Living in Sweden for 4 years introduced me to many new friends, a multitude of experiences and some minor cultural clashes. Hence, having now laid a bit of space between myself and this Nordic Shangri-La, I’ve compiled my very own “Sweden for Foreigners” list:
1) For Swedes, everything is great, people are WONDERFUL and everything you do is so NICE. This is a quality I revelled in when I first moved here, simply because it’s uplifting being surrounded by so much positivity (especially if you grew up with sultry Finnish frankness). This is a people for whom the glass truly always is half-full. The downside of this all-encompassing positivity is the fear of ever doing anything to anger anybody, because it’s just not nice to upset people. Swedes truly are the most conflict-fearing nation on earth. The tiniest hint of differing opinions will speed up a Swedish pulse faster than you can say bugger off. Being a fairly frank person – even for a Finn – this has sometimes put me in interesting situations. People kept calling me “brave” and “outspoken” (which I suspect were just nice Swedish euphemisms for downright bloody rude). But still, I might never have developed any diplomatic traits whatsoever if it hadn’t been for my Swedish years…
2) For Swedes, agreeing on things is very important. In the workplace this usually means democracy taken to its very limit. Every single employee gets to express their opinion about everything from curtain colour to which kind of coffee is served. The downside of this is pretty obvious: even the simplest decision takes ages to make. But if you’re the boss, don’t even think of taking any shortcuts. Because if somebody is left out of the decision-making process, you’ll have created a potential conflict. And believe me, you don’t want that, because even though offended Swedes will never tell you up front why they’re upset, it won’t keep them from bitterly scolding you behind your back.
3) Swedes love traveling. The further the better. Try finding one single Swedish family that hasn’t been to Thailand at least 3 times and you’re in for the long haul. This also means that Swedes in general are very open-minded, tolerant and accepting towards other cultures. However, some Swedish globetrotters can be a tad naive. For instance the young couple whose toddler almost got electrocuted when playing with (!) a broken lamp socket during their stay at a hotel in Koh Lanta. When interviewed by a local paper, the family expressed their horror at the lack of appropriate safety regulations. The thought of a) keeping a better eye on their kid or b) staying at home in Safe Sweden, apparently never occurred to them. Hmmm, if you go to Asia instead of Alingsås, you might have to expect things to be a bit different from home.
4) Swedish children are creative, sociable and expected to take an active part in family decision making from an early age. Often to the extent that foreigners are sometimes warned that Sweden is a country ruled by infants… Once you’ve seen a mother spend 30 minutes calmly explaining to her 1-year-old why he or she should rethink the idea of running out on a street filled with moving vehicles, you’ll start believing this too… And mind you: if the toddler still after those 30 minutes insists on doing it, the mother will calmly lean back in her chair, smile and proudly say something like “Little David is just so adventurous!”. While the sporadic onlooker (of non-Swedish descent) might think that little David’s mother is just so bonkers.
5) Sweden is the country where Social Democracy was invented. This still lives on in the thought that everybody was indeed created equal and should remain so – no matter what. In fact, the idea has been taken to such lengths, that Swedish schools no longer hand out grades to pupils, because it puts the less well performing pupils at a disadvantage. To a Swede, it’s simply not fair that one pupil should get better grades than another (even though he or she would have well deserved it). It’s simply considered more humane not to give anybody grades. So instead of working to get better grades, Swedish pupils should find motivation in their own inner drive to learn. Which works fine in grade 1, but try explaining it to a rebelling 14-year old…
6) Most Swedes have a natural sense of style. This is a country filled with good-looking people and the fashion industry is soaring. It becomes particularly evident if you take a stroll in one of the more fashionable parts of Stockholm on a Sunday afternoon. The amounts of designer label buggies, high-maintenance moms and bohemian-yet-classy dads will leave you gasping.
Finally: don’t let my (Finnish) frank comments intimidate you, because even with all its quirks Sweden truly is a great place to live. Personally I’d move back any day if I got the chance. But remember, if you do come here, keep smiling whatever happens and just say “Va fiint!” if anybody asks you something. Then you’ll fit right in :-).