Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Measure Your Age Not By Years But By Your Friends - Making Friends In Sweden

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

Friendship Quotes
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.


  1. Oh, I don't think the difficulties in making new Swedish friends necessarily has a lot to do with being of a non-Swedish background. I rather think it's a big city phenomena and too many people being afraid of rejection. Approaching people you find interesting, perhaps coming off like "needy" (or for that matter weird) and then being rejected.

    Some/most of us do take things a bit more seriously than needed, on the one hand (personally) I do want the things I say and do to really mean something, on the other hand just the briefest of encounters can be fun too. Not to mention, can possibly mean a friendship for life.

    The older one gets the more difficult it somehow seems to be making new friends in a "natural" way. At least in Stockholm. I went to a wedding last year, with loads of people I hadn't met before and many of them seemed interesting. But an overwhelming majority was either too self-absorbed or acted like little scared bunnies when they were approached. So in the end I mostly did what I'm rather good at, watching and analyzing people and taking photos...:)

    Interesting post!

  2. I come from a city 4 times the size of Stockholm - sorry but I don't agree - it is not a big city phenomena - it is the Stockholm syndrome - written about it guide books all over the world. But it is more than that - it exists out there in the small places too. Sad to hear that you too suffer its consequences.

  3. Hi Nic

    I so have to agree with you on this. It's hard to make new friends in Sweden. Being swedish I still have a hard time, if not to say almost impossible, to meet new people, connect and make a friend.
    I've lived in quite a few cities all over Sweden and it's the same all over.

    I just don't know why. I'm a very cheerful and happy person. I talk a lot and I like to connect with others. Over the years I've changed. I've noticed that I've become quiet and reserved. This is not WHO i am. This is how this country has shaped me. Not sure you understand me... but... I seldom approach people nowadays because I feel like they find me needy and "desperate/lonely". AND I've stopped trying to make friends because I usually get rejected. A lot of people get very uncomfortable.

    Wanting a friend and daring to approach someone and then get rejected is almost like telling someone you love them and then... nothing. It's just awful and so sad.

    I meet this everywhere. And in the end it really makes one feel like a terrible person not worthy of friendships. Don't get me wrong. I do have wonderful friends. But sometimes I want to meet new people. Learn from others and explore the world.



  4. Just found your blog..... Interesting.....I’ll be back to read more.

  5. Johanna thanks for stopping by, more importantly thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

    I do so absolutely understand you and you reminded me of something I wanted to add to this post but forgot - I too have changed over the years - I think we all do. Although it is terrible to think that it also happens to friendly, out-going Swedes like you!

    There was a time when I would speak to a stranger without hesitation - if the opportunity arose - not for the sake of it but because is was kind of expected - it is just what you do. I wrote about mateship last week when writing about the fires in Australia - you talk to people you share a common situation with - a crazy bus driver, a delay on the train, a slow queue - whatever the situation might be. But here I don't do it because no-one ever does it to me. I no longer look people in the eye when I pass them, I don't smile at people I know live in my area, I don't say to people - lets get a coffee, come over over a drink or what are you doing on the weekend - I hate the way it has changed me!! The worse part is that I know lots of people who I would like to know better but I don't dare ring them and say - lets get together! All in fear of being rejected - they are busy, they have things on, they have lots of other friends they want to see. That is NOT me!

    It is like a thick blanket that lies over the surface of our existence suffocating us into behaving a certain way.

    I know Swedes who have lived abroad say the same thing - they behaved in one way when abroad and they went back to their old ways when they moved home. Are we all bewitched into this non-social behaviour??

    Yet it is wonderful to have new friends - we learn, we grow, we explore, we develop with each one. They have so much to give us and we to them......

  6. Homeopath - thank you for dropping by - I know many who would be interested in your blog!

  7. Hi again

    That's sad. You shouldn't change. Pls don't. Just be yourself. Smile at people, say hello, approach them. If they act like idiots it's their loss. I decided yesterday. It's time for a change. I'm not going to be like them. And I'm going to tell myself that if they say no or reject me it's because they are afraid. And that really is on them not me.

    So keep smiling, keep talking to people. Suddenly someone might surprise you. ;)

    I'd ask you over for a "fika" if you lived next door. Sadly I don't even live in Stockholm. But I do raise my glass. It was nice talking to you. Stranger.