommate making the need for companionship less of a need and more of a luxury. It is easier to get “trapped” in the daily routine and to not create opportunities to meet new people. It is very easy to quickly feel like we have just lost the ability to make friends.
According to sociologists, proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions as well as a setting that encourages people to confide in each other are the three essential conditions to be able to make true friends. Conditions that seem harder and harder to meet as we grow older and are burdened with more responsibilities, no matter where we are in the world.
So I dug a little deeper and came across the concept of “The Swedish definition of love”, an idea first developed in “Is the Swede Human?” (2006) by Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh, and Erik Gandini‘s 2015 documentary “The Swedish definition of love”. Gandini studies the increasing individualism in the Swedish society and takes us back to 1972 and the Family of the Future manifesto, often seen as the root of individualism in Sweden.
The conclusion is quite interesting as well as disturbing.
The Manifesto considered that “all authentic human relationships have to be based on the fundamental independence between people”. Meaning that each person has to be totally independent from one another, able to support him/herself completely economically as well as emotionally before entering a relationship in order to ensure that said relationship is not distorted by any kind of reliance.
In order to make the switch from a more traditional society and enable its people total independence from one another, the State had to come into the picture through the implementation of systems, high-level services, organizations and top-notch infrastructure. All of those, putting Sweden on top of the development and quality of life worldwide rankings, but also gradually reducing the need for communication with one another to the minimum, and by doing so, underhandedly stripping people of their ability to deal with human interactions at a deeper level than basic survival needs.
Could it also just be that their definition of friendship is different from ours? And what is friendship anyway? When do we stop acting friendly and become friends?
I’ve asked a couple friends what their definition was and for the French ones like me, it was basically someone you could be yourself with, you could count on and want to share personal things with and more importantly you could be spontaneous with. The ones who were expats in Sweden strongly felt the lack of spontaneity in the Swedes’ way of dealing with relationships “always an agenda in one hand to book the next meeting as well as the next fika, one or two weeks from now”.
I personally think a friend is someone you can rely on, someone you actually miss and feel you need around you to be truly happy.
Here, I said it. Need. In my opinion that precise concept of “needing someone else” is the root of the issue at stake here. Swedes do not need anyone but themselves. They can build their own furniture (providing the thingummy screw came with the box), they stayed out of our disastrous wars and reluctantly joined the EU in 1995 with a prenup made of concrete keeping their own currency and making Sweden one of the strongest economies in the EU today. They are doing very well and they are playing it safe. Because after all, the less attached you are, the less you are inclined to find yourself in a position where you do not have the control and could suffer form.
So could it be that it is not that the Swedes don’t want to do small talk, but that they just lost the “know how” after decades of being taught how to be self sufficient? Could it be that they just want to protect themselves?
Let’s keep that in mind next time we approach one and before we go and perpetuate the urban legend. At the end of the day, it is on us to adjust. So let’s try just a little bit harder and see if making friends is just like riding a bike, something your learn early on and never truly forget.
And cheer up! When you select every single criteria Sweden is the 8th best country to move to out of 45 in 2016.
All photos: Simon Paulin /imagebank.sweden.se