or was it measure your success by your friends? I can't quite remember but I know there is an old proverb about friends and on several occasions this last week I have had opportunity to reflect over just that, friends.
I'm sure it is Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner in their book Riding The Waves Of Culture who say something about old isolated countries (like Sweden) being full of old friends. Until the 50s there was not the movement around the country, or in and out of the country and people were pretty isolated, villages would be cut off from each other for months of the year and families had known each other for generations. And we all know what we are like with old friends - we just know each other, we understand, we don't have to explain and there is no need for small talk. And we all know what it is like to try and break into a group of friends who have known each other for years. It is hard and it takes time.
While Swedes of today might be much more mobile, with people moving around to go to university or for employment, things are not all that different. Culture does not change as quickly as what circumstances do, it is ingrained in our way of being. Words like shy, introverted, reserved, wary and guarded are all used to describe these people. But however you describe them Sweden is a country full of old friends, many have known each other since day-care and with so many moving to the big cities it is possible to remain close to school friends even in a new city. All this makes it very difficult for outsiders, many of whom say they struggle to meet Swedes, to form friendships with Swedes.
Friendship needs no words - it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness. ~Dag Hammarskjold (a Swede).
When I first came to Sweden in the early 90s I developed an analogy that still rings true today. In this country you can stand out on someone's doorstep and bang and bang on the door, ringing the doorbell for all you are worth. You might be standing out in a blizzard with the wind blowing cold in your face and the snow sleeting down around you. Yet you will stand there, feeling sorry for yourself until someone is willing to open the door. If, or once they finally do, you are welcomed inside where it is warm and hospitable. There is food and drink, fun and merriment. There will be people you will be introduced to and you will have good friends for life. You just have to get past the front door!
Since there is nothing so well worth having as friends, never lose a chance to make them. ~Francesco Guicciardini
But getting past the front door is no easy task. A Brazilian neighbour told me when I first moved here that you have to say hello to a Swede everyday for about a year before things move to the next step. While this is possibly a gross exaggeration and clearly not true in every case, I have once again been reminded of the validity of his comment. Shane’s post about his lack of friends and small social circle after a year in Stockholm and lunch with a Belgium woman new to Stockholm both remind me of how hard it can be. Especially for someone here on their own – ironic considering Stockholm supposedly has more single households than any other capital in the world and almost 20% of Stockholmers were born abroad – with many more born somewhere else in Sweden.
Strangers are just friends waiting to happen. ~Rod McKuen, Looking for a Friend
I warned my Belgium friend not to expect any invitations – none of the customary – lets all go out for a drink after work., - friends are going to see a movie Saturday – want to join us?, - do you have any plans for the weekend? - or any other of the invitations one might expect to get from colleagues having just moved to a new job in a new country. Sadly, she confirmed I was right.
It is even part of the language and regrettably I find myself reflecting over my use of vocabulary in a way I never used to – friend, school friend, friend from work have all become vän (friend), kollega (colleague) and bekant (acquaintance) – the word friend can’t be used lightly, carelessly.
So it is not so strange that non-Swedes become friends with non-Swedes and expats move in purely expat circles – it is often not for lack of trying or lack of wanting. In fact many leave when their time is up, sad that they got to know so few Swedes while living in Sweden…… And while it is true that many of us are so busy we don’t have time for the friends we do have, let alone new ones, it is far from the entire explanation.
There is magic in long-distance friendships. They let you relate to other human beings in a way that goes beyond being physically together and is often more profound. ~Diana Cortes
But even there it can be difficult to get to know other non-Swedes as those of us who are here long-term are often self-protective. My friendship group has bled many times over the years as friends have opted to return home, or move on to another placement. My dearest, oldest (as in longest) Swedish friend looked around the room during my recent birthday celebrations and commented on how few had been at my 30th, a decade earlier. We long-termers joke about asking people how long they plan to be here and about being wary of those who say anything less than us – it is painful to lose someone every couple of years. And the irony of it all, some of my dearest friends have packed their bags and left, but I wouldn’t be without them.Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends. ~Shirley Maclaine
So what is the answer? How do you make friends in Sweden? How do you even meet people that might possibly become friends? You have to go out on a limb, and you have to do it time and time again, even in the face of potential rejection. You have to approach people who you like, who seem interesting and you cannot wait for them to approach you – because it just might not happen.
And if that fails or if you don’t quite have the courage then the best place to start is the expat organisations, and there is a growing number of them. There are always others keen to extend their social network, and you never know, some of them might have Swedish friends too. But realise it takes a long time to develop into friendship!
Friends are relatives you make for yourself. ~Eustache Deschamps
Friendship is a glorious thing, something we all need, we all benefit from. It makes the dull days shine brightly, the bright ones even more magnificent. And the smaller our family, or the further away they are, the greater our need for friends. As I looked around the room on Saturday night I saw just a handful I’ve known longer than my oldest child (6), but I saw many dear people whose company I really enjoy, whose friendship I really value. I am one of the fortunate ones, I can truly count both my age and my success by my wonderful friends.
There are big ships and small ships. But the best ship of all is friendship. ~Author Unknown
Mums In Sweden
Lost In Sweden - bulletin board
International Friends of Stockholm - one of many facebook groups
International Woman's Club - Stockholm
Eurocircle - Stockholm
American Club of Sweden
English Speaking Community Club - Stockholm
Just to name a few.