Oh, the places we go!

advice if considering moving abroad,

with a US perspective on Euro- Scandinavian culture,

scattered with a couple other countries


When one moves to another country, it is often advisable to check it out in advance via talking with people, reading books, watching videos and referencing online resources. It can help to understand, at least in a very generalized manner, what to expect of the culture. 

Even if one has been residing in that country for some time, referencing and recalibrating via knowledge on intercultural living can be imperative for as smooth of a transition as possible. The more one understands, the better they may be able to cope with the potential hurdles, referred to as “cultural shock,” which the provided links and figure below more fully explain.

Models of cultural shock vary in the number of stages, often from five to ten, but the general principles remain similar. Duration abroad increases the propensity to experience the symptoms of cultural shock. While a well-acknowledged phenomenon, in my experience very few locations actually have the capacity to help people suffering; the best sources for help, then, are either from those who have experienced similarly, or online media designed to help understand.

Online media on the topic of Scandinavian culture from an “utlander” (literally, “out-land-er,” i.e., immigrant &/or non-permanent resident) perspective can be found in the “Social Guidebooks” to Scandinavian culture and work environments. These are books by Julien S. Bourrelle and co-authors, with some online material excerpts existing, including related TED talks by the main author.

The material focuses on cultural perspectives of Norway and Sweden, with very little distinction between the two (for reasons that they are highly related cultures – at least, to an “utlander”… they are certainly not the same, e.g., their politics are different, prejudices can exist and with experience, one can see some of the more apparent cultural differences). They do, however, cluster together along multiple dimensions of cultural characteristics.

The books can be found in most Norwegian book stores (not sure yet for Sweden), though does that help one before moving to their new Scandinavian home? No. And luggage is often full of other, more immediately necessary items. So, good that one can browse the online material!

The “Social Guidebooks” are targeted at understanding Scandinavian cultural distinctions, in simple-to-understand graphical depictions. I have met many people in Norway who recommend them, and recently reviewed their material, after extensive experience of my own in acclimating there, and elsewhere, in Europe.

As I know Norway fairly well now, components of these are amusing to me. Sweden, having literally just moved to, I will also get to know in the next couple of years, but can already see it as a close neighbor to Norway. I find myself laughing from being able to understand the authors, even having morphed to that stereotype myself despite a US American cultural background (or perhaps because I am Midwestern, a place with significant historical Scandinavian heritage?).

Interestingly – and potentially to note for the newest newcomers – the material was not so amusing to me when I had first become an “expat” in Norway (in quotes because I had no intent to settle, just to work). That is because cultural understanding may be funniest, I have learned, if one has experience in that society. Comedic forms of explaining Scandinavian culture were mostly annoying to me in earlier years, as my focus was on career, and not having to acclimate to a new culture, let alone to learn a new language (that link is to a comedic tale on adult language learning and cultural differences from David Sedaris) were I to really understand daily life somewhere else. However, this is a topic of grand importance to anyone who moves to another country for a job, and unavoidable despite all attempts against.

Even in the very funny “Guidebooks…” material, I can pinpoint demographic attributes of the authors that do not line up with my own, thus I see opportunity to add some further thoughts, and from a scientific researcher perspective.

I know, I know: it isn’t like culture isn’t already widely discussed. I write this post, first, after over five and a half years residing within four European countries (in addition to 3 US states), with very much a Scandinavian emphasis. Not everyone has performed such a series of moves (always for the job). Even fellow Midwestern, scientifically successful females who now live in Norway do not match my experiences or sentiments – and, a moot point, but I identify as perpetually hard-working and struggling, not yet successful in terms of my career stage versus efforts exerted; I suppose I could add, then, that I am a voice for my own type (the 4th-place rankings, the constantly un-hired, the unlucky, the masses… us… 😉 ) – another reason to chime in some thoughts.

And I write this, finally and most importantly, both to increase cultural awareness, especially for those in science, as well as to advise anyone that may be considering an international move. So, please share this with those who need it the most. They may be the least likely to come across it on their own…

1. Timing is always important

The duration one lives somewhere, the extent of a social network they have or lack, and whether there is a place to return to or not, can make everything entirely different between intercultural experiences.

Are you enjoying someone else’s meal, or trying to make your own? A useful way to consider how duration impacts international experiences.

Shorter-term stays are a bit like a meal with strangers; try it out, don’t worry – everything is rinsed and fully cooked – enjoy. It will pass. The conversations may have been wonderful, or they may not have been the most interesting to you. Either way, it will soon change. In my experience, anything under 1 ½ to 2 years falls into this category. There are hurdles, miscommunications, etc., but… compared to longer durations, these times go more quickly, with more novelty, and with less repercussion – assuming there is somewhere to go back to… otherwise, the meal is never enjoyed to the extent that it should be, because one is occupied with figuring out where the next meal will come from… in such a case, things turn longer-term…  

Longer-term stays are no longer like a meal during dinner. They are not something to try for a bit of time. In my experiences, it is the 2- to 3-year mark where things transition from temporary to longer-term. The “meal” instead becomes the ingredients for that person’s future life. Please pass the salt? Have you anything with more spice, perhaps? What about something with more protein? I’m vegetarian. Oh, this culture always serves meat? I see… What, exactly, is…? No, no, I really wanted to stop living the way I have for three to four decades prior and conform to another culture and society, really, that was, uh, why… I, uh,… that was totally why I…why I …moved… [lift up slimy, strangely clear, fish-like thing to better inspect] – what is this? – here, yes, I… moved… here…

To an extent, moving is always like this and not unique to international cases. After all, the longer one is somewhere, the more it infiltrates into their ethos and way of life. If one considers a highly diverse land, for example in the US, there can be massive sub-cultural and demographic differences to deal with in moving locations. We know it, and even can joke about it (in our best of times).

What, then, makes international moves so different?

Here are a few things that quickly jump to my mind:

  1. Different cultural norms and ways of life
  2. Different social barriers
  3. Different languages and, hence, highly reduced and mostly superficial communication
  4. Relatedly, many occasions of, literally, not being able to understand
  5. Migration and residence permissions, i.e., government and paperwork and related meetings
  6. The inability to stay in that country once the job is done and the contract has ended
  7. For those of us from different continents &/or certain countries, the inability to utilize the unemployment & other benefits that were paid into while employed
  8. For those of us who moved independently to somewhere totally new, not a single person who knows anything about you, your history, or your personality (which is not as great as it may initially sound…)
  9. Being reminded of your cultural &/or political background(s), and often in social settings right when you had begun to feel as if you fit in

In other words, perpetually the feeling of never fully belonging, sometimes no matter the attempts made to try and belong.

2. Culture is belonging as much as it is isolation

People always come from somewhere, and where ever that place is, it will be comprised of individuals that influence one another across generations. Within any given area, there is a limited amount of experiences and daily variations possible. Limit the number of interactions, activities, ways of living, and this is what forms the basis of culture, i.e., group belonging. In other words, to be part of a culture is an oxymoron in terms of being cultural. You can only expect so much out of any of us; even the most trying individuals will be open-minded to a point; barriers can arise within anyone who is pushed to their extremes.

This means, irrespective of whether people try to be open (as often is the case in US academic environments) or initially closed (as in, for example, in some Scandinavian and other European locales; see figure below), once you step away from your culture, you will not belong – and, if you never felt strong belonging in your own culture (e.g., socioeconomic reasons), a note that likely the reasons for lack of belonging will be different intra- versus inter-culturally.

The Expat Insider ranks experiences of expats in many different countries. Here, I display the five countries I have associated with, by nationality or else via career-based temporary moves. The Insider is one source to use to understand if the values and ways of life of a country will match similarly to what you are more familiar with, as well as the components to expect greater differences.

3. Perception and experiences influence bias(es): assume less

Let’s now move into more concrete examples of cultural differences, and lessons to educate some members of both sides on. The focus here will be between Scandinavian, Swiss, and other cultures, though ultimately most referenced to US American culture (to which I belong, and sometimes it feels that almost everyone in the world feels they already understand).

Recommendation: read on. Even we, as US Americans, do not understand all of us. That is why many of us try hard to never assume anything. However, as mentioned, similarities do often exist between demographic groups; hence, being aware of the probability for something to be accurately categorizable across many people is a reasonable start; just bring with the even more important assumption for deviation.

Perceptions and expectations come from both sides of the international dialogue. For example, I learned almost immediately in 2013 that I implicitly had held a stereotype of Europeans to be more open-minded and culturally aware than us, in general, from the States. In the past more than five and a half years abroad, I have encountered comments from many people that have sounded as equally under-educated and close-minded as I have heard within the US. Not expecting close-mindedness from someone in another country exemplifies my own cultural biases at work, in this case elevating another demographic group over my own. That, in itself, is quite interesting. I use it here as an example of how perception and one’s prior experience can frame their assumptions – and that it works in both directions, i.e., from the “utlander” as much as the other side. This can also help explain any potential, quick tendency to take offense when in a new cultural environment. Check if you may have unrealistic expectations of people in your new home.

As another example, let’s consider something with a more potentially negative outcome, i.e., when the assumptions are about your own nation, culture or other attribute: you could, very conceivably, find yourself sitting silently in a social setting, in a country you’re not from, on your own, and listening to what sounds like very close-minded thoughts – and, if you are from the US, this could very well be conversation on the topic of your own country, but missing key accuracy, and in a manner for which you have to try hard to not become offended by your social companions because of it. This challenge will be even greater if they literally discuss your country’s politics, or customs, in another language while not once acknowledging or looking at you (yes, that actually has happened to me). This is an example of a situation that may take time to learn (at least for me it has), but I recommend to minimize how offended you become.

Consider: haven’t you ever talked as if you had lived somewhere you hadn’t, after, for example, reading something in the news? You may feel put-out from the lack of inclusion &/or insight into something you belong to or identify with. No one, however, is required to acknowledge your belonging. So, if you can bring someone with to laugh about the experience with, that’d be ideal. Or at least to communicate it somehow, ideally while nicely pointing these things out to those who need to know them the most (“Oh, is that what it is like in the States? Here, I had been totally wrong all these decades, haha!”). Shift the topic to kindly pointing out assumptions and exclusionary actions that the people you are among are doing, as they most certainly are not knowingly attempting to hurt your feelings. You could even say, “Hey, just a note my feelings are being hurt a little right now, and I doubt you are trying to do that,…” Might have to practice that sentence first before bringing it into use, right? Repeat twenty times,… Finally, as mentioned previously, be aware of your own biases and sensitivities in action; we all mistakenly offend, despite our best efforts not to.

4. Stereotypes work best across small, uniform populations

If you are from the US, there is a high chance that, in whichever country you are and among whatever demographic group, at least one person will think they understand you and your country (when they likely don’t, unless you fit the mass media stereotype for your demographic group). Advice (that I need to remember myself) is to try to laugh it off, feel free to roll your eyes at them and, somehow, keep from allowing your blood pressure to rise from a lack of awareness…consider that they do know something about your country; how much do you know of theirs’, or a lesser travelled country? In fact, people might actually know more about components of your country than you do. For example, in Scandinavia, people will probably have visited places you never did in the US, in term of cities, stores, educational institutions, research labs, vacation destinations, restaurants, hotels…

Good for them! There is a lot to do in the US, isn’t there? However, they may not understand that those things were not available, perhaps ever, to you.

No need to mention the Superfund sites or safety issues, have some fun and spin a tale of American Grandeur… 😉

Please don’t expect everyone, or sometimes anyone, to realize (a) how inconsiderate it can be to either brag, or to not care about, or to be incapable to (b) see the ironies of enjoying parts of your country that have never been available to or possible for you. This is a hard experience to go through. Remember: There is plenty you have done and seen, but which hasn’t made its mass-media way over to that country, i.e., isn’t considered “popular.” If you are up to it, it can be a great opportunity to hone in on your story-telling skills.

People in other countries will rely on the homogenous bits of information that media filters over to them, and which forms their conceptions of the US (and the cool parts of it), instead of what it really is like to live there and to have a daily (mostly uncool) life for many decades, complete with things that are – or, more often for some of us – are not within your reach of possibility. As it isn’t super effective or timely to explain this each time, I recommend you change your focus to understanding why someone would be like that. This may help you more.

5. Consider a life so good, you do not know any better.

And then, if you become too jealous, remember it gets really dark there for much of the year. And that it is cold often. And cloudy. It rains so much that there are many of words to describe it. Is that really what you want? To sit around describing the small variations in daily precipitation? (Actually, there are times that I wouldn’t mind that…)

Now, really focusing on Scandinavia, I suggest two hypotheses for much of the cultural conflict that can occur between Scandinavian (especially Norwegian; I cannot speak directly yet of the others) cultures and those of other countries. I have, really, never met an immigrant with positive tales of their acclimation, unless immediately brought into a Norwegian household via a personal relationship.

The first hypothesis is that conflict arises, ironically enough, because within the country, people are treated very well and relatively equally. Given a relatively small population [the population of Norway is fairly close to the population of Wisconsin, but with over double the land area, as a possible reference point (otherwise, look up to reference to something more accessible to you; google has those stats easily available)], and with the means to help each other, this provides a really good way of life, actually the best in the world in certain measures (see Expat Insider figure).

However, it also comes with a negative side (beyond photoperiod and weather), for example, sometimes not being able to understand those less fortunate, or exactly how diverse other places can be. Note that this extends to many European countries, in my limited-yet-vast experiences. Competitive joking and workplace “competitions” can also be more socially acceptable, by the way, perhaps because there is less extreme in social hierarchy; people might not understand how devastating it is to actually be at the socioeconomic bottom, or to never succeed despite massive hard work.

6. The assumptions when abroad

In the “Social Guidebook…” online material there are very interesting points on the subject of equality, related to how to advocate equality and to provide help in a nation. Especially, I find it interesting to consider my perspective of being from a drastically different country, in terms of social help and equality values, related to work-life. One begins to see how much their nationality impacts their chances of success…

National equality comes in many different forms. Who should be helped, and what should be provided? This varies between countries. Should everything be equally handed out, so that the person with the greatest inherent abilities is allowed to succeed the most? Should, instead, the weakest be helped more, to even things out? What if advantage was given to those that were already the strongest, to make them even more powerful?

As a final section, here are some notes on what one can assume that some people will assume, at least based on my limited, yet vast and diverse experiences (what I mean by that is, that there could always be more experiences, couldn’t there?).

Overall, the main assumption is easy for many of us to do, and I think perhaps it may be more common for Europeans to assume of US Americans, as already mentioned, due to the mass-media problem of a loud nation, along with so many people taking extended trips over to the States: some people might think that you have had a life similar to theirs’.

It can make sense, also I have been guilty of it, but for example, Scandinavians, Swiss, and some other cultures “have it so good” that some might not care, or be able to understand attributes that substantially and importantly comprise you, and make you very different. These differences, also, might hamper more than help you in the new society. My recommendation is to prepare to discuss such topics, in an intelligent and open manner as possible.

It would be interesting to compare these quick thoughts below to what others, from other nations, find strangely assuming of them and their own cultures.

Here is a list of common international (lack of) assumptions that can rattle my nerves:

– Paying for university, or acquiring massive educational debt in order to not get a job.

Instead, the norm seems to be having a house + a spousal equivalent + a car + annual lower-latitude vacations + at least one child + 1.5 months annual vacation, inclusive of national holidays + a job of some relation to their field + a respectable wage + by the age of 35.

That is a major, broad categorization. There is debt. There are fights. A general lack of higher-level jobs exists. Not everyone has a car. Divorce. Cancer. Poverty. It’s still not perfect, but it is far different from many other places.

Imagine everyone went to something like a quality private school and had higher middle-class upbringings – everyone– and then had the ability to buy a home shortly after high school, in large part due to livable wages and not acquiring university debt. Everyone. Can you imagine? However, “everyone” is the population of, for example, Wisconsin or Virginia…

– Understanding a driven work-ethic or needing to work during weekends and during “vacations,” i.e., not taking a real vacation, will be challenging. You could be judged very negatively for this and, seriously, socially shunned for doing so, even if you do so because you want to return to, for example the US. Especially for females, they will add in the “bonus” of judging you simultaneously on your reproductive capacity (but so can other cultures, trust me on that one). The idea of delayed gratification, working very hard in hopes for a payoff in the future, will not be viewed favorably, even if they know you cannot stay in their own country.

The societal expectation for work-life balance is actually very positive in my opinion. However, the hypocrisy of creating outcasts of those who do not follow along, especially when they have no aspirations nor legal rights to even remain in the country after their work contract ends, is frustrating.

Personally, I would very much appreciate if all places changed to be more “Scandinavian” / “European” in this respect; but to “shoot the messenger” is the wrong mentality, especially since these limited-term employees are mostly beneficial to the system (reduced economic strain) and, again, need to return to a different culture that will not allow them to take it easy while international.

People do others’ work for them while they go on parental leave (which can be between 8-12 months per child), meaning (a) that the work-ethic can be lower compared to more industrious countries, and (b) less work may be required for someone to achieve the same goals as that of an “utlander” who did not take up those benefits while in the country.

Potential repercussions of what is, again, a great system for the locals will be to not understand that the choice between work or family still exists elsewhere. The chances are high that they will not understand that you had to do all of your own work, despite ending up perhaps professionally lower, now, than them. A greater timespan with harder work will, really, not result in a promotion or career step up. This goes back to how a nation treats equality.

This is a complex topic that I cannot devote enough space to, and have decide, for now, not to.

In short, there are clear problems with all systems implemented and related to gender “equality,” but in defense of the Nordic countries, at least they are trying to fix what is a main, direct gender problem in the career world. Switzerland and the UK can still be viewed more similar to the States, in terms of less male contributions to child rearing, far less parental leave (without any requirements that the male / partner take a component of it), and little socioeconomic support for childcare when parent(s) return to the workforce. For example, I have heard that females are still shunned in some German locales if they do not stop working while with a young child. Swiss female scientists can still have difficulty returning to work after having a child. It should be clear that I can speak massive amounts on this topic, and in terms of direct and indirect gender problems, but not anymore here, as it is not the main topic. Keep in mind this is a very dynamic topic, as well.

Back to the point, if one can plan appropriately to reproduce while temporarily employed in a Nordic country, the benefits are really great! It helps both females and males with newborns. More power to you, just don’t hate on those who cannot or don’t. And remember: are you enjoying a meal or making your own dinner? Can you support a child in your next move, especially given your wanting efforts already for employment and promotion? These are real-life problems that societies – all of them – still do not address well enough, although strides are being taken (two steps forward, one step back?).

My hopes are positive for the next generations, and I will try to help as I can, first and foremost by actively addressing these issues in conversation and management, as possible when the opportunity arises.

Unemployment benefits are also very different: they are provided after education and for relatively extensive periods of time, so that some people may not understand if you could not claim unemployment after matriculating from university, or after working in another country, i.e., how bad it can be to be unemployed (further, major debt). In addition, because university loans are near to non-existent, to not have at least one years’ worth of money stashed away in savings (or be letting an apartment to a renter, hence, having that additional income) will be foreign to at least some. It can be frustrating to pay taxes into a country that you cannot get your benefits back from, but something you should understand might occur.

People also can easily forget that pay is still far less for females than males– I, for example, can have expected to have received 80% less pay than my male counterparts throughout my life. That is 20% less salary to fall back onto in times of personal economic crises – such as my many bouts of unsupported unemployment. Also, no one ever helps to pay for what are very expensive international moves, at least for me…

Keep in mind: debts, work and social benefits are very different by country, and what benefits those in one country can actually handicap those coming from another.

Group cohesion is great if established, but can work to shun the new people. This sad fact, combined with the importance of gossip to spread news, is my second hypothesis to help explain why I have, really, never met an immigrant in Norway who felt socially accepted in their first years there – unless they had merged into a family via spousal-equivalency. Even in the workplace, having met the people prior and been able to establish a level of credibility will help acclimation.

What can I say? It is within a group’s rights. Good for “them”, though bad for “us”. Ultimately, however, how accepting is any social group? Social benefits are not social acceptances, after all. Perhaps you can remind yourself of this the next time you are in a social group to which you feel belonging, but someone else does not?

– Finally, if you are from the US, you might not be given the chance to speak of your own country or way of life, because some people have very strong, preconceived notions that either everything is similar, especially within a nation, or that they already know everything about the States. Mass media has already “educated” non-US people, it sadly seems. Some Europeans come from a place the size of a lower-to-medium populated US state, and think themselves equal to the entirety of the US. Also, it is common to vacation or to take research and education stays in the States (yes, places you have never been…), thus a trip will suffice to provide their own experience on the US. Have you ever gone somewhere and, then, been so excited that you told someone from that place all about it? I must chuckle, because it isn’t so funny when many people do that. It turns out, the loss of identity can be a really devastating indirect impact of international moves, and sharing is one way to mediate that. Maybe mention this if the problem arises, and talk about something you know the news hasn’t covered outside of the States / your country.

For me, what I found to be most frustrating has been the tendency to assume the same of others. It does seem to be ingrained into some cultures more strongly than others (for reasons explained above), but it also sets one up for faux paus and cultural mishaps.

However, this final conundrum is inherently cultural. After all, it is the similarity amongst peoples in a given region that will bind them together, but if you are an “utlander,” it can likewise be the challenges one faces in arriving to that country.

I, despite the trials and tribulations, feel a better and more aware person from my own experiences, so my recommendation is to a) be wise about the move but to b) give it a try.

You will find you learn a lot about your own biases in the process!

To end on two positive notes: here is a thought I had regarding Sweden, from first visiting it in 2014. It is an assumption I am happy to make and retain, despite it showcasing critically problematic social biases from my own, midwestern US cultural background of the 1980’s forward: “Wow! I am elated! Female scientists are taken seriously here – even the ones that look like me!” In other words, there will always be something of another place that you can find to admire, and to want to bring back to where you are from. Enjoy it.

And, if I had the chance, I would gladly move back to Oslo, Norway. That speaks, doesn’t it?


Now, could someone please put some of these thoughts into some funny drawings on culture and being foreign?