What I Got Wrong About Sweden

In some conversations lately, as it comes up that I've been living in Sweden for almost three years officially, friends have asked what I thought about this country before I moved here, and how that may have changed or been confirmed. They know there's been relatively enough time for me to really soak in my observations and strengthen, change, or develop perspectives. Unlike the few expats I know living here, I knew a great deal about Sweden before I moved here. I had spent a significant amount of time with Swedes for the two years beforehand, studied the language, had read countless articles, blogs, and books about the social, educational and business culture, communicated with Swedish professors, business and administrative people over email, and even had several different Swedish musical artists on my playlists.

But indeed, I had never lived, or even visited, Sweden before. I had, and still have, a lot to learn.

Here's what I thought about Sweden and was wrong about, or at least not quite right... 

1. Sweden doesn't have a very affectionate culture. 
In fact, they can be quite physically affectionate, between all kinds of family, friend and romantic relationships. From my first weeks in Sweden, I noticed the difference, and I only continue to realize how wrong I was. I guess I got my misconceived idea from general descriptions of Scandinavian culture as being more reserved and needing more physical space than many other cultures, but it does not carry over into close personal relationships. Yes, most all of my single friends live in apartments alone, there is a strong culture of spacial independence in some ways here. But when they meet up with people they care about...each other, me, or their little nephew, they're likely to sit close, give big hugs, kisses on the cheek, and, quite often, generally radiate affection. One of the first times I was at a pre party in Stockholm, a guy arrived a bit late and as he passed by one of his best guy friends he gave the guy a bear hug and grabbed his head and gave a quick enthusiastic kiss on the cheek. That's pretty common here, and way less common (but not unheard of) in the States. I love it.

2. Sweden is a model of efficiency in every way. 
Eh, no. For the ways in which Sweden is efficient, I am truly grateful. When I stood last week in sweltering heat waiting and waiting for a long line of people to pay with loose change to get on a bus in Spain, I missed the efficiency of pre-paid tickets that often eliminates any waiting time at all in such situations in Sweden. But from what I heard about Sweden before I went, and from the dozens of ways that I heard from Swedes about how the States ran inefficiently "compared to Sweden," I was often startled by inefficiency in a variety of contexts. For many (not all) bureaucratic and/or administrative processes, one is often redirected to all sorts of people, sites, numbers, others who don't want to help or to answer. Some Swedes have some disdain for the corporate model of a Starbucks-type coffee shop, but that chain's multi-person efficiency is all I want when I occasionally stand in a cafe here and just one person is working: taking orders, making the drinks and sandwiches, refilling empty supplies... with a line of ten people waiting and waiting. And there is a lot of patience needed at times to work/play within the group consensus processes here. But honestly, I do understand that the States can frustrate in other ways on this topic, and then I know that things are all relative... my sister currently lives in South Sudan. They don't even have a mail system and at times she hasn't had clean water. So.

3. Jantelagen is obvious to recognize but easy to avoid.
I was not really on target with this expectation. If you don't know much about Scandinavia, you should quickly go see the wiki on this concept. I won't take the time to break it down now, but soon I will in another post. Basically, it is a cultural norm of discouraging individual achievement, preferences or talent in favor of the collective standards. I thought before I moved here: it is more present in older Swedish generations than mine and younger. That is true. And it will continue to become a weaker cultural norm. But I thought it would be more directly evident and therefore easier to personally stand against... like direct, jealous and petty statements/requests/behavior from people that are not my own high-achieving and extraordinary friends. That has not really been the case...and I don't think I've even much noticed the Jantelagen that surrounds me until this last year, it's been so subtle. I experience it in the way that friends say things against one another because of perceived "showing off," in how some people, ideas or situations are labeled "unfair" or "arrogant," and in what things are questioned or thought to be weird. The good thing about Jantelagen is that it creates a culture that is opposite to, say, The Real Housewives series, as this expat writes.  But mostly I think it is an insidious vapor that tears people down and inhibits individuality and acceptance, and I don't want to inhale even a breath of it. Humility can be found without Jante. I need to write about this soon, for there is too much to say and I fear this brief paragraph may even be misconstrued.

4. I will be free from offensive pervy male behavior.
Unfortunately, I was a bit too idealistic in this aspect about Sweden. I like interacting with Swedish/Scandinavian guys because from day 1, they have shown themselves to be generally respectful, unintrusive and gentle, ie, as I said before, I feel safe.  This remains true among my peers.
Back in high school and university, I believed that one day I would live for a couple years or travel regularly to Latin America. I made many trips there and studied Spanish for all of that time. One of the main reasons I'm not in Costa Rica now instead of Sweden is because I was continually turned off and frustrated by the machismo culture of the men there. I cannot stand the way they make sounds at women passing by, for example. Sweden would be blissfully free from anything even resembling that, I thought.
So I was in total shock that in my second week in Sweden was the first time in my life I was ever grabbed in an offensive way by a man. A sort of sloppy looking blond middle aged man was staring at me from a short distance and then got up and squeezed by me while I was in line for something and grabbed my ass. If anyone saw it they didn't indicate it. He was gone before I recovered from my shock, and I stood there, eyes starting to water, a deep fury building up inside, and nothing to do about it. Disillusionment filled me as well, for out of all the places around the world I've been and felt tense from the possibility of such a thing happening... it first happened here before I'd even finished unpacking. Such a thing has happened a second time here as well, while waiting for the subway, with a similar type of man and in a more gross and startling way, and again, I was in shock, but did nothing in the moment but jump away and then moments later begin seething in rage. It was only yesterday that I realized how the disillusionment has finally switched to a change in behavior and awareness for me, as I was sitting on a bus and that same type of man plopped down next to me a bit too close for comfort, and I had a skirt on, and while my heart started pounding out of anxiety that he might try to touch my leg, my muscles tensed into fight mode, ready to knock him the hell off the seat if he did so. My stop came, he got up and out of my way, and I got off the bus. Nothing happened.
I stand by the fact that Scandinavians are generally more respectful towards women than in many other cultures around the globe. It was in Italy that my friends and I were chased by strange men to the point we were genuinely terrified, and in Spain last week some American men (normal looking professionals) we briefly talked to blatantly stared at the chests of my friends and I repeatedly in a way I have never encountered before and don't believe most Scandinavian men would dare to attempt.

5. Swedes aren't super sentimental. 
They are so deeply and sweetly sentimental, in fact. Some of the Swedish friends I had in California before I moved are also quite sentimental, but I had guessed them to be the exception to the rule. In fact, they are not. There is not as much public/media sentimentality as in the US (think of Olympic montages and massive public outpourings after a high profile death or tragedy), but otherwise, gratitude and emotion and nostalgia and tender acknowledgment are frequent. Swedes are fantastic at elaborate plans for making people feel special on their birthdays, for example. And at Swedish wedding receptions, as opposed to the American 2-4 standard number of toasts from just a parent or two and the best man and maid of honor, there are toasts upon toasts... the spontaneous, planned, or surprising sentimentality is heavy and much more important than when the cake gets cut, when the dancing starts, and when the photos get taken. I don't care where the person will be from that I marry, I'm doing my wedding Swedish style someday.

The most important things I thought about Sweden I got absolutely right.

I thought I would love the people. 
The country would be beautiful. 
It would feel like home. 


  1. I love reading your reflections on Sweden. I really can't believe you've been gone so long! It seems like a lovely country. I hope I can visit someday!

  2. Loved this post! I live in Maryland, and am moving to Norway for a year...maybe longer. I am trying to learn everything about Oslo before I move. Coincidentally, I came across your blog even though you live in Sweden. Very happy I did!

    I love to see what it is like for someone like me (similiar fashion tastes, views, health, fitness, etc.) move to another country. You present your views in a clear way and I love it! ...can't hurt that you are crazy intelligent as well!


  3. Lovely blog and delightful post ! Very useful and insightful information about life in Sweden. I identify with what you said about Costa Rica. I'm a costarican myself and I cannot wait to finish Uni and get away from here. I hate that I cannot walk my dog without at least five pervs telling me gross comments or making disgusting sounds while I pass by. It freaks me out really not being able to feel safe and walking full of fear that someone might steal my purse, grab my ass or worst. My goal is to move to Sweden, I'm currently learning the language. I have met a couple of swedes and they are just so polite and well educated, seems like a lovely culture from what I've been able to see. Would you write an entry on how to start life as an expat? I have no idea of how to begin :(
    Great posts!

  4. "The most important things I thought about Sweden I got absolutely right.

    I thought I would love the people.
    The country would be beautiful.
    It would feel like home."

    And we love you too! :)

  5. Interesting post, thanks for writing!!! I know living in Sweden...


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