Friday, September 12, 2008

'How do you like it here in Sweden?'

As an immigrant to Sweden there will be many difficulties to overcome -- but there are few questions on earth more dastardly than this, writes Paul Jackson

You’ve lived here a few years. And you’ve learned some Swedish. But how do you answer the number one all-time favourite question without upsetting local sensibilities?

Be warned: there’s a question Swedes like to ask immigrants. But not all immigrants. If you come from a country south of the Mediterranean or east of Berlin you can stop reading here.

But if your home country has a) a sought-after culture (i.e. France), or b) a higher standard of living (the US) or a top place in any happiness index (Denmark), you are in the danger zone.

The question is easy to spot because the natives, without fail, use the same five words “Trivs du här i Sverige?” Now, a straight-forward translation would read “Do you like it here in Sweden?” But don’t be deceived. This is not a multiple-choice question. You do not a have a choice of boxes to tick: Yes, No, Don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong, I have never committed the crime of answering “no”. But I have, in the past, tried to reply honestly.

When I was young and green, I’d try the intellectual approach: “Yes, it’s a very civilized country, but people can be very rude. The other day I was down town and this older couple just cut straight across me.”

As I began to mellow, I’d keep it to the level of the weather: “Well, the winter is a bit dark and long, but Swedish springs…ah!” I even tried the subtle, best-left-unsaid approach: “Well, it’s a great place for children to grow up …”.

But I’m a slow learner. What I have come to realize over the years is that the questioner is not looking for a balanced, nuanced reply. They are not actually interested in your answer. In fact, they are not interested in you. What they want is confirmation. What they are really asking is: “Am I not living in the best country on God’s green and pleasant earth?”

Now, there’s a lot to be said for living in a country with less than 10 million people. Things tend to work, for example. The Swedes are also, by and large, a humane lot. But you do get the sense that you are not in the centre of things. Plus, there is that long, dark and cold winter. And “schlager” music. But should you reply to the question with anything but an unequivocal, enthusiastic “yes” you are guaranteed to invite a hurt look.

If you find it difficult to offer a bright-faced affirmative, take heart: there is a quintessentially Swedish answer to this quintessentially Swedish question. And it is just one word long: “jorå”.

It translates, somewhat deceptively, as “I suppose so”. But don’t worry, Swedes will not get offended. On the surface, the word has that chirpy brevity so loved by the natives; however lurking beneath is that no-nonsense bedrock of reality, covered with a sprinkling of melancholy, that is one of the chief charms of the locals. You do, though, have to be fluent in Swedish to deliver the reply with any conviction.

So, how do you answer the question if you are not the gushing type or enjoy perfect command of the language? 1) Pretend your mobile phone has started to ring. 2) Lie. 3) Talk about the weather – but only in positive terms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've lived in Sweden for many years now (originally from the US) and I can say with some authority that the people here are among the rudest most self-centered people on the planet. And it's not just folks from Stockholm. The entire culture is dominated by an utter contempt for their fellows.

Swedes push pregnant women and young children aside to get a seat on buses and trains. They cut in line incessantly. When confronted with their rude behavior you'll either get complete denial or a childish tantrum. When driving they tailgate folks in fron of them and slow down on single lane roads when folks are behind them. They'll steal parking places when someone is clearly waiting for it.

I chalk it up to the level of unhappiness and powerlessness that folks here live in. The average Swede lives a gray, drone-like little life without the ability to change or move up socially or economically. If I had been condemned to such an existence I'd probably be surly and rude as well.

Fortunately for Swedes alcohol assuages the colornessness and powerlessness of their lives and is used copiously. When drunk they do become much friendlier and a bit more polite.