Unspoken rules and rituals
As an American, I find myself walking down the street waving at complete strangers, making eye contact, and smiling at them as a sign of welcoming potential conversations out of thin air. One of the first things I noticed after arriving to the city of Gothenburg is that people do not do that. Based on my experience it isn’t a bad thing but also not a good thing either. I say this since I have had successes where people do smile back and say hello. Though this is dependent on the person’s age, social context, and also the environment. It was ok for me to smile at classmates I have never interacted with randomly in the hallway or at a school bus stop. However, this was almost not welcomed at a restaurant during dinner time or away from the academic setting per say. For example, I rarely talk or interact with any Swedish flat mates in my building… Even after a year of living in the same apartment. This is a hard one to explain but the eye contact and smiling is not that prevalent. I do get a lot more responses when I greet people verbally using “hej hej”, for example, when I hold a door open for someone.
Having uprooted and looking to form new friendships and relationships here in Sweden, I found myself wanting to be open to all types of interactions. Especially the ones where the cultural differences are the highest. I believe I was lucky to be given the bubble of interactions in a school or academic setting where all students have an understanding to interact with each other for various purposes like group assignments, projects, and helping each other in study groups. This has helped me socialize greatly. In addition, be open to disagreement and differences - this means waiting to express strong likes and dislikes until one has gotten very comfortable with the social circle or the individual. Such contrasts are a lot easier to handle in an academic setting versus real life get-togethers.
Do not be afraid to be your silly self
I certainly found it to be the easiest to connect with my Swedish counterparts with silly (American) humor since that tends to break the tension in almost all situations. I try to not take myself too seriously and my classmates appreciate that as well. This has helped me make fast friends, and more importantly, get invited to hangouts at their homes (which is a big step)! I was warned to not be offended when I did not get invites to hangouts within a few weeks of starting school so I lowered my expectations just so my classmates can beat them 😄 Since then, I have been invited to several cookouts, wine and cheese nights, movie hangouts, and AW “after work” activities where a huge number of classmates grab a drink or two and socialize. I must say that the drinking culture is more prominent in Sweden but it is entirely possible to meet Swedes who choose not to drink or prefer the alcohol-free drinks and they still hang out with others.
Find the ones that look for international connections
Since I am not a local, and Chalmers having several international students, I discovered the Swedes who joined internationally diverse social circles already pass through a myriad of filters. In other words, the Swedes who are willing to connect with non-Swedish individuals at international hangouts are probably more willing to connect with anyone from different cultural and geographic background. This means they are willing to look part the differences and rather find connections through the similarities. Though this sounds very simple, it was hard to find such individuals when I first arrived. I am happy to say that there is an exponential effect to it - the more such international friendly Swede one meets, the similar individuals one can find and surround themselves with.
Find clubs or join teams
Sports teams are always a great way to non-verbally connect with anyone quickly! I find it very helpful to be able to play team sports and feel a sense of connection almost immediately. I personally play squash and some badminton. Since the groundwork for playing the game is already established, showing up and playing a good game with good sportsmanship has helped me start conversations almost effortlessly. This could also turn into a “let’s go grab a bite or something to eat later?” moment based on the interaction(s). I must mention that I was even able to connect with a much older couple at a lake when I went lake dipping with some friends all throughout winter last year. Some locals disagree that the frozen lake swim is or is not culturally Swedish or Nordic, but I find it refreshing especially after being able to talk to someone I did not expect to connect with.
This blog is strictly based on my experiences and due to my unique background alone. It is entirely possible to have interactions that are vastly different than what I have shared with you so far. It is worth always approaching all interactions with an open heart and mind while expecting the best of people. Irrespective of their nationality or cultural background.