Immigrants Explain What Shocked Them About Swedish Culture
Illustrations by Mikaela Saletti

Immigrants Explain What Shocked Them About Swedish Culture

"Alcohol is very expensive in bars and clubs, while the Systembolaget closes too early and the beer is warm – that's enough to make people quit drinking altogether."
25.10.16

Swedes sit as far away as possible from one another on public transport, we write passive-aggressive notes to our neighbours instead of confronting them directly and we are obsessed with the weather. We all take that for granted, because that's who we are. But if you stop to think about it, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Like, why the hell do we eat so much kvarg? What's in that shit anyway?

To better understand how exotic our Swedish culture can be, I decided to ask a bunch of people who moved here from various places around the world about what shocked them the most when they first arrived.

"In the US, the mentality of the American dream is built on the concept of each man for himself. And something I remember noticing when I came to Sweden, was the fact that you could buy and reserve a seat at the cinema. Which doesn't seem like a big deal, but in the US we're used to the whole concept of first come, first serve – and that even applies when you want to see a movie. There, you buy a ticket in advance and choose an empty seat when you get to the cinema. So you have to be there early to get a good seat. It felt so stereotypically Swedish to me that you can book a particular seat in advance – in a good way. It's in line with the concept of 'everyone gets a fair and equal chance at everything' – even when it comes to something as mundane as seats at the cinema." – Cherie, USA

"When I first got my Swedish social security number, I was really impressed with the efficiency of services. For example, your tax is basically done for you once you've registered yourself on the tax agency's website. You literally click three buttons and get some of that delicious tax refund. I would love to say the same about the government's socialist housing commission that gives every Swedish resident the chance to live in a condominium – but unfortunately the waiting list you join for that privilege (which costs €20 a year), in Stockholm at least, is so long that it will take me 14 years to get an apartment somewhere in the city. Good thing I'm in it for the long haul." – Miles, Australia

"When I first got here, I went to a grocery store and waited forever for the cashier to put my groceries in the plastic bag. It turned out I had to do it myself. In South Africa, there are people simply employed to do just that. I was also surprised to find that visiting friends involved prior planning. You can't just show up at the door. Also, the alcohol is very expensive in bars and clubs, while the Systembolaget closes too early and the beer is warm – that's enough to make people quit drinking altogether. No one wants to buy warm beer. Lastly, I've never seen men hug so often anywhere but in Sweden, which is nice." – Sakhele, South Africa

"When I arrived in Sweden, I lived in a group home. On the first evening there, I remember I was told that people in Sweden eat dinner at 6 PM, which we would be doing from now on. I thought it was a joke. For me, 6 PM is still daytime. Who eats at 6 PM? Not even the chickens have gone to roost at that time. On top of that, we were told that we would be having salad, which I thought would just be some chopped-up vegetables. All I could think was, 'dear God, I'll starve by ten o'clock.' In Kenya, I was used to having dinner at 8 or 9 PM. It may sound very mundane to other people, but it was quite a culture shock for me and it took me a while to adjust. I've been here for seven years now, and I still eat dinner at around 8 PM." – Maichael, Kenya

"Tube rides in Stockholm are awfully quiet unless it's Friday night and people are intoxicated. Swedes are good with general chit-chat as long as it doesn't get too personal. They say what they have to say, nothing more, nothing less and they don't talk if they don't have to. Even people you know will ask you how you feel, do so more to be polite than because they actually care. People seem kind of isolated, everybody doing their own thing in a strict manner following almost robotic routines. People here aren't spontaneous – you plan even the smallest thing weeks in advance. And yeah, you really like your snus." – Liam, Australia

"Swedish pizza remains a deeply troubling, emotionally scarring issue for me for a number of reasons. First of all, who decided that bananas and curry are acceptable toppings? They are not. Not on pizza, not ever. The same goes for sauce béarnaise. I have seen all these toppings on one single pizza and I still have nightmares. Secondly, why isn't slicing pizza a thing? Thirdly, the names of those pizzas often sound like low-budget porn flicks. I'd feel dirty ordering a Banana Special, Big Ben, or Golden Horn.

Learning Swedish has been particularly fun because the overlapping words between Swedish and English happen to have vastly different definitions. Adjusting to seeing English words in different contexts (kock, vag, puss) and instead associating them within Swedish has been interesting, to say the least. My Swedish friends definitely allowed me to mispronounce the word slut for longer than I would like to admit, and I still giggle when I see it in written form. Swedish people are the nicest people, but I always feel like the weird kid in class around them." – Kallie, USA

"I was lucky enough to have a Swedish wife when I moved here, so it was easier for me to interact with Swedish society. My wife introduced me to her friends, they showed me around and brought me along to parties. I do remember it was really difficult to find all the ingredients and spices needed to make the dishes I was used to. I had to go to a special grocery store in the city to find stuff like as cassava, sweet potato, habanero and chilli. I mostly made Gambian cuisines at first – the first Swedish dish I made was herring with mashed potatoes. I loved it, still do." – Sarjo, Gambia

"At parties and clubs, you always have those weird dudes show up selling nos in balloons. I've never seen that anywhere else in the world. Coming from Australia, I thought your payment system was strange – you start a job and get paid two months later. We get paid weekly in Australia. I had never had open faced sandwiches with a slice of cheese and a couple of slices of cucumber or pepper before coming to Sweden. You really like your simple, tasty delights. You celebrate all these special days, and the decorations that go with that day are really strict. Every house has the same decorations and everybody's dedicated to having them all up. There's a huge sense of community in the way you embrace your special crayfish day."– Stratton, Australia