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8 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Sweden

by Claire Litton Cohn Sep 21, 2017

1. Using cash or checks.

I first worked for a Swedish company when I was living in Canada. My boss asked how I wanted to be paid, and I said, “It’ll be too expensive for you to do an international wire transfer every month, why don’t you just mail me a check?” He emailed me in a panic and said, “I don’t even know how to get a check! No Swedish bank has any idea what to do!” Swedes are an almost entirely cashless society — you can buy roasted almonds or fresh raspberries from the little corner market stall using an app, and many stores have “Cards only, no cash” signs. I go weeks without seeing coins or bills. This must be particularly difficult for the panhandlers you see outside grocery stores, as I don’t honestly know how anyone has anything to give them.

2. The lack of balance between work and the rest of your life.

Anyone who’s walked through the doors at an American job knows the culture of “nose to the grindstone”. You work unpaid overtime; stagger back to work a couple weeks after giving birth; and god forbid your kid gets sick when you have no vacation time left. In Sweden, not only do social services provide abundant parental leave and vacation time; days off when your kid is sick; and free health care, but it’s expected that you put your family life before your career. Need to head home early to watch your daughter’s ballet recital? Take an extra half hour to pick up some pastries for the whole class. If you plan to take some parental leave, your boss legally can’t make any comment on it, other than, “Enjoy your time off!” A lot of parents work 75% hours, meaning ¾ of full-time, so they can spend more time with their kids.

3. Buying booze whenever you think of it.

Living in Pennsylvania, a dry state, was great preparation for Sweden — where the state-run liquor stores close at 3 PM on Saturdays and don’t open at all on Sundays. If you’re having a party on Saturday night, you need to remember to get to System Bolaget early or stock up for the weekend on Friday night. Alcohol is also taxed quite highly, which makes it very expensive. There isn’t anywhere to get booze except Systemet either. You can buy low or no-alcohol beer at the grocery store (I’m looking at you, Corona Lite), but you might as well just eat a loaf of bread for all the good that does you.

4. Talking to strangers…or friends.

There is a running joke that a Swede will hide in their apartment looking through the peephole until every neighbor is gone from the hallway. This isn’t really a joke because it’s true. Swedes are very shy around strangers, or even people they’ve known for a long time. The American tendency to have a little chat with everyone you meet on the street or in the bathroom needs to be forgotten since you will make Swedes run screaming if you try to engage them in casual conversation. It’s hard for Swedes to open up emotionally, even around their most beloved friends — unless alcohol is somehow involved. Swedes are often also accused of being rude because they fail to make eye contact or respond to an involved question with anything other than a monosyllable. Swedish is pretty nuanced; saying “Yeah, ok” can convey a whole raft of meanings to another Swede, when it might appear abrupt or rude by American standards. But if you try to follow Swedish social or language rules, you’d better get it exactly right, or everyone will think you’re the rude one.

5. Running ten minutes late.

Living in Montreal meant expecting everything to start half an hour later than expected. In Sweden, ten minutes early is already too late. Punctuality is a Swedish by-word — you can always expect a handyman to show up when he says he will, and your friend will be waiting for you at fika-time at exactly 11:00 AM, not a minute past. I find this very satisfying because I love being early for things and I find that the advent of cell phones means everyone got way more flexible with arrival times since you can just call or text someone if you’re running late. In Sweden, I’m often not even the first person to get wherever we’re going.

6. Going on dates.

The first time I was told that Swedes don’t date, I laughed in disbelief. “So how do you get married and have all these kids?” I asked. Turns out, everyone just stays friends with the same people they met in school. They all went to the same dagis (kindergarten); the same primary and secondary schools; and have been getting drinks together as adults all along. Sometimes someone gets drunk and sort of falls into a relationship with someone else, but then they all just keep hanging out as a group until a couple breaks off and has a kid and moves in together. With the increasing popularity of Tinder, maybe the Swedish attitude towards dating will change, but some quick perusals indicate that OKCupid and other online dating sites are grossly underused here. You also rarely see couples out on obvious first dates in nice restaurants, the way you do in the States. It’s kind of cute, but also pretty difficult if you’re a single immigrant looking for love. On the other hand, most of the native English- speaking immigrants I meet moved here because they fell in love with a Swede, so maybe you’ll have better luck at dating if you aren’t Swedish to start with.

7. Using a cell phone all the time.

Every time I go back to the States, I’m amazed at how much time everyone spends on their phones — during dinner, at the park, on the bus. Obviously, people use their phones here — Sweden is a hotbed of technological advancement. But you just don’t see as much casual cell phone use as you do in the States; far fewer people walking down the street with their nose in Facebook or staring blankly at Reddit while pushing their kids on the swings. Swedes seem more engaged with the world around them and less with their phones, which is nice if you’re at a nice restaurant and want to have a conversation that doesn’t involve checking IMDB for the guy who was in that thing that one time.

8. Extended childhood or adult play.

There is a certain amount of prolonged adolescence you can find in the United States. Whether it’s the Big Wheel Bike Races in San Francisco, or Morning Gloryville 6 AM rave parties, the US is full of opportunities for adults to do more than sitting sedately at home. You can take aerial silk classes, learn to make fairy wings on a laser cutter, or run around the San Francisco Mission District dressed up as a bride. In Sweden, once you get older (that is, over 25) and have kids (because everyone seems to have kids), there isn’t really anything to do but sit at home with your family, watch TV, or go to one of the numerous playgrounds. Most of the evening events and classes are taken up by the younger childless crowd. This can be good or bad, depending on perspective — it’s nice to be around fewer grown-ups acting like children, but sad that there aren’t more opportunities to loosen up.

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