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Alice O'Donnell

"Knowledge is power, and as a newbie you can end up feeling very powerless. The great thing is that Swedish institutions and people are some of the most helpful I have ever encountered as long as you ask for help. Don’t vaguely hint what you need, don’t wait for them to offer unsolicited information. Ask."

I’m Alice, a British citizen who has been in Sweden for nearly 5 years after I accepted a place in a Masters program at Lund University. Since then I have studied, tutored, worked at a student union and a homeless shelter, adopted a rescue dog, and now live and work in Lund with my sambo.

I was very lucky to be a part of International Citizen Hub Lund’s Kick-Start Program recently and got to meet lots of internationals who were very new to Sweden. Talking to them about their experiences trying to set up their new lives here made me realise that there is so much more to the feeling of belonging in Sweden than just getting to grips with the basic facts of Swedish life. Yes, you need to set up a bank account and get a "personnummer", but you also need to start to understand the logic behind the ways that Swedish systems (and people!) work. I realised so many things that my Kick-Start colleagues found confusing were things I had struggled with when I was new too, because they are based in unspoken Swedish norms that it takes years to understand.

So, to help out all the other newbies who wonder why Sweden works the way it does here are 4 key rules for successfully navigating Swedish culture.

Know what you need

Swedes have high trust in the state and high trust in the individual. Which sounds great, but it means that Swedes trust you to know what you need and trust you to ask for it. This can be a bit of a cultureshock, to put it mildly.

One example: I got a knee injury when I had been here 6 months. In the UK to see a physiotherapist you will probably have to visit your family doctor 2-3 times until they verify that you definitely need to see the specialist. It takes months, and it sucks. When I told the receptionist at my Vårdcentral in Sweden that I thought I needed to see a physiotherapist she gave me the direct phone number- the physio saw me later that same week. Great, right? It felt so good that they trusted me to know my own body and what it needed!

Another example: my partner worked for 2 years at a Swedish company before he, completely by chance, heard about A-kassa and asked what it was. It became clear that the A-kassa is a vital element of unemployment security in Sweden, and he had spent 2 years without it simply because he had never heard of it before and no-one ever told him. Not so great. Why didn’t anyone warn us that we needed A-kassa?!

This way of thinking can be really strange and frustrating if you come from a less individualistic country, and it means that it is so important to be proactive in learning about laws and systems that may affect you because no-one will spoon-feed you information here.

This leads nicely on to the next important point.

Ask for help

It can be daunting being trusted to know what you need, because the Swedish system can feel completely alien to internationals. And it can hurt your pride to admit that you do not know something, especially if the people around you are treating that thing like it is very obvious. Knowledge is power, and as a newbie you can end up feeling very powerless. The great thing is that Swedish institutions and people are some of the most helpful I have ever encountered as long as you ask for help. Don’t vaguely hint what you need, don’t wait for them to offer unsolicited information. Ask.

If you ring Försäkringskassan and ask a yes/no question about sick pay they will answer “yes” or “no”. If you ring Försäkringskassan and say “I need help understanding sick pay rules, can you help me?” they will talk it through with you until you understand (I speak from experience here!).

A general rule I have learned is that it is better to risk seeming foolish, than to accept being ignorant. And in the end it doesn’t really matter if a random receptionist at Försäkringskassan thinks your question was a bit silly, but it might matter a lot if you don’t know something important you end up really needing.

Be proactive socially

One massive issue so many internationals face is feeling like it is impossible to ‘break in’ to Swedish social life. Similar to the point above, a big invisible barrier to a good social life in Sweden can be pride. It is difficult to admit you are lonely, and asking someone if they want to be your friend feels like something a 6-year-old says in a school playground. So what do you do?

Well Swedes generally need a reason to start a conversation with a stranger, so give them a reason! I have made friends through university courses, through the gym, through casual meetings with fellow dog owners (it helps that my dog is very very cute). I have found Swedes to be warm, helpful, funny and sweet – once you give them a reason to interact with you.

A much more concrete barrier is language. Everyone tells newbies to learn basic Swedish, which is definitely good advice but a little unhelpful when SFI has a months-long queue and Duolingo insists on teaching you bizarre sentences while skipping the essentials like “I would like a sandwich please” and “how was your weekend?”. It is completely okay to ask someone to speak Swedish a little slower so you can keep up, or to request to take a conversation in English. English literacy in Sweden is close to 90%. Learning Swedish is a good thing for your job prospects and to be able to engage with Swedish media and culture (I am currently re-reading the Harry Potter series in Swedish, it is much sassier than the English version!), but you shouldn’t resign yourself to a life in conversational exile until you learn the language. I have found many Swedes are more than happy to switch to English or Swenglish when asked nicely. Some even apologise for not switching before being asked, because Swedes are sometimes even more polite than British people.

Be patient with yourself

I have been in Sweden for 4 years and 9 months. Writing that feels really weird because in many ways I still see myself as a newbie. I am still working things out, I am still learning about Sweden and its many quirks. But in many other ways I am a true Swede – I use Swish constantly, I cycle everywhere, and I am an expert at finding any ray of sun during the freezing winter and unashamedly turning up my face to bask in it - a habit I call Swedish Sun Face.

This didn’t happen all at once - and there were definitely times I bought "filmjölk" thinking it was milk and ruined my coffee - but now I feel at home here and I understand how things work. As soon as possible I will be applying for citizenship, because I love living here and I know that the skills I have had to develop as a newbie in Sweden have set me up to handle whatever unexpected situation this country throws at me next. Even if you have just started out in Sweden and you feel like you’re on an alien planet 60% of the time just remember the basic steps: Do your research, admit when you don’t know something, and ask for help. You’ll be fine!

/ Alice O'Donnell

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