Eric is a researcher from the US. With grandparents for Norway and a desire to do a PHD he came to Sweden 11 years ago. His advice for newcomers in Sweden is to try to accept that life here as it is: it is not better or worse than wherever you come from, but rather it’s simply different.
Of all countries in the world: why did you end up in Sweden?
My company was downsizing, so I began to look at opportunities for grad school. My grandparents were from Norway, so Scandinavia was on top of my list. I liked the program offered by KTH here in Stockholm so I decided to apply.
You have been here for almost 11 years but do you remember what was the hardest to adjust to?
Because of my cultural background, I have not felt that many of the problems other people talk about are relevant to me. For instance, people say that Swedes tend to be more reserved, but for me it’s normal behavior: my grandparents were quiet, calm people who disliked small talk, just like my parents. I wonder when people constantly complain about this: maybe they just come from loud, irritating places?
Sweden is ranked one of the best countries in the world to live in. What do you like most about Sweden?
Sweden is a system, almost like a magical machine. So many of the small annoyances that pop up in everyday life are not an issue here because the machine manages them.
One tends to forget about that until visiting some place else, or especially your home country. For example, I don’t need to plan my life around rush hour because I know that the buses and subways are on time—and if they’re not they will reimburse me if I take a taxi!! I complete my taxes by sending an SMS to the government, which is so confident that its figures are correct that they are happy if you simply agree with them: if you want to provide a different calculation you are welcome to do so, but they are happy if you just text them from your mobile. Overall the system is really quite amazing.
Swedes are – as you said – often perceived as reserved. What other characteristics do you think are typical for Swedes?
Swedes possess a general, calm open nature that puts one at ease. They dislike stress in all its forms, and they work to create a life that is free of it as possible. Not many societies work so constructively and so diligently to eliminate it: I think most people tend to just shuffle the stress from one person to another and in Sweden they try to stop it completely.
Are there any cultural behaviors that you find puzzling in Sweden?
Swedes can be very direct in “public” social situations—this is a language that doesn’t have a word for please—but in interpersonal communications they tend to be avoidant and non-confrontational.
It’s interesting to see people get very upset and vocal about bad fruit at the grocery store, but they’re terrified to discuss personal matters in private. For all their talk about the importance of openness and freedom of speech, in reality Swedes are very constrained in what opinions they can or will express, let alone the ones that they feel guilty about even thinking.
Such intellectual constipation prevents open discussions about obvious problems: there are many, many elephants in the room in this country that people awkwardly and nervously ignore.
What do you miss the most from the US?
I miss the quality of the food. The US has access to an amazing assortment of really fresh, delicious produce year around; people forget that the border with Canada is at the same parallel as Paris, so almost half the country produces food all year.
Plus we are closely intertwined with Central and South America, so when plums from Michigan aren’t available, they are from Chile. Sweden basically gets whatever the Spanish don’t want to eat.
Do you have any advice for newcomers in Sweden?
Sweden is a great place to be, so enjoy your time here. Try to accept that life here is not better or worse than wherever you come from, but rather it’s simply different. Thinking this way will help prevent constant and pointless comparisons between your home country and Sweden.
You live here now—for better and for worse—so accept that fact and live your life accordingly, striving to be free of stress and negativity while in this wonderful place.
What is your favourite Swedish word?
Rotfrukter: I find the idea of “root fruits” hilarious.
Did you make any funny experiences during your initial time in Sweden?
When I first arrived, I assumed that Swedish pronunciation is similar to German. At a restaurant I ordered the daily special—chicken breast stuffed with feta cheese. It turns out that pronouncing feta in the German manner is the most vulgar, terrible word in Swedish. The server was terribly embarrassed and, as I saw her turn bright red, I realized that I had done something wrong.