The expat quality of life survey published by HSBC on Wednesday names Sweden as top country in Europe and third best in the world, just behind Singapore and New Zealand.
But while the Nordic nation scores highly in areas such as its famous work-life balance, job security, health, generous childcare and quality of family life, Sweden fails spectacularly when it comes to being a good place in which to strike up new friendships.
Based on interviews with over 21,000 expats in 39 countries, the nation manages to scrape only a 36th spot for 'social life' and an abysmal last place for 'making friends'.
“Swedes are polite, but they don't do small talk. And while they may appear reserved, they're usually just respecting your privacy. Once you've made local friends, you'll find them loyal and warm,” explains the survey.
It is not an uncommon feeling. While The Local often hears expat readers describe Swedes as warm and genuine friends once you get to know them, the way to their hearts can sometimes feel as long, dark and cold as the Nordic winters.
Business analyst James, 26, runs a hangout group on the Meetup.com social website in his spare time for twenty-somethings wanting to meet new people in the capital.
One of the problems, he says, is that it is difficult for foreigners to break into long-standing social networks of old high school friends. But the Australian mainly puts the issue down to the Swedes' inexperience in the art of making small talk with strangers.
“I can tell that they really want to learn, but they were never taught how to do it. When people find out I'm Australian they try to make small talk with me, but they really struggle. They speak good English, it's just that they don't know what to say,” he explains with affection.
Australian expat James now has plenty of friends in Sweden. Photo: Private
James moved to Stockholm from Australia a year ago and emphasizes that he loves his new home.
“It's one of the best places to live, that's why I came here. But in Australia you can go up to anyone in a bar and start a conversation – you don't do that in Sweden. It's very hard on a social level when you arrive in a country for the first time,” he says.
Marco Forzati, 40, who came to Sweden from Italy 15 years ago, is the founder of the startup Time Village. It is technically a time-sharing project which allows members to connect online and share skills and interests in real life, but he says many also use it to make friends.
“It's interesting to see how the way people meet is changing with groups like Meetup.com and Facebook. It was a bit more difficult when I came here; people were going to Swedish classes to meet new people,” he says.
Marco Forzati (second from left) at a Time Village event in Hornstull, Stockholm. Photo: Private
Forzati himself arrived as a university student and admits he therefore had an easier ride with a natural social network of classmates right from the start. But he insists that Swedes should not be seen anti-social, just different. And he would advise fellow foreigners to be patient.
“You take the time to get to know someone and it goes very slowly. But I've heard a lot of people say that if you become friends with a Swede you have a friend for life, and actually that's true. If I need help I know that I can call one of my Swedish friends and even if we haven't spoken for a year they will be there for me.”
Interestingly, while the HSBC survey names Sweden as the worst place for making friends, it is among the best for finding love. A total of 39 percent of expat respondents found their long-term partner after moving to the Nordic country.
“That doesn't surprise me. It goes back to the idea that you view friendship as a long-term investment the same way you do when you try to find a partner. Once you find someone you stick to them,” says Forzati.
*Article updated in 2018 after one person quoted asked us to use their first name only.