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How to make friends with Swedes

Sedigullah Sakhi was used to making friends easily. But when he moved to Sweden all his attempts to build relationships with Swedes failed. That was until he read a book about Swedish behaviour. Now he passes on his hard-won wisdom by offering tips on how to avoid cultural clashes, and, perhaps most importantly, on how to make good friends with Swedes. And wait 'til you get to the butter story...

Norra Sverige 2 mars 2023 13:35

– Some newcomers are surprised and think "What kind of strange people are these Swedes?" But it needs to be a mutual commitment to start understanding each other, says Sedigullah.

He came from Afghanistan to Skellefteå in 2010, and has also lived, studied and worked in Stockholm and Östersund. For more than a year now, he has been employed full-time at the immigration service and the marketing unit at Skellefteå municipality.

Skellefteå is growing quickly, especially iwith regards labour demand.

– I like it in Skellefteå. Here is most of what I want to get out of life. It's also very exciting to be part of the city's development. There is so much going on, he says.

Part of this development is that Skellefteå needs a high level of labor immigration from other countries. And this is something that puts the local community to the test.

When the annual Engineer's Day event was held in Luleå in October, Sedigullah was invited to a live podcast, on which 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 easier for people from other countries to move here and thrive.

Helena Renström, marketing manager iof Skellefteå kommun.
Chana Svensson, CEO of Minddig.

Sedigullah talked about his experiences from when he first arrived in Sweden.

– It probably always requires an adjustment when you move to a new country. New culture, new language, new climate, different mentality. But certainly your background plays a big role. It makes a difference if you come from a European or Asian country. I 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 subsequent move to Stockholm didn't work out.

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

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

Sedigullah 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 should I do?

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

What rescued Sedigullah's social life was a reading recommendation from a good friend, the book, "Swedish Mentality".

– It helped me a lot. I learnt 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 blow your own trumpet, for example, is a classic Swedish trait. But if you come from the United States, for example, you wouldn't have a clue what the Jantelagen law means.

Midsummer parties are a classic Swedish tradition.

– I read in the book that Swedes are humble and prefer not to talk about themselves, how much money they earn, and so on. That is quite different to many cultures. In the beginning, when I attended job interviews and tried to impress the interviewer,  their reaction to my confidence was not what I expected.

Sedigullah speaks perfect Swedish. But he points out that being fluent in Swedish won't always save you from misunderstandings. For example, unfamiliar names, dishes and traditions can cause problems.

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

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 he 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 messmör. He thought the man said "with butter" and repeatedly asked what the man wanted besides the butter. Was he going to eat anything apart from butter?

– 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 together about how wrong I had got it.

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 the tone of voice can create complications. On one occasion during training, he was perceived as angry even though he was not. It was just his tone of voice.

– You can never learn this stuff in SFI: you have to learn through trial and error. For example, in Afghanistan, you are encouraged to be very clear. Once, when my colleagues asked if I wanted to go out for fika, I answered loudly "NO! I HAVE TO WORK". Which made them regard me 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 Swedes when they first meet foreigners is to not take much notice of the newcomers' tone of voice or their gestures. Instead, listen to what they say.

He also thinks it's wise for newcomers to try to fit in with the locals' interests, whether that's various sports activities, an interest in cars, or other hobbies.

– For example, I enjoy playing billiards. In this way I have made some friends. There is no right or wrong, but in my opinion 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?

– 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 join established networks, work-wise or socially. I think it's easier to find common ground and make contact with new friends in the north.


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 newcomer service and marketing at Skellefteå municipality.

Hobbies: playing billiards. Hanging out with friends.