Ten things I’ve learned from two decades living in Sweden
Plan ahead, curb your enthusiasm and build a cake break into your day
‘I still feel compelled to offer to buy a round of drinks if out with a group, even though the culture here is that everyone pays for themselves.’ Photograph: Birgit Walsh
I moved to Sweden in 1998 following six years in Germany and England. Having a family in 1998 started us thinking about where we would like to be long term. My Swedish husband was keen to move back to Sweden after eight years abroad, and I was interested in experiencing Scandinavian living. We thought we’d give Sweden a try. We’ve never looked back.
Originally from Dublin, I’d met my husband Anders when we were both working in Dusseldorf in Germany. We then moved to England with his job, which was nice but not actually home to either of us. After five years in Northampton, we were ready for a change and maternity leave seemed like as good a time as any to make the move. Time flies. Our daughter was two months old when we moved to Stockholm and she will graduate from high school this June. Her Swedish born “little brother” will soon dwarf us all.
As with any move abroad, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Swedes have their own way of doing things and adaptation is a process. Almost two decades of living and working in Sweden have taught me some valuable lessons, insight I share with other expats moving to Sweden through my work as a relocation consultant. Here are some of the things I have learned along the way.
1. The concept of Lagom
Lagom (pronounced lar-gohm) is a Swedish word meaning just the right amount. It’s also widely translated as in moderation, in balance and perfect-simple. Think of it as the Goldilocks of words – not too hot, not too cold but just right. It’s an important concept to understand as it is applied to just about every aspect of life in Sweden from dress sense to work performance. Lagom is the stamp of approval; too much or too little usually gets the thumbs down. An important tip for expats on this subject is the adjustment needed in your expectations of praise. Swedes don’t usually go overboard in this department, so don’t expect to be told you’re wonderful. If you’re told something was “lagom”, rest assured that you’ve hit the mark.
2. How to apply Lagom
I’ve taken this as a separate point because understanding the concept and knowing what is considered lagom by Swedes in various different situations are two very different learning curves, the latter requiring years of experience and practice. Turns out my instincts were not naturally “lagom” across a whole range of areas. However, after nearly two decades in Sweden, I now instinctively know what would be considered appropriate on most subjects, such as participation at office meetings, the amount of planning notice required to get any activity off the ground or what and how much to serve on any particular occasion. I don’t always choose lagom, but at least now it’s a conscious decision.
3. How to Fika
Any newbie to Sweden quickly learns that fika (coffee breaks) is an important part of Swedish work culture. This is where you get to socialise with your colleagues and catch up on office news in an informal way. It is a great concept. The real challenge of office fika is gauging what is a “lagom” amount of time to spend at this compulsory activity. Other fika challenges include getting used to drinking copious amounts of coffee (often black, as sugar and milk aren’t considered essentials), developing an appreciation of bulle (Swedish cinnamon loaf/buns – an acquired taste), or getting cornered by someone when you really do have deadlines to meet.
Here is all you need to know about punctuality in Sweden. Coming late to anything = Bad. Coming late to business meetings = Really Bad. Let’s just say I have learned this the hard way.
5. The art of planning
Swedes are master planners and planning is an integral part of their way of living. Numerous successful Swedish multinationals, and transport systems that work are testimony to this. Many Swedes will be able to tell you exactly what they will be doing on any given day, three or four months ahead. Planning doesn’t just apply on the work front but also socially, where planning meetings for group activities are a way of socialising. Facebook, WhatsApp and countless other digital group chat functions have failed to put any real dent in the Swedish desire to meet and plan. My natural default will always be to leave things to the last minute, but my Swedish training has enabled me to move the needle on long term planning from next week to next month, and even next year when necessary.
6. What it means to be truly bilingual
I am not. I know this because I can turn Swedish off by not actively listening in a way that I cannot do with English. I usually feel like someone has just turned up the volume when I’m on public transport in an English speaking country, and not just because there is usually more conversation going on. My native language enters my brain in a way that makes it much more difficult to tune out. When it comes to being truly bilingual, cultural references are the final frontier. My knowledge of popular culture or music in Sweden prior to 1998 (with the exceptions of ABBA and Ace of Base) is on a par with a Swedish 19-year-old.
7. English is a very fluffy language
Swedes are not generally known for their linguistic padding. One positive side to this is that they are often very concise. This takes some getting used to at first. Emails in particular can be quite daunting – very to the point, often lacking normal pleasantries or even your name. (The general address of “Hej!” is often used). When translating a text or presentation, I am always struck by the comparative wordiness of English texts and the level of expertise often required to understand what is actually being said, or not said, as the case may be. Swedish is usually used far more efficiently, at least in business. Think of the IKEA assembly manuals as the model – as few words as possible.
8. How to dress for the cold
This was an important one as getting it wrong can be far worse than a fashion faux pas; it can actually mean death. If your car slides off a country road in the middle of deep winter, heels and a short skirt won’t get you far. Adaptation and being prepared are key – which probably explains the Swedish planning gene. Shovelling snow and getting a car up a steep icy hill have also become part of my Swedish-skill set.
9. An appreciation of four distinct seasons
Coming from a country where you often have four seasons in one day and where snow is rare, proper winters and distinct seasons were both a novelty and a challenge. It is hard to beat the simple thrill of walking across frozen water or tobogganing or skiing down a hill at speed for the first time. The lift in people’s moods as winter turns to spring is almost tangible in Sweden and summer is not just another season, it is an event to be savoured. Understandably, people work accordingly and work more or less grinds to a halt from mid-summer, on June 22nd, to the beginning of August.
10. It’s hard to shake off your upbringing
Some things are just so ingrained that they are very hard to shake off, even when you know they are illogical. I still feel compelled to offer to buy a round of drinks if out with a group, even though the culture here is that everyone pays for themselves. When it comes to meetings or any form of gathering, silence with people I don’t know well still feels very awkward and I find myself making small talk on autopilot, even if checking their phones seems to be others’ natural and preferred choice. Being an expat is sometimes a bit like walking with a stone in your shoe – uncomfortable. You just need to grit your teeth, toughen up, or preferably shake the stone loose altogether. The easiest solution is usually to focus on the positive, of which there is an abundance in Sweden.
If you are moving to Sweden and would like to find out more about relocation assistance or cross-cultural training, please don’t hesitate to contact me through my company website Relocate to Sweden where I also blog about living and working in Sweden.
Anne Pihl blogs about living and working in Sweden, and offers relocation consultations , on her website relocatetosweden.com
Interested in writing a "10 things I've learned" list about where you live abroad? Email email@example.com.