Dis/Connect: Swedish culture and challenges of making friends in Sweden
Sweden is consistently voted one of the worst countries to make friends in, but what is it about Swedish life or culture that makes it such a challenge to connect with others? We sat down with Emma, a 25-year old student from Gothenburg who now lives in Malmö to talk about her experiences of feeling disconnected in one of the liveliest, most welcoming cities in Sweden.
Whether they're an expat, or a local, everyone has their own stories of disconnect, whether that’s feeling lost in a new city, missing home or simply feeling like you don’t quite fit in. We also know that sharing these stories can help us feel more connected and in touch with the world. We’re the cure for loneliness after all.
Panion: Tell us a little about yourself.
Emma: I’m doing my thesis within visual communications. I moved to Malmö to study but I’m actually planning on moving back to Gothenburg. I like Malmö but I love Gothenburg — all my friends and family are there so I figure it’s time to head back home.
P: Why do you only like Malmö?
E: I guess I’d compare it to more traditional student cities like Lund or Uppsala where people move and don’t have any attachments, so everyone starts on the same level. Everyone’s looking for friends so it’s easier to find them. But in Malmö people already have their partners, or families or friends already — they already have a life. A lot of the people I’ve met have already settled in to their social structures. I’ve struggled with a bit of loneliness here in Malmö. I don’t consider myself as an introverted person — I like talking to people and making contact.
P: Was this a surprise to you? Was it something you found difficult to adapt to?
E: Yeah absolutely. My picture of Malmö has always been that it’s really multicultural and outgoing and that everybody fits in, but when I came here I felt that it’s actually quite divided. People are placed into boxes and it’s really hard to reach out of those boxes. But it’s the same in the rest of Sweden as well, it’s not just a Malmö thing. I was surprised that Malmö was so… Swedish. And not in a good way.
P: What do you mean by that?
E: People can be quite closed and keep to their own social groups. It’s not so easy to let anybody new in and in that sense it’s not particularly welcoming. That’s definitely something that us Swedes need to work on a little bit. And I think my experience would be the same as someone moving from Malmö to Gothenburg. These social structures exist everywhere, it’s a really cultural thing.
P: Do you have any idea about why that might be?
E: I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because in Sweden everyone goes into hibernation in the winter so your whole social life is dead for half of the year. Maybe because they want to go out to parks and restaurants and you can’t do that in the winter. A lot of people don’t really want to invite people into their homes. As soon as you get a bit too personal, there’s a threshold. It’s so annoying but I realise that I’m doing exactly the same thing myself. If I invite some friends over I’ll spend the whole day thinking “Oh God why did I do that? Now I have to clean, I have to be nice, I have to take a shower”, you know?
P: See, the trick there is to find the type of friends who don’t care if you’re clean or nice and who you can just sit around with in your pyjamas.
E: Exactly! Maybe you’ve pinpointed something — we care too much about what other people think.
P: So this feeling of loneliness, did you feel that other people around you felt it too? Or did you feel alone with your loneliness as it were?
E: From a personal, sensitive perspective I felt very alone in this. I felt like I was the only one feeling alone. But if I take a step back and think about things on a bigger scale, then of course more people are feeling the same as me. But we’re really good at keeping up a façade. We’re so busy with our lives and that our social media pages look like we’re having a blast all the time, so it’s a bit intimidating to contact someone who looks like they’re having so much fun all the time. So we just naturally assume that a person isn’t lonely, or isn’t looking for another friend. I think that’s a real issue, just breaking through that wall.
P: So how did this affect you on a day-to-day basis? Were there things you wanted to do but couldn’t, or maybe things you didn’t want to do but felt you had to?
E: There are a lot of events and fun stuff going on in Malmö, it’s a great city for that. But if you’re alone it might be a little intimidating to go to them. Maybe one of the ways loneliness affects us is by not going to the things we really wanted to because we’re scared to go alone. Once I go to these events it’s fine, I maybe bump into someone I know, or maybe start talking to someone I didn’t know, which I wouldn’t do if I were there with somebody else. I think it’s a really good thing to do for yourself but of course it’s scary.
P: This is a really common feeling, but what do you think we’re actually scared of?
E: I think it comes back to the idea of looking lonely. There’s a big stigma attached to loneliness.
Part of our goal at Panion is to remove this stigma. Our company was founded in response to our own experiences of how hard it can be to make new friends in a new place. We recognize that these experiences affect everyone no matter the location. We’ll be sharing more stories from Emma and others like her in the coming weeks. If you would like to share your own experience please email firstname.lastname@example.org.