Going to Sweden for a year, I expected cultural differences, subtle, but I was certain they would be there. It was just a matter of recognizing them. But even so I wasn't always prepared. It wasn't in me to lean back, look detached at every instance and say "Oh, interesting, so this is how Swedes deal with this." I just got unhappy and angry, reacting like what I was: A foreign worker, "fremmedarbeider", feeling insulted by what I encountered.
It took half a year and some intense reading of the local newspaper to realise that what I faced wasn't a personal affront, but a cultural difference.
Sweden is a throughly regulated country. So is Norway, so what's new, hmm? The point is - Sweden is even more so, and they take a lot more pride in their organisation and their ability to make and follow their sensible rules. There are signs everywhere, reminding all of how to organise life simpler and better for all - bikes to the left, walking to the right, don't park your bike here, smoke over there, don't walk in the ski-tracks and don't run against the common direction. Being a good little Norwegian who understands that rules are there to make life easier for all, I didn't get annoyed by their existence. What got me was when the regulations started to make things really difficult. When the nurses didn't want to let me get in line for a doctor's appointment because I had a different kind of personal number - a temporary number and not a permanent one - when I couldn't get my computer hooked up to the printer because I had no precise affiliation at the University - when I couldn't pay my rent automatically because I couldn't get the right kind of account, because I didn't...
Not that I am a stranger to bureaucracy. Far from it, Norway has its part of it, and I am kicking angrily at quite a few regulations which are going to make me hurt when I come home after this. What I am a stranger to is how I get received when I try to understand it. Even so, it took a Swede to help me understand what troubled me.
In one of the local newspapers, they had a series of interviews with local people who chose to work in Norway for a while. At the moment Swedes are in the position Norwegians were in some years ago: It's economically a good deal to work in the neighbouring country for a while. The Scandinavian countries have always had this kind of common movable workforce - I come from a long line of migrating workers. But back to the interviews. There were the normal issues - Norwegians were like this, Norwegians were like that, and yes, I could see how that would be annoying to somebody who didn't grow up in Norway and Norway really isn't perfect. And then it hit me, the comment that made me understand that what I was facing was a cultural trait, not something that happened to me, personally. "I had this problem with my identity, so I couldn't get paid, but they said 'we'll fix that.' And so it all worked out, Norwegians are good at that."
I realised, suddenly, that what I had been missing was somebody saying "we'll fix that." Or perhaps "let's see what we can do" or "call me in 10 minutes and I'll get back to you on how to deal with this". Now this may sound like common politeness, but no, it doesn't mean that Swedes are rude or unfriendly, because they are in general a lot more polite, correct and friendly than Norwegians. We are a grumpy and far too direct bunch. It's more a matter of individual expectations of agency. Norwegians believe that they can fix something if they just figure out how things connect. Swedes believe that things can be fixed by following the correct steps.
It doesn't mean that things can always be fixed by some friendly person who knows how to manipulate the rules. Sometimes you get back 10 minutes later and what you get told is "sorry, but you really need to get A, B and C first". I find that what I miss is the belief that it's possible to do something, to be sourrounded by people who expect to be able to negotiate with their environment. Or perhaps I am just homesick.