How to thrive as a newcomer in Sweden

We sat down with Giancarlo Guerra Salvá—a fellow international resident, originally from Puerto Rico—to discuss life in Sweden, Swedish culture, and how to adapt to a new society and lifestyle.

In Sweden for love

Giancarlo ended up in Sweden the way many do, as a Kärleksinvandrare.

In Swedish, ‘kärlek’ means love, ‘invandrare’ means immigrant, and the two words combined create a compound word that describes those who leave their country for love. And this is exactly how Giancarlo found himself in Sweden without a job, without connections, and without knowing the language.

Giancarlo poses for a selfie in a courtyard while on holiday in Spain.
Giancarlo comes from Puerto Rico and has been living in Sweden for three years. He has also lived in the US, Canada, Spain, and Denmark. In the picture, Giancarlo poses for a selfie in a courtyard while on holiday in Spain.

Moving to a new country with a limited network and language skills sounds intimidating, but nothing is impossible.

He admitted that it was tough, “I realised very quickly [that] when you are a student, you are used to having a social life, you always have something to go to, either a party or an event, a final deadline, there is always a lot going on.” He found that coming here was a huge transition.

Fortunately, Giancarlo already had some experience in moving to new countries. “Moving to Sweden was not the first time I moved to a totally different country. I’ve been doing that for about 11 years now. And I do have some experience with starting from zero.”

“With English, you will survive, you will be able to eat, you will pay your bills, but you won’t thrive, you won’t really do anything more beyond just the bare minimum.”

What became immediately clear to Giancarlo was that he needed to learn Swedish. Many assume you don’t need Swedish to get by in the country. Almost all Swedes speak English, but, as Giancarlo explains, “with English, you will survive, you will be able to eat, you will pay your bills, but you won’t thrive, you won’t really do anything more beyond just the bare minimum.”

From his experience, learning Swedish is what really made it possible for him to integrate into society and experience more of Sweden. Social interactions became easier. He says that his Swedish friends and colleagues were able to express themselves in their full Swedish manner, with their full Swedish jokes and the confidence that he was going to understand… even though he wasn’t going to laugh immediately.

As we talked, it became more apparent that, while Swedish language skills are very important for immersing yourself in Swedish society, it is only one component in helping you understand Swedish culture. To really understand Sweden, you need to get to know its culture, traditions, and history.

One of these cultural phenomena is that Swedes love nature, this is a direct result of Swedish history, “it developed from essentially a peasant society [and] that led to this concept of the simple quiet life in the woods that we all aspire to. We don’t want the big city life when we’re all working 24/7. We think of fishing and building furniture as a fun thing. Because it connects us to nature, it connects us to, to something concrete, right… for me, that’s what the Swedish thing is.”

“You engage them with activity, that’s the key.”

Understanding why the country and its people are the way they are can help foreigners form connections with the locals.

One of the things we hear from many living in Sweden is how hard it is to make friends with Swedes: “You kinda understand after learning Swedish—they’re not good at small talk… you don’t go [up] to somebody at the bar, at the coffee shop and start talking to this person to be friends.”

However, finding something in common with people here seems to be more effective. For example, “if you see that a Swedish guy is trying to cut some wood, you can go up to him and say, ‘hey what are you doing?’… you engage them with activity, that’s the key.”

“They don’t like spontaneity, that’s the thing.”

Another piece of advice Giancarlo offered is to understand how group activities and planning work. “Instead of meeting people at the bar, Swedish social life happens in a very structured manner.” The same applies to spontaneity. “They don’t like spontaneity. Swedish people just don’t. They have to have [their social life] structured, because they need to have it in their calendar.”

Giancarlo (second left) poses with his improv förening (community group).
Giancarlo (second left) poses with his improv förening (community group).

All of this talk of activity-based friendships made us wonder how well-established friendships function in Sweden. From Giancarlo’s experience, it can be difficult to connect on a more intimate level in Sweden.

Here you can “talk about decorating your new home [or] whether Bregott or some other butter is better… you will never really reach the deep stuff, the emotional stuff.”

This desire to stick to safer topics could be attributed to another Swedish quirk, konflikträdd, meaning fear of conflict. As Giancarlo puts it, Swedes generally avoid discussions that could become heated, so you may need to save your discussion about values and philosophy for another group of people.

Advice for fellow internationals

After having lived in Sweden for so long, knowing what he knows now, we wanted to know if he had any advice for those just starting out here.

“Tip number one, learn Swedish. You don’t need to learn it [up to] C1 or B2 level. Just learn it to the point where you can have a basic conversation.”

The other main piece of advice Giancarlo offered is to not judge Swedes too quickly. Think and observe, “why do they act this way? How do they interact with each other? What do they talk about? Then try to do those things yourself. So like, if you see that they’re talking about the difference between butter and margarine, [talk] about that too." It’s how you can begin to find something to connect with.