Monday, January 25, 2010

Moving to Sweden – Culture Shock: It’s the Little Things

Time for more Moving to Sweden posts. This one is all about the little things. The culture shock that comes with making the move to a foreign country. Of course, if you’ve made it this far you’ll already have read through the rest of the Moving to Sweden posts:

Moving to Sweden – What to Bring
Moving to Sweden – The Swedish Language
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Place to Live
Moving to Sweden – The Metric System and You
Moving to Sweden – Getting a Cell Phone
Moving to Sweden – Getting from the Airport to Stockholm City
Moving to Sweden – The Weather
Moving to Sweden – Swedish Citizenship Test
Moving to Sweden – Public Holidays
Moving to Sweden – Finding a Job
Moving to Sweden – Making Friends
Moving to Sweden – Cost of Living
Moving to Sweden – The Laundry Room
Moving to Sweden – Marijuana
Moving to Sweden – Most Common Jobs and Salaries

When I moved to Sweden, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Of course, I knew that moving somewhere, whether from Greeley, Colorado to Eugene, Oregon or from Greeley, Colorado to Stockholm, Sweden carries with it a bit of culture shock. But come on, I spoke decent Swedish. I had a passport. I had lived here before.

I thought I knew the language. I thought I knew the culture. I thought I knew enough to not suffer from horrible culture shock. I was wrong. Not because suddenly I was forced into situations in which I felt completely out of place, but because I was forced into situations in which I felt like I should belong, but wasn’t quite there. I was on the fringes of culture shock. And that shocked me.

Coming from the US to Sweden, there is an expectation that things will be different, but not too different. And at first glance, that is absolutely true. A two week vacation to Stockholm, and you wouldn’t notice the differences. Of course there is the different language and enough H&M stores to make a teenage girl piddle. But you can speak English and buy Levi’s and drink a Coke and not think twice about it. But it’s the little things that you notice when you’ve been here for a while.

Like grunts being an acceptable form of response. The sharp intake of breath meaning yes. Obviously. To the untrained English speaking ear, it might sound like an utterance of surprise. It’s not. It is an utterance of affirmation.

Like all of the public holidays. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. Red days. They are red because the Christian calendar liked to focus people on those important days by printing them in red. Sundays for example. And of course who could forget the Ascension. In a country as secular as Sweden, some less religious holidays are celebrated. Like International Workers Day on the first of May. Whatever the reason, enjoy your day off and try to avoid embarrassing circumstances like showing up for work.

Like fika. The act of stopping everything you are doing to drink coffee and eat delicious baked goods. Some companies seem to shut down for about half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon as the entire staff eats a cinnamon roll and drinks a cup of coffee. It’s amazing. It’s delicious. It’s frustrating. Embrace it.

Like the customer service. There is none. Seriously. Get it yourself. Find it yourself. Don’t ask questions. I bitch and moan about this still. And I’ll bitch and moan about it until I leave. Except now I know enough to get it myself, find it myself, and not ask questions. But it took a while to get used to.

Like the alcohol policies. There is one distributor of alcohol in the entire country. They are run with an iron (curtain) fist. They are closed on holidays. They close early on Saturdays. They don’t even keep your beer cold for you. But plenty of Swedes will defend Systembolaget to their dying breath. I won’t. If anything, being of legal age to drink and living in Sweden will force you to plan ahead. Spontaneity is frowned upon on a Saturday after three in the afternoon. Want to bring a six-pack over to a friend's for a night of hockey on TV? That’s a great idea. As long as you had that idea during opening hours.

Like waiting in line. Swedes don’t really wait in line. Not in the way we know a line to be at least. And it’s not because they are trying to sneak their way in front of you. It’s because the Swedes have what is called a kölapp. A tiny little piece of paper with a number on it. When it’s your turn, a light will flash and your number will pop up. This eliminates the needs for lines. It’s amazing when it works. What is less amazing is when you don’t know about the system. Because suddenly you find yourself standing around confused and mildly angry while that guy in the comfy looking chair suddenly slides in front of you. Whenever there is a potential for a line (bank, bakery, pharmacy, etc.) just start looking around for a little dispenser of small numbered pieces of paper. Trust me.

Like worshipping the sun. You’ll start to do it. You’ll start fantasizing about sunny beaches despite your pale, easily reddened skin. You’ll think that the charter travel trips to the Canary Islands are actually starting to look reasonable. You’ll throw your face to the sun during those waning moments of daylight in the middle of December. And not a single person will think less of you.

Like the trust. Some ski resorts have areas for you to leave your lunch. They are not locked. They are not guarded. You just leave your backpack with your lunch in it. And no one takes it.

And of course, like the toilets being a different height from the ground than in the US. I’ll be honest, I’m a bathroom reader, so when sitting down I’m not thinking of how close I am to the ground but this was brought to my attention by my cousin and her sambo. Turns out they noticed when visiting the US. Just beware.

Welcome to Sweden. And culture shock.

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  1. Good summing up. I thought my bf had some wierd nervous habbit or speach impediment when he was sucking in air at me. I thought, maybe I shouldnt embarrass him and ask....then my all my Swedish teachers were doing it and I caught on. Ohhhh.

    Customer Service? I am running out of places I am willing to go in Gothenburg b-c each and every time I have not recieved the service I deserved I promised them that I would not be back. And I stick to my promises....Damn communist drones.

  2. Did you just call Swedes communist drones?

  3. Wait--the toilets are closer to the ground in Sweden than US? Aren't they generally taller than Americans??

    Anyway, another terrific blog post :)


  4. wow. i dont even know what to say exacpt i agree on EVERYTHING you've said

    the intake of breathe for affirmation that they do, first time that happened to me i jumped back because i thought the bank clerk saw a spider on the paper i handed her.... it was embarrassing.

    and I noticed that the toilets are lower, every time i feel like im falling backwards.

  5. @m8surf - "Damn communist drones"

    So, are you, as I always suspected, an ignorant asshole or have you, actually, by some grace of god, suddenly, understood the concept of humor?

  6. Maybe it's because we Swedes have stronger thigh muscles?

  7. Thanks Linus, that makes sense (the toilets are lower b/c Swedes have stronger thigh muscles).

    Now I get some sleep tonight since I won't have to ponder that mystery =P

    -S :)

  8. Omigod, is THAT what my mother-in-law is doing? I seriously thought she had some weird form of asthma!

  9. I love the "waiting in lines" part. It is so true that wherever you go in Sweden there are kölappar. Until I read your posts (you have written about it before) I didn't even think about it that much, but it is true. And being in the US there are actually not that many kölappar and things work anyway. :)

  10. My favourite is the intake of breath. I can't tell you how many times my friend got off the phone to see a shocked expression on my face and hear the words, "What happened?" "Do we have to go to the hospital?" "Seriously, is everything all right?". After knowing her for over 10 years, I finally asked her about the breath intake. And now, we're all good. But it was touch and go there for 10 years. Loving this post Hairy!

  11. @ EVA
    you had me in stitches!!! hahahahaah

    Of course, it's less likely for you to think about it. I once stood in a line for an entire hour, completely full of anger at the awful costumer service...Until I realized i was supposed to take a number... didn't help the customer service though. they were still awful.

    @ swed jen
    I do it all the time for fun now, waiting to see if it becomes a habit. It has not. I think ,subconsciously, I know it's too weird.

  12. But is the intake of breath ('schoo') really that common in southern Sweden (Stockholm and below)? I thought it was mostly us people from Norrland that did it.

    And I don't know if you've understood this but the intake of breath is actually us saying 'Jo' ('yes') while breathing in.

    What also should be noted is that the 'schoo'-yes is a lot more complex than you might think. Saying 'schoo' is not equal of saying 'yes'. 'Schoo' is more of an agreement, you show that you are listening to the other person, that you've understood and/or agree, but you don't really request the word (that you want to say something). It's more like nodding or humming in agreement, but still not exactly the same.

    The 'schoo' can also be used if you in a subtle way want to show that there's nothing more to say about the subject. Maybe the person you're having a conversation with is asking a question you don't really want to talk about. Something like "I heard that you failed the math test". Instead of saying 'Ja' ('yes'), you can answer 'schoo' to show that "Yes you failed the test" but "No I don't really want to talk about it".

    There's a lot more to it too, but it might be very hard for a foreigner to understand the full complexity of it.

    - Simon

  13. @Simon - No, I live in southern Sweden and I have actually never heard anyone use "schoo" in real life. I also think it's a Norrland-phenomenon.

  14. @m8 – I can be a bit disconcerting with the sucking in of air.

    @Linus – Im not taking the blame for that one.

    @anonymous – I think so, but like I said, Im a bathroom reader.

    @Lost – spiders can be quite frightening.

    @Robban – lets go with humor.

    @Linus – or maybe they have stronger thigh muscles because of the lower toilets.

    @anonymous – everyone can sleep better now.

    @ Eva – no no. just Swedish.

    @Anne-Marie – I love the kölapp system here, I think more Americans need to bring it into being.

    @Swedish – 10 years is a long time to live with that kind of stress.

    @Lost – these arent directed at me just saying hello.

    @anonymous – no, but you’re forgetting the ever present “jaaahh” (with the almost silent j) also a sharp intake of breath and actually the one I am most familiar with.

    And you’re absolutely right, I should have explained a bit more about the usage, but I tried to summarize it all with the affirmation comment.

    @Robban – but I bet you do the “jaaahh” (youll have to excuse my spelling because I don’t really know how to spell grunts.)

  15. Jaaahhh - haaaa, now we understand schoo schoo!

  16. Hi Hairy,

    Just wanted to say a quick hello and thank you for another great post.

    When I found out I was going to be spending 2 months in Sweden for work (I leave on Friday) I went looking for information and stumbled across your blog. Been a regular reader for the past couple of months and have enjoyed every post.

    I'm from Australia and, while I've traveled to Europe once before, I've never been to Sweden. I spent yesterday, our Australia Day public holiday, outside playing cricket with friends in 31 degree (C) sunshine. Not sure I'm at all prepared for the freezing temps and dark afternoons but looking forward to it just the same...

    Keep up the good work!

  17. Aaaah - now I know why India suits me so well, no customer service, a lot of coffee breaks, and headshakes instead of Shooos. Well - they could work on public holidays and kolappar. And toilets - well a few things ;)

  18. Hey, being the refered to source of knowledge on toilets I think an explanation is in order... The toilets I've visited in the US tended to be at least an inch lower than swedish toilets. Which led to a slightly unpleasant feeling of falling backwards every time you sat down for some quality time. /The sambo.

  19. @sambo
    No wayy!!! I noticed the opposite. Maybe Canadian toilettes are higher than the USA(unlikely) but swedish ones are definitely the "OMG-I'M-GOING-TO-FALL-toilettes. "

  20. I rather like the amerikanska toaletter, the whole swirly thing they have going on. I thought I saw you on centralen by the way, not that I have any idea what you look like, but ESPN had a big sign and was promoting something or the other :P

  21. ^

    Frak Me!! I just NOTICED that now!! your toilettes don't SWIRL!!?!?!?!

    what demented world am I in????

  22. @Jughurt – it’s a learning experience really

    @abr – glad you found your way here. The 31 degree weather youre having is going to be a bit different than what we are having. Right now its about -3 and has been snowing since noon.

    Good luck with the move on Friday!

    @Anna – I think everyone should work on kölappar.

    @anonymous – the man has spoken. I would agree that the feeling of falling before sitting down with a book would be quite disconcerting. I really need to pay more attention to the distance between my toilet seats and the ground.

    @Lost – maybe Canadian toilets don’t want to feel inferior to American toilets so they stand taller.

    @anonymous – hmm… I wasn’t at centralen today, although I would have quite liked to have been there if ESPN was there.

  23. But man who cares about lower toilets. What about the fact that there is next to no water in Swedish toilets? Dry bowl. Leaves some rather unpleasantness behind. It is why pubic bathrooms are more scary here.

    I have been feeling cranky after a bad experience last weekend. I'll actually take asshole for this one.

  24. Hi! Great Moving to Sweden post you have written! I'm thinking of moving there. What are your plans? When are you moving back to the States, or are you planing to stay in Sweden?

  25. @LostInTraslation
    -My research is based mainly on facilities found in the larger Denver area./the sambo

  26. Good one... I am referring this post on my blog :)

  27. A very nice post!
    I hate the lack of queueing ability. There's about 5 people waiting at my bus-stop each morning, and we all know who got there first (ie, who has been standing in the cold the longest, and deserves to get on first), but as soon as the bus arrives, ther's just a big rush for the door. Unbelievable.

  28. I find that interesting. About the lines, that is. Since I read somewhere, that Swedes spend more time in queues than in the average European (I think) country. Just a little side note...

  29. There is also a less common No ("neeehj") breath intake. My mother uses it all the time when she's on the phone.

  30. @m8surf - a good point, the lack of water can be rough sometimes.

    @anonymous – well eventually Im heading back to the US, not sure exactly when yet though.

    @anonymous – which is obviously the best place in the entire US to do research. At least that’s what Ive heard.

    @Merlin – thanks!

    @Richard – see, clearly they need the kölapp system at the bus stop as well.

    @Robban – well, maybe the enormous number of lines has forced the Swedish people to develop to efficient kölapp system.

    @J.B – oooh, a good call. That one is a bit rare its true.

  31. But now, a new problem has arisen, queues to the kölapp-machine. I wonder what we will come up with next? More than one kölapp-machine, perhaps? But that will probably take years, though...

  32. I feel fairly confident that a kölapp-machine for the kölapp-machine might actually cause a black hole.

  33. Getting back to the subject of toilets,

    I´ve discovered a rather nasty aspect of north-american toilets. When beeing in an intoxicated state (read drunken state). It´s almost impossible to reach down with the TP without touching that filthy water.. Alright I admit that I´s easier to leave nasty marks on the inside of Swedish toilet bowls but that water touching your hands.. ughh..

    //Clint Degroin

  34. oh wow... gotta learn to judge the distance between the water and your ass. its key to any good drunken experience.

  35. I just found your blog and I have to say that I love reading it. I'm Swedish and I recognize so many things... I love the writing!

  36. OMG i love your blog posts hairy hairy much!

    Jag alska fika!

    shooo shooo <--- yes very northern!

    Vastenbottens ost - Thank God, santa claus and hari krisna! Seriously, the best thing since sliced bread.

    sourstremming is OOSHHH!

    Where are you currently located at Hairy? In Sweden?
    If so, where?


  37. ROFL

    This Priscilla is SOOO hitting on Hairy.. I mean.. theres nothing wrong with a girl hitting on a guy.. but its like hillarious when it is not subtle even though the girl thinks it is :)

    Way to go Priscilla!

  38. @ anon - HAHAHAHA OMG

    I am soo not hitting on him! How embarrassing!

    I'm really not the hitter-er-on-a-guy type of girl!
    I'm moving to Sweden at some point so wanted to know where he lived and gain some more insights. I'm new to this blog scene you see...

    However, from further reading I have gathered he lives in Stockholm... I am such a derr brain!


  39. Welcome to the blogging world Priscilla!
    Good to know you are not hitting on Hairy, most girls here are and I am SOOO jealous. But he writes and awesome blog so it kinda makes sense... girls are justified hitting on him.
    Most people following this blog are people from different countries (me included) who have made Sweden their home. So if you want to have more info about Sweden OR date a guy or have a flood of guys hitting on you just leave your email :) (I promise that I will certainly get in touch ;))
    Mssg to Hairy: Sorry to use this as a semi Facebook... Please dont stop Anonymous comments, I hope you know that your blog is like the FB of Sweden expats :)

  40. @anonymous Priscilla – thanks, Im actually in Stockholm right now.

    @anonymous – I accept all blatant pick up lines.

    @anonymous Priscilla – damn it. Crushing my dreams.

    @anonymous – I love it, maybe there should be an actual Swedish American in Sweden facebook page then everyone can really get in on the action. Not of hitting on my I mean, but of connecting all the expats.

    But as always, you can definitely shoot me an email. Im horribly slow in responding usually but I will eventually.

  41. On the note of Systemet, a.k.a. The System (haha, priceless translation actually) and it leading to a not so flexible social life. The part about the six pack being brought over to a friend's house, more specifically.
    Considering the concept of "Folköl" (a.k.a. People's Beer - wow, the translations just keep getting better and better), which has an alcohol content of up to 3.5% (the equivalent of a Yuengling lager or a Heineken Lite for instance) and is available at your local grocery store, the bring-six-pack-to-a-friend-and-socialize is actually possible.

    Just saying :D

  42. interesting post - especially about the customer service! As an American who has lived in the Czech Republic for 7 years and then moved to Sweden, customer service here is good! People are nice and helpful when you ask. That is all I need, go to Czech where they actually give you mean looks and are pissed off if you ask for help. IMO American customer service is over the top...

    Great blog btw, just discovered it and have subscribes, interested in reading more :)

  43. @anonymous - very true... but I say go big or go home. and the peoples beer jst isnt going big.

    @Hilary - Only been to Prague for a few days, but from my experience, I agree, they weren't exactly friendly when looking for help.

  44. Hi Hairy,

    I've been to Malmo, Sweden when I went for a month holiday in Denmark. Now I left my heart in Sweden. I am thinking of applying swedish permanent resident. How long does it usually take for the application to get through? The nearest swedish embassy I am going to apply is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Oh by the way, you enjoyed reading your blog. Great to fill the boring afternoon in the office.

    Cheers, Ms Dahm.

  45. Glad to hear it, I'm not entirely sure how long it usually takes since I already ahd Swedish citizenship, but definitely check out this link here:

  46. I just got back from Sweden myself and I'll admit i was beyond confused about everything while i was there. My boyfriend that lives there thought i could handle everything on my own and it turns out i just ended up being lost most of the time. i also noticed the whole gasping thing but i thought they were just...ehm...worried or shocked at something. it never caught on for me so i was pretty glad when i read this and i finally had some sort of explanation. and while i read this, all i could do was laugh the whole time because i could see myself in my memory doing exactly the same things and not having a clue. but i loved it there beyond anything else and i'm planning to move there when i finish up with college. haha i've got some time to learn Swedish and get used to the things i'm not used to in the US.

  47. the gasp can be tough to get used to for a while.

    good luck with the future plans to move!

  48. Actually I've never understood why people sit around reading the newspaper on the toilet.

    Seems like a very strange place to read the newspaper.

    Why not just leave and come back later?

  49. I haven't noticed the toilets being lower... less water yes.
    Like you, I am a swedish-american. Raised in US but have been back and forth my whole life. Just recently I made the step to officially move back to Sweden. In America, I am a swede. In Sweden, I am an american. Though I think my mind is confused. Sometimes I'll act like a stoic swede and sometimes like a crazy outgoing american. I enjoy the combo!
    But yes!! you summed up the weird little things about Sweden very well. There are definitely more, yes. I keep finding more everyday! I never knew how much I loved america until i officially moved here! I don't know if I would have been able to do it without the help of my family. See, I moved back here at 18 so I'm an adult but still a kid. Thank god I have the help and company of my swedish family!
    I say Sweden is the land of vampires and America is the land of crazies! I prefer Sweden's system and America's crazies! At least the crazy people are entertaining!!!

  50. @anonymous - because I know I will be left completely alone in the bathroom. its my little escape.

    @Megan - yeah, its fun being able to have your feet in both cultures, albeit a bit confusing at times.

  51. That's interesting about the breath intake... it's something that I sometimes hear French people do as they're saying "ouais" (i.e. oui, or yes).

    Good to know :D

  52. Culture Shock? What I won't miss about the U.S. is the general anxiety and xenophobia. I won't miss the exaggeration that Americans are known for and I'm an American. Americans seemed to be shocked by everything and that is one thing I hate and won't even miss. Americans say Swedes are cold and they don't give small talk much; I would say that Americans talk entirely too loud and too much. I won't miss that. I will be enjoying the silence and listening to the sounds of the city and of nature.

    1. I'm American. Grandparents from Sweden. Mom raised Swede and so forth. I agree. Most Americans talk to much and need constant reassurance. I'll always be an American outcast. jaahh first time to blog.

    2. It is fascinating the cultural differences. Especially talking. So much talking.

  53. Just how bad IS the customer service? Can't be any worse in Sweden then most stores here in Oregon where they higher young kids who don't even have their GED yet and can barely understand them right?

  54. yeah, I think that there are always going to be differences between different countries. some people, I think most people, experience some form of culture shock, although what triggers that may differ from person to person.

  55. I will be visiting Sweden as well as studying abroad there for four months beginning in January. I have read books that have informed me about ways to curb culture shock, am taking a study abroad class, and therefore that I thought I was pretty well prepared, emotionally, for my trip. Frankly, your post scared me a bit, I would rather be informed than confused though! I especially am thankful for your advice about the line waiting, I know that that will come in handy soon after I arrive!

    1. It amuses me that even after so many years this post is still helpful to the newcomers. Even after 7 years in Sweden, I completely identify with all the apprehensions the newcomers have.. culture shock, queues included, although Sweden does give you the Stockholm syndrome if you live here long enough and you kinda start liking it. The single piece of advice I give to all newcomers is... get into the expat community (most of them are very welcoming!), it is the easiest way to have all your questions answered .. from getting housing, buying furniture to the best places to have beer.

      Look up and, different kinds of people on both, depending on whether you are looking at activities and fun, or business networking.

      Welcome Elisabeth!

    2. Glad it was helpful and good luck with your time here!

      And Merlin is right the ex-pat community can be a great place to meet folks.

  56. Customer service is shocking, went into a store the other day to try on some clothes and handed the girl back the stuff that didn't fit. She told me it would be great if I could put them back myself?! Total joke!

  57. Yeah, the expectations I have from the US and carry over with me here don't always work out so well. The thing with the trying on clothes surprises me though. Mostly because I almost always see a rack or table next to the changing room where you're expected to put the clothes when things don't fit. As a general rule, I am terrible at folding things. I don't think they'd want me to try to put them back myself.

  58. Yeah i think i just dropped them on the the counter and walked out.

    On the topic of customer service I had an interesting experience on a Scandinavian Airlines flight. Have a read if you get time



    1. Ahhhh, Swedish flight experiences. Always a pleasure...