Scrabble letters FRIEND

Friendship by Numbers: My experience making Swedish friends

5 min read

Recently, I did some maths.


In the likely event you don’t know me — let’s just say only major purchases and milestones are capable of encouraging me to do maths. This time, it was the latter: I was coming up on my 4th anniversary of arriving in Sweden. As I write, it’s been 3 years, 9 months and 8 days! I’ve had 3 jobs, 1 internship and 1 summer job. I’ve been the only non-Swede in 3 out of the 5 teams I’ve been a part of. I’ve taken language classes and Pilates (not simultaneously) and have been part of book clubs and women’s clubs.


Through these, I’ve learnt that, apart from being bad at maths, I am also bad at being quiet, being reserved and keeping things to myself! Surprisingly (or not, given what I am about to tell you about Swedes) my 3 years, 9 months and 8 days in Sweden have resulted in 2 Swedish friends. If my math is right, and it might very well not be, I have added one Swedish friend to my circle of friends every 686.5 days.


Swedes dressed in Swedish flags
Me, celebrating when I realised my maths was correct! 

Outside of my two Swedish friends, I have 3 Russian, 3 German, 2 Portuguese, 2 Turkish and 1 Jordanian close friends. Looking at it this way, having 2 Swedish friends doesn’t seem odd, but considering that Sweden is still predominantly populated by Swedes, the likelihood of me having more Swedish friends should have been higher (sorry, I can’t do the math on this one).


About 4 years ago, when making the decision to move, I heard that Swedes are reserved and that it takes time to get to know them. That sounded more like a ringing endorsement to me, a generally outgoing person who likes a challenge and the company of quieter people, a rare species in my neck of the woods at least. Maybe I thought I’d have a different experience. I probably took “it takes time” to mean 6 months. Maybe a year. I was wrong. One of my two Swedish friends confirmed this for me when she told me she joined a new choir after moving from the North to Stockholm. It has taken her 5 years to get close to people in her choir group.


When I first ask my friend, who has also lived in Belgium and the UK, about how socialising is different in Sweden she says “Inviting someone to your house is a big thing” (I’ve already been to hers, so I breathe a sigh of relief that our friendship is not just in my imagination). “It needs a lot of preparation. I’ve had dinner invites 3 months in advance and this is from people I can already say I am friends with.”


“Asking someone for a coffee, that also takes time.” (In my mind I am trying to remember the last time a Swede asked me out for coffee.) “But if you want to meet new people, evening classes are a good place to do so. People here are obsessed with them: French class, cooking class, Pilates class, this is where you could make new friends. Meeting people through common interests is a big part of Swedish culture and has been for the past 40-odd years.”


I should have asked her whether she has met people that way, instead I think to my experience of a Pilates class. We don’t even say hello to each other as we stand in the small seating area outside the room where our class takes place. I, myself, am now conforming to the “rule”of non-greetings and have stopped nodding or smiling after getting blank expressions from others in the group.


Empty Swedish street
This street isn’t empty, it’s just that everyone’s hiding so that I won’t talk to them!


“We are a tricky country like that”, my friend continues, “we like organised socialising.”


“What about talking to people on the streets?”, I ask, and as soon as I say it I am painfully aware of the silence that follows.


“You don’t really talk to people on the streets, except maybe if the train is hours late, then maybe you can say something to a fellow commuter. But you won’t graduate from that to another topic.”


As my friend and I wrap up the conversation I have a funny thought: getting a job and making friends in Sweden are surprisingly alike (at least for me they have been). They both require a network. I met my first Swedish friend through a mutual friend who came to visit me and introduced us and the second I met through the first. Every job I’ve had here (including my internship) I heard about through someone I knew.


Thankfully, Panion has taken the Swedish idea of organised socialising through common interests and has made a mobile app for lazier people (just kidding)! Perhaps not surprisingly, Panion was born in Sweden to help facilitate conversations and exchanges around common interests and activities. Whether that’s a love of cooking, Pilates or being terrible at maths, you can meet people who share the things that are most important to you.

If you want to increase your friendship numbers download Panion, out now for iOS and in development for Android.

Petya Thorne
Petya Thorne
Petya lives in Stockholm with her husband and two cats.