Lund University main building (Image Credit: Magnus Bäck | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)

National bubbles in international student environments

The open-border policy between countries within the European Union creates many opportunities for young people who seek to expand their horizons by studying at foreign universities. As students from different EU nations come together, they bring with them unique perspectives and cultural nuances, contributing to a vibrant and dynamic learning atmosphere. This cross-pollination of identities and ideas not only prepares these young people for their careers but also for a future in which global cooperation and intercultural communication are increasingly essential.

Navigating intercultural interactions can, however, present considerable challenges. Language barriers, covering both verbal and non-verbal communication, can lead to misunderstandings, as gestures and phrases may carry varied meanings across cultures. Differences in cultural norms and values, such as perceptions of personal space, may add complexity to simple interactions. Stereotyping and prejudice hinder genuine understanding, Addressing all these challenges demands cultural awareness and a commitment to remaining open-minded and adapting.

While pursuing my studies in Sweden as an international student, I experienced a number of such challenges, but those experiences motivated me to undertake a sociological study aimed at gaining deeper insights into the dynamics of international student relationships. I conducted and analysed two discussions: a one-on-one session with an Italian student and a group discussion involving students from Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, France, and Slovakia.

The initial focus of the research was to study how international students at Lund University perceive their relationships with students of Swedish origin. However, during my interviews, I found that the local issues brought up by my respondents were also commonly present outside of Sweden. Therefore this article explores the nature of these troubles faced by international students when making friends among the locals both in Lund and in other cities in Europe.

Wikipedia seminar at COMPUTE research school at Lund University, 2016 (Image Credit: Sara Mörtsell | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

After analysing the data gathered from interviews with international students, it becomes evident that the process of integration is something that does not happen that does not happen as much as one would presume. Whether respondents have lived in Lund for a few months or a couple of years, they seem to coexist, rather than integrate, with Swedes, in something akin to parallel realities. They all claim to struggle to establish any lasting relationships with local Swedes, despite their diverse personalities and levels of assimilation.

From the very beginning, the students I talked to drew a clear distinction between “we – the international” and “they – the locals,” suggesting that Swedes tend to remain within their social bubbles and express indifference towards “the outsiders”. This perception is described as a shared understanding among all foreigners—an unwritten rule that every newcomer learns almost immediately upon arrival. Notably, until I asked directly, the international students I talked to didn’t even mention Swedish people, as if they were not a part of their studying experience at all.

They have their bubbles, like with their Swedish friends from primary school and stuff, so they don’t really have the need to or maybe they’re shy to approach internationals I would say? – Slovak student

I consider myself to be a very open person, but also… I don’t know. If I feel like someone doesn’t really want to, you know, be friends with me, then I just back off and it’s not like I keep trying. So I was like, OK, if it’s not going to be mutual—well. And I didn’t expect Swedish people to not want to become friends with internationals. Now it’s like ‘OK—I’m just probably not going to have Swedish friends’. – Polish student

According to these students, most Swedes come across as distant and any displays of kindness seem either performative or forced by circumstances, lacking organic and genuine intent. They also claim that even after a pleasant, friendly interaction there is an intentional lack of “follow-up” on the side of the locals.

They are super polite when it comes to speaking face to face. So they’ll never say anything mean or like, disagree strongly or something like that. But as soon as you leave or they leave and they talk between each other or with some other friends, they may talk behind your back or say ‘OK, I don’t like him’ or, ‘I’ll try to avoid him’ or ‘I’ll just stop talking to him’. So I feel like that’s something that happened before. Just pretend to be to be polite to avoid the confrontation or something, and then just disappear. – Italian student

We would meet for group work and that. Not really to do anything more. But I think it’sThey’re always very nice, very welcoming, but it feels kind of like there won’t be any follow-upif you don’t actively ask them to meet you, usually it doesn’t go further than that. – French student

A party on Walpurgis Night (April 30, 2022) at the student housing Parentesen in Lund (Image Credit:
Roya Juhlin-Dannfelt)

The place and circumstances in which internationals and locals meet seem to affect the way their interactions play out. Being in class or on campus creates an environment that results in a more distant approach. It is also worth mentioning that according to both interviews Swedish people are perceived as significantly more open and extroverted when under the influence of alcohol.

When I met the same people at parties and the context is differentthey’re a little bit more loose. They [Swedish students] want to talk, want to interact and everything. But again, the moment we’re back into formal context or everything, they’re back to the start of like, ‘I don’t want to interact with you anymore’. – Italian Student

Yeah. They are extremely introverted and once they start drinkingthat’s like the complete- That’s even extra-extra-extroverted. They become, we sayanimals. That’s crazy. The shift? And then the next day, when they’re sober again, you’re the same person and then they’re really, like, ashamed and stuff. – Slovak student

The discussing students also critique the locals for their tendency to shut internationals off by speaking Swedish during events, even those with an international presence. Still, later in the interviews, when the context of a conversation changes, they too openly admit to choosing to speak their native language rather than English in public settings whenever they get an opportunity.

Me and the two other Dutchies, we’re not making a lot of friends because we’re used to speaking Dutch together and the rest of the class already knows each other so… – Dutch student

One girl. We’ve become pretty good friends, I’d say. She’s from Germany as well. And I think it’s sometimes very comforting to be able to speak in your native language. So it’s kind of natural to bond with people coming from the same country but she’s also the only exchange student in my class I got along with well. – German student

Although the focus of this study was supposed to be on the lives of international students in Lund, noting such a shift in the testimonies created an irrecusable opportunity to dig deeper into the subjectis the situation at Lund University different than elsewhere in Europe?

When asked, the respondents admitted that at some point they were in the reversed role at least once before coming to Sweden. Despite their open dissatisfaction with the way Swedish people seemed to alienate them, they were willing to admit to and rationalise adopting similar attitudes and actions when they were the locals.

And I mean when you don’t speak the language, it’s a huge obstacle because mostly like – there are already set friend groups and maybe some people are not really fluent in English there, especially when it’s a programme that’s not in English, so I know a lot of people who wouldn’t feel comfortable talking in English to their friends. It wouldn’t really fit into this friend group to suddenly switch to English. And so that’s kind of hard as well. – German student

I mean, we tried to get in touch with our international people because it’s fun to meet new people from all around the world, learn about country, culture and everything. But at the end of the day, we almost 100% stuck with the Italian groups. – Italian student

When perceiving themselves and their situation through another lens, the students I talked to could easily recognise the many possible obstacles in forming local-international relationships. They acknowledged that when put in that situation they would choose to communicate in their native language within their friend group. In other words, they don’t usually break out from their usual circles to talk to other peers even when language barriers are nonexistent. Yet, what was perhaps most fascinating is that no matter what role you were taking on—it appeared like it was always the other group who appeared to them as closed off and unapproachable.

One of the students I talked to also described her experience with being an international student in Spain, which only solidified the final conclusions of this research: international students undergo a remarkably similar set of social challenges no matter the country they choose for their studies. This is due to a tendency for students of all nationalities to prioritize relationships with peers from their respective countries; no matter if they are a part of the local or the international group.

By Zuzanna Tabakiernik

April 23, 2024

*The names of the interviewees remain anonymous to the public, yet disclosed to the interviewer, who pledged anonymity to all participants as part of her sociological research.

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