I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships—particularly friendships—as part of my happiness project these last few months. It’s also something I think about as an immigrant living in a foreign country. I have been blessed to have some of the very best friends in the world, but, unfortunately, they all live an ocean—or an ocean and a continent—away from me now. I’ve made three moves in my life with James: from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara; from Santa Barbara to New Jersey; and from New Jersey to Sweden. Making friends and then saying goodbye to them has been a staple of my adult life.
I came across this piece last week about making friends as an adult. The author pulls in a lot of research to make practical suggestions about how to make friends (reconnect with old friends, reach out frequently, be open and vulnerable, etc.). The final suggestion piqued my interest: start (or be involved in) a group. Here the author quotes from the book Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life by Manuel Baucells:
The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven and his team have collected happiness data from ninety-one countries, representing two-thirds of the world’s population. He has concluded that Denmark is home to the happiest people in the world, with Switzerland close behind… Interestingly enough, one of the more detailed points of the research found that 92 percent of the people in Denmark are members of some sort of group, ranging from sports to cultural interests. To avoid loneliness, we must seek active social lives, maintain friendships, and enjoy stable relationships.
I found this interesting because the same idea came up the week before when I attended an entertaining lecture in Stockholm by Julian Bourrelle, author of The Social Guidebook to Sweden. To a visitor or a new arrival to Sweden, the Swedes can seem impolite or even downright rude, and it can be incredibly difficult to make friends. In his lecture and his book, though, Bourrelle points out Swedes can be quite friendly and welcoming, they’re just operating under a different cultural norm than other cultures might expect (especially American). (For example, politeness in Sweden does not mean being outwardly friendly and engaging; here, to be polite means to not bother anyone else at all, for any reason, especially not to say “hello” to a stranger on the street.)
With that in mind, making friends here tends to follow a different pattern than we may be used to. Americans, and many others around the world, are used to a scenario that goes something like this:
You greet a stranger at a cafe, for example. You start talking, and the conversation is so nice that you decide to get coffee together again, or to have dinner together. You enjoy the conversation and connect intellectually, so you decide maybe to do something together, like go for a walk or a hike. On your hike you notice a blueberry bush, and you start picking blueberries together. And there you are, enjoying eating blueberries on a walk with your new friend. As Bourrelle says, “purposeful activities [like blueberry picking] follow from interesting conversations.”
The funny thing is, this scenario plays out in nearly the opposite direction in Sweden:
As Bourelle narrates it, first you sign up for the bärplockareförening (blueberry pickers’ association) and you meet with other club members in the forest. You work purposefully (and probably silently) in the forest for a while, picking berries. You may talk to someone about the practical aspects of picking berries. And then, because it is the practical thing to do, you walk out of the forest together, and you begin talking as you walk. If you are both hungry, you have a reason to eat together. In Sweden, Bourelle says, you do not share a meal with someone in order to get to know them; sharing a meal with someone is the result of an established relationship.
Bourelle calls things like berry picking frame activities, by which he means some sort of activity with a purpose. I would expand that idea to include frame communities: for example colleagues, neighbors, or families from the same preschool. Swedes tend to socialize much more freely with others when there is some sort of frame to hold the relationship. For example, we have found it incredibly difficult to talk to other parents at the playground. In America, the simple fact of being at a playground with other adults is reason enough to talk with them. Here, it can be tough to even make eye contact with other parents; and even if your children are the same age and playing with the same thing, it usually does not follow that you will in any way interact with the other parent unless absolutely necessary (unless that parent is from outside Sweden!). However, if you encounter another parent from preschool, you can (usually) expect a smile and greeting, and possibly a full conversation.
As you might guess, the friend-building process here in Sweden can take time—a lot of time. Even Swedes who relocate to a new city, especially Stockholm, often have the same difficulty as a foreigner in developing social connections. But for foreigners living abroad, it is an especially isolating and difficult experience. Even once you find the frame activities and communities, it seems to take time to build up the presence and familiarity for Swedes to begin to open themselves.
Which leaves the well-meaning, friendship-yearning new arrival to Sweden in something of a quandary. We know how important relationships are to our mental health and happiness, and yet we find it difficult to forge those relationships. We want to be fully present in our new lives in our new country, but if we want emotional connection and support we have to rely on friendships back home. Of course we want to maintain ties with our closest friends and family from our home country, but we don’t want to cling to and become dependent upon them.
I’m curious: have you found it easy or hard to make friends as an adult? Do you belong to any groups that, in addition to helping you explore a hobby or sport, have broadened your social circle?