"Swedes can be baffling": How to make friends in Sweden

Afghan newcomer, Sakhi Sedigullah was accustomed to making friends with ease. But upon moving to Sweden, his attempts to build relationships with Swedes consistently hit a wall. That is, until a book on Swedish behavior unlocked a world of cultural understanding. Now, he shares his hard-won wisdom, offering tips to avoid cultural clashes and, perhaps most importantly, forge genuine friendships with Swedes. And just wait until you read the butter story...

"The book helped me a lot". Sedigullah Sakhi talks about how, as a newcomer to the country, he was helped to understand how the Swedes work.

"The book helped me a lot". Sedigullah Sakhi talks about how, as a newcomer to the country, he was helped to understand how the Swedes work.

Foto: Jonny Vikström

Engelska2024-04-29 15:00

– Swedes can leave newcomers baffled, admits Sakhi Sedigullah.

– But the key to unlocking friendships isn't suspicion, it's understanding. We all have to put in the effort.

He arrived in Skellefteå from Afghanistan in 2010, later living, studying, and working in Stockholm and Östersund. He even spent over a year with the immigration service and marketing unit at Skellefteå municipality.

– Skellefteå offered everything I wanted out of life, he recalls.

– Being part of the city's development was exciting. There's so much going on!

This development includes a high demand for skilled labor immigration, which presents a challenge for the local community to integrate newcomers effectively.

Skellefteå is growing quickly, especially iwith regards labor demand.

And this is something that puts the local community to the test.

In October 2022, Sakhi was invited to a live podcast during the annual Engineer's Day event in Luleå. The discussion focused on how northern Sweden could better welcome diversity and integrate newcomers.

Sakhi spoke about his initial experiences in Sweden.

– Moving to a new country always requires adjustments – new culture, language, climate, and mentality. However, your background plays a significant role. Coming from a war-torn country to one at peace for centuries, and from bustling Kabul to little Boliden, presented a stark contrast.

Chana Svensson, CEO of Minddig.

Sakhi, reflecting on his initial experiences in Sweden, acknowledged the universal challenges of cultural adaptation.

– Moving to a new country means you need to adapt. You encounter a new culture, language, climate, and social norms. However, your background also plays a significant role. For example, the transition can be quite different for someone coming from another European nation compared to someone arriving from Asia. In my case, I came from a war-torn country to a nation that has enjoyed peace for centuries. Add to that the contrast between bustling Kabul, a city of six million, and the tranquility of Boliden.

A subsequent move to Stockholm didn't work out.

– Boliden felt a bit too quiet, but Stockholm life was overwhelming with its vast crowds and constant hustle and bustle. So, I moved back north.

Sakhi has always been social and easily connected with people. Yet, as a newcomer in Sweden, he felt ostracized.

– I tried everything: meeting people, building relationships, being friendly, networking, and exchanging contact information – all the usual methods. But people were polite yet distant.

New climate, new language, different mentality. Moving to a new country poses great challenges, says Sedigullah Sakhi.

Sakhi says he has always been a social person and found it easy to connect with people. But as a newcomer to Sweden, he just met with a brick wall.

– I tried to meet new people and build relationships, be friendly, network, and exchange contact information much like I'm used to. But I soon noticed that it wasn't working. People were nice, but withdrawn. 

Meanwhile in Stockholm, he happily unknowingly slipped into people's "privacy zone" in the subway.

– I'd just walk up, and say, "Hey, how's it going, can I sit next to you?" It didn't work. People wouldn't even look at me. I thought, "Something is wrong somewhere. What am I doing wrong"?

A recommendation from a friend, a book titled "Swedish Mentality," became Sakhi's social life savior.

For example, Swedes generally avoid bragging or boasting about themselves. This concept, unfamiliar to some cultures like the United States, can lead to misunderstandings during job interviews.

– The book explained Swedish humility, Sakhi says.

– They prefer not to discuss personal details such as salaries. That is quite different to many cultures, including mine. Coming from a culture where self-promotion is encouraged, my initial confidence in interviews and social situations didn't translate well.

Midsummer parties are a classic Swedish tradition.

 Fluency in Swedish doesn't guarantee smooth sailing either. Unfamiliar names, dishes, and traditions can create confusion.

Once, he was taking an order for food over the phone from an elderly man and initially misunderstood the man's name as "Kall Axel" instead of Karl-Axel. 

Then Sakhi didn't understand that the man wanted to order messmör (a traditionally Nordic type of whey butter very popular with many Swedes) because he'd never heard of the dish before. He thought the man said "with butter" and repeatedly asked what the man wanted besides the butter. What was he going to spread the butter on? Was he going to eat anything apart from butter!?

"Here is most of what I want out of life," says Sedigullah Sakhi about Skellefteå.

– During the conversation, Karl-Axel became more and more irritated and at one point asked if I was dim-witted. Finally, I said "we're ending the call now". I wondered what had gone wrong and told my colleagues. After a while we figured it out, and I called Karl-Axel again, and then we laughed a lot about the misunderstanding.

Terrible misunderstandings. Sedigullah Sakhi talks about how he had difficulty understanding Swedes' reactions to issues, and about occasions when things went completely wrong due to these misunderstandings.

Even body language, gestures, and tone of voice can cause complications. During training, a neutral tone was misconstrued as anger because of his cultural inflection.

– You can't learn this stuff in SFI (Swedish for Immigrants), Sakhi explains.

– It's trial and error. For example, in Afghanistan, directness and clarity is encouraged. Once, when colleagues asked if I wanted to join them for fika I mistakenly bellowed, 'NO! I HAVE TO WORK!' Needless to say, this didn't go down very well - they thought I was a rather rude character. But now I have learned how to answer; "No, unfortunately I don't have time right now, but..."

Sakhi has some advice for both Swedes and newcomers. For Swedes encountering foreigners, he suggests focusing on what's being said rather than getting hung up on tone or gestures. 

For newcomers, he recommends trying to find common ground through shared interests, whether it's sports, cars, or other hobbies.

– For example, I enjoy playing billiards, which has helped me make friends. You cannot change an entire society – it's you who has to find ways to adapt. Swedes don't become friends overnight – it takes much longer.

How do Stockholm and northern Sweden compare?

Sakhi feels a greater sense of openness and connection with people in the north. He describes Stockholm's established networks as harder to penetrate, both professionally and socially.

– Finding common ground and making new friends seems easier in the north, he concludes.