Scandinavian Social Circles and how they work

Perhaps you’ve heard about this concept, and if you haven’t you are in for a treat that might go against what you view as normality and common sense.

In 2020 a survey was done by InterNations asking over 15,000 expats in 58 countries around the world how hard it was to make friends where they were living. The top 10 list of places included Mexico, Colombia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Perhaps not very surprising, seeing how people in number one ranked Mexico are very open to foreigners. The country even offers six-month visas to almost anyone in the midst of the current pandemic. If you have no plans for 2022 or can work online why not take a trip to Cancún or CDMX for some tacos and tequila? Okay, let’s get back on topic.

Where it gets interesting is when we look at the bottom ten. Here we start to see a very clear pattern. Excluding Kuwait, the bottom consists of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and none of them have left the bottom ten for the last five years. So why is it so hard to make friends in Scandinavian countries? They always rank high on the happiness index, so why aren’t they living up to the hype? Why don’t they greet visitors with mushroom baskets and smoked salmon at the airport? There are many theories floating around so let’s have a look at some.

We’ll get to the social circles, but first let’s look at the most obvious theory, the weather and lack of sunlight during the winter. It’s very dark and cold, which has been proven to cause mood shifts and a more negative mindset due to the lack of vitamin D. In fact, the happiness index is measured by things like housing, income, work-life balance, and civic engagement as well as many other factors. So they do not measure it by how many times people smile in a year or how strangers react to cute puppies. The truth of the matter is; measuring something like happiness is very hard because defining happiness itself is equally hard. If you have everything you need, it’s not easy to feel a sense of joy from the small things in life. If you have nothing, the sense of joy magnifies and you feel a stronger sensation.

Feeling alone in a new place can be a challenge. Especially when you face things like language barriers and cultural differences.

So let’s get to the main point. The social circles. How do they work and what do they do?

In most countries, some form of social circle exists in form of a hierarchy. For example with celebrities. They will often hang out with other celebrities in a type of social circle, or at least with other successful people. In Scandinavia, it is a little different. There are social circles for celebrities like you see in the US, but on top of that, there are groups dedicated to normal people. Perhaps friends who grew up together, went to the same university, know each other through family or sometimes, but not always, mutual friends.

The Lofoten Islands

But, don’t these groups exist everywhere?

Yes and no. The big difference between these groups is that joining them can be very hard. If you walk over to a table alone in a bar and start up a conversation in English in Norway or Sweden, most people will feel their social circle is being attacked. Who invited this person? What does he or she want? How can we get out of this situation? I know this because I have been in this situation myself. It is very sad, but it’s sort of how the hive-mind works. Even though you don’t agree with it, you just follow along cause it’s part of the culture and identity. Perhaps it is because back in the day our country was split up into thousands of small villages so outside communication was quite uncommon?

The last point is about communication. Perhaps you’ve seen images of public transport in Scandinavia where every person is sitting on one seat with their bag on the seat next to them in order to avoid human interaction. For us this is not something rude, it’s just about respecting the public space and social distance. But, I do understand for many foreigners it may seem like we are trying to create space between ourselves and the world.

In all honesty, I do not think Scandinavian people intentionally try to push foreigners out, but it’s just carved so deep into our identity that we don’t even realize what we are doing. I feel like it’s easier to accept when people are being too open and loud than too closed in and quiet. We live in a world where being an extrovert is expected and being an introvert is problematic.

Many cafes host meetups or weekly language exchanges.

So what can you do to get more friends in one of these countries?

The best advice I can give to someone living in Scandinavia is to create a reason to interact with someone. If you start talking to someone on the bus about how your back has been killing you after that rock climbing accident (yes this happened to me) you’re most likely going to scare that person away. If you are going to say something it’s better to start off by asking if it’s okay to ask them a question and disguise it as something practical like directions or searching for advice. From there you can read the room and see if they give out signals that imply they want to talk.

Another thing you should do is to try to find events online, like language exchange cafes, workshops, and book clubs where people come with the intention to talk. You can also bring up relevant topics in relation to what you both are there for.

In the future, I hope to see less of these social circles, but nevertheless, it’s a very interesting topic. Have you ever experienced anything in relation to this concept in Scandinavia or anywhere else?



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