This is how he learned how the Swedes work

A pleasant reception, but nothing more. All attempts to create deeper contact failed – until he read a book about how the Swedes behave. Now Sedigullah Sakhi talks about fatal situations and misunderstandings, and gives tips on how cultural clashes and entanglements can be avoided to facilitate integration in northern Sweden.

Skellefteå 22 december 2022 07:00

– Some who come here from other countries are surprised and think "What kind of strange people can this be?". But it is a mutual job to gain understanding for each other, says Sedigullah Sakhi.

He came from Afghanistan to Skellefteå in 2010, and has managed to live, study and work also in Stockholm and Östersund. For a year now, he has been employed full-time at the immigration service and the market unit at Skellefteå municipality.

Skellefteå has a strong development. Not least labor immigration is increasing greatly.

– I like it in Skellefteå. Here is most of what I expect to get out of life. Very exciting to be part of the development. There is so much going on, he says.

Not least, Skellefteå has a strong labor immigration from other countries. Something that puts the local community to the test. When the annual Engineer's Day event was held in Luleå in October, Sedigullah Sakhi was invited to a live podcast, where Skellefteå municipality's marketing manager Helena Renström and the international recruitment portal Minddig's CEO Chana Svensson participated. 

The topic was how northern Sweden should welcome diversity and make it possible to a greater degree for people from other countries to move here and thrive.

Helena Renström, marknadschef i Skellefteå. Helena Renström, marketing director in Skellefteå.
Chana Svensson, CEO of Minddig.

Sedigullah talked about his experiences from when he was new in Sweden.

– It is probably always an adjustment when you come to a new country. New culture, new language, new climate, different mentality. But certainly the background plays a big role. It makes a difference if you come from a European or Asian country. I myself came from a country at war to a country that had peace for several hundred years and from Kabul with six million inhabitants to little Boliden.

A move to Stockholm was not the solution.

–I felt a little restless in the Boliden. But after I moved, I realized that I had time to get used to the calm. Stockholm life was not for me. There were too many people and too much running. So I moved back.

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

Sedigullah Sakhi says he has always been a social person and found it easy to connect with people. But as a newcomer to Sweden, he initially cut in stone.

– I tried to meet new people and create relationships, be friendly, network, exchange contact details and book new meetings, much like I'm used to. But I soon noticed that it wasn't working. People were nice, but withdrawn. Nothing more happened.

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

– I just walked up, said "Jeeena, how is the situation, can I sit next to you?". Which resulted in people completely joining. They didn't even look at me. I thought something is wrong somewhere. What should I do?

Coffee break in the municipal hall. For about a year now, Sedigullah Sakhi has had a position at the immigration service and the market unit at Skellefteå municipality.

The rescue was a tip from a good friend, to read the book "Swedish mentality".

– It helped me a lot. I found details about how and why the Swedes behave in a certain way, and it gave me an overall understanding that I found very useful. I also began to think back to situations where I perceived people as unpleasant. Now I thought instead "Poor man, what I exposed you to".

Not to exalt oneself is, for example, a classic Swedish thing. But if you come from the United States, you rarely have a clue of what the ”Jantelagen” means. It means that ”you shouldn´t think that you are better than others”. 

Midsummer celebration is a classic Swedish tradition.

– I have read in the book that Swedes are humble and prefer not to talk about themselves, their development, how rich they are and so on. There is a big difference to some cultures. In the beginning, when I attended job interviews and tried to present my good sides, I can feel that it was not really received in the way that I expected.

Sedigullah Sakhi speaks perfect Swedish. But he points out that it is not obvious that misunderstandings can be avoided just because of that. For example, unfamiliar names, dishes and traditions can cause it.

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

Once, he was going to take an order for food from an elderly man over the phone and initially mistook the man's name as "Kall Axel" instead of Karl-Axel. Then he didn't understand that the man wanted to order ”mess butter” (a special kind of topping) because he had no idea what it was. He thought the man said "with butter" and repeatedly asked what he wanted besides the butter.

– During the conversation, Karl-Axel became more and more irritated and at one point asked if I was slow-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 together about how wrong it had been.

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

Even body language, gestures and the tone of the conversation can create complications. On one occasion it went completely wrong during a coaching training, when he was perceived as angry even though he was not.

– Learning grammar is one thing, but there are many other things that are big factors in how we perceive each other. Gestures when speaking, for example. You can never learn that in school, you have to learn through mistakes and misunderstandings. For example, I have brought with me from Afghanistan that you must be clear. When my colleagues asked if I wanted to go out for coffee, I answered loudly "NO! I HAVE TO WORK". Which Åda me perceived as unpleasant. But now I have learned how to answer; "No, unfortunately I don't have time right now but...".

Sedigullah continues:

– My advice to the Swedes when they meet foreigners is not to start from tone of voice or gestures, but to listen to what they say.

He believes that understanding must be created mutually from both sides, but that it is important as a newcomer to create platforms for integration, for example various sports activities, interest in vehicles or to find colleagues with common interests through the workplace. –I enjoy playing billiards. In this way I have made some acquaintances. There is no right or wrong, but in my eyes you cannot change an entire society, you have to find ways to adapt. Swedes don't become friends overnight, it takes longer.

How do you perceive Stockholm versus northern Sweden?

– I lived in Stockholm for seven months and my perception is that people are more open in northern Sweden. In Stockholm, it can feel impossible to get into groups and already established networks. I think it's easier to find common connections and make contact with new friends in smaller cities.


Name: Sedigullah Sakhi.

Age: 34.

From: Afghanistan. Came to Sweden in March 2010.

Family: Wife Laila Sakhi, a 13-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son.

Lives: Apartment in central Skellefteå.

Occupation: Works with mover service and marketing at Skellefteå municipality.

Hobbies: Playing billiards (pool). Hang out with friends.

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