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Overcoming Loneliness With A Friend-Finding App
Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. What was your biggest struggle when you moved to your new country? For Melanie Aronson, an American in Sweden, it was overcoming this unexpectedly deep sense of loneliness. She felt it so strongly, she decided to make a friend-finding app called Panion to help others who were feeling the same way she was. Keep listening to hear all about Panion, and Melanie’s experiences in Sweden.
You’ve lived abroad a few times in your life. Tell me about what led you to move to Sweden.
Melanie: Yeah, so I have lived in Spain and Italy and, and the Middle East long-term, and then a few other countries for short periods of time, and honestly I had never thought about moving to any Nordic country! I like sun, and I’ve always liked kind of Mediterranean life. But I ended up in Sweden, half for love, and half for a film project that I was documenting about my love story (laughs), so it was like a very, very long story, but I ended up applying for a Fulbright scholarship, to make a documentary in Sweden related to integration, and it was at the height of the migration influx into Sweden, so there were a lot of people coming at once, and I was really interested in how people were integrating and like what their stories were like coming here, and like trying to fit into society.
So I got this grant from the US government to work at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, and to kind of tell people’s stories, or investigate people’s stories, and try to figure out like what’s going on with people like feeling at home in Sweden. And simultaneously I was new, so I was also struggling, so I could really really relate to the things people were saying, and I didn’t actually have an answer for them either, I was just kind of being, was reinforcing my ex-, my notions of like just the difficulties of integrating and like understanding like Swedish society, and like why it’s difficult for people to be different in society, based on the values of society and stuff like that.
So, it was very informative and interesting, but it also was like, I was living it also. So that kind of led me to where I am now, because I wanted to like find a solution for, for this issue, because everybody around me was kind of like, you know, how do I meet Swedes? How do I make new friends? How do I find like someone to play tennis with, like people were like, I have all this I want to do socially, but I don’t know who to do it with, or how to, you know, connect with people, and that was my experience as well, so.
Carlie: And you have developed an app called Panion, and we’re going to talk about that a little bit later on. But I’m curious about what aspects of Swedish society you did find difficult.
Melanie: Yeah, so, I moved here from New York City (laughs), a place where everybody is competing against each other to try to be more unique and to stand out and to kind of distinguish themselves from everyone else.
And I think the culture in the US is to, yeah, be different, and to work hard to get to the top. And part of the reason I left was because it was stressing me out, this kind of like rat race. There was a lot of greed involved. Sweden is the total opposite, and I’m realising I need something in the middle, I’m actually realising living in Sweden what the other extreme could be, and that I don’t like extremes (laughs), I like the middle balance, and like, you know, for example, society really like trains you to not engage in competition at all in Sweden.
Everybody’s the same, everybody’s equal, there’s something nice in the equality and the sense of equality, but there’s a lot of confusion as well. For example I’m in a start-up accelerator, and people have said, you know it’s hard in Sweden to find like the motivation, people with the motivation, and the like, people who see themselves succeeding in the big picture. They’re like ah yeah, I’ll do this, I’ll do this, create this product, and it’s good enough if people in Sweden like it, whereas like someone like, I’ll come in and be like no, the whole world’s gonna have my app in their pocket! And like, I dream so big because that’s what my society taught me.
In Sweden you’re kind of taught to not stand out, to be humble, to not impose yourself on anyone, to give people their privacy, to the point where you don’t make eye contact with them in the street even, you give them their space, and to me that’s quite lonely. Like I want to engage with people, I want to like acknowledge on the sidewalk that we’re sharing a space even for one second while we pass each other. And that’s something I really miss from the US, this feeling that you’re not alone out in the world, out in your street.
Carlie: I can only imagine how different that would have been for you, and a bit of a culture shock, but you said you came to Sweden at a time when there was a lot of migration happening. I can’t even fathom how that would impact people trying to really set up a new life from ground level in a new country. And that environment must make it so much more difficult in some ways.
Melanie: I think it depends where you are. I think where I live in Malmo, there’s a lot of initiatives to try to connect people. And there, it’s great, I think the problem is more on the societal level which is like, people here are very individualistic, they’re very shy, they like keep to themselves because they’re trying to respect your boundaries, not because they’re not friendly.
And there’s this like barrier that needs to be broken down, and I think a lot of people here are learning from, are shifting because of the immigrants, and I think a lot of the immigrants are shifting because of the Swedes, and people are kind of meeting in the middle. And that’s really nice.
But it takes a lot of time. At the beginning people who first, you can tell people who have first arrived because they’re really loud on the train, and they’re taking up a lot of social space. And then they start to like calm down and find their place and you look at yourself and, over time and see how much you’ve changed, especially when you go home to visit your family, and everybody’s just, like, when I go home to visit my family I’m like wow, I never noticed that like my family just argues all day long (laughs), like, they like to argue with each other, and they’re like loud and they’re so confrontational.
Carlie: They’re dynamic, they’re dynamic!
Melanie: Yeah. Before this I lived in the Middle East, and so I know what a lot of people who have come here, what kind of society they’ve come from, and it’s one where you know everyone in the street, where you know, you’re laughing, you’re smiling, you’re like shaking hands with everybody, like you see, and, and you’re shouting across the street to your neighbour, and it’s like very communal, and it’s such the opposite in Sweden. Like, you are considered almost like mentally ill or something if you like smile at a stranger! And so it’s been hard for me, but it’s probably not as hard as it’s been for some other people.
Carlie: How have you found your place in Sweden, and what have you done to integrate and break down those barriers?
Melanie: I think finding like what your industry is, what you love to do, and just inserting yourself there. I’m an artist, I’m a film-maker. Now I’m an entrepreneur. Like, there are big communities for those. And if you go and you say look, this is what I love to do, this is what I’ve created, I’m looking to collaborate, or I’m looking to you know, get to know the scene, I think that has helped a lot.
You know, finding those common interests, or those commonalities has... I’ve never really had to think so much about the types of people that I would connect with, or how to make friends in a different society. Like I don’t know, I’ve lived in countries where everybody is just like trying to get you to come to their home and feed you and, you know, it’s taken a lot of more conscious effort. But at the same time I’ve met a lot of really great people, and it’s because I’m like OK, well, I’m a film-maker, so let me find the film community. And let me like... I was really pushy, to be honest, I like, I pushed a lot, I went to companies, I went to events, I like kinda you know, I can’t imagine if you’re someone who’s not very good at networking or shy, that it’s easy.
It wasn’t easy for me and I don’t know, when I think about like my closest friends in Sweden they have come from either my like Swedish classes, or some sort of like programme that I’ve gotten into, or I’ve you know enrolled in or something, ‘cause that’s the only way really that you meet people is by like signing up for something. It hasn’t been easy. Which is why I created my app.
Carlie: So at what point did you decide to start working on this app?
Melanie: My lifestyle changed a lot when I moved here. I was in New York, it was like an hour commute when I was in grad school. You know, I suddenly moved to Sweden and in Malmo you bike everywhere, and suddenly I had this like freedom of being able to go anywhere quickly, and suddenly I had so much free time, ‘cause I was saving all this time in commuting, and like, really efficient when I ran errands and everything, and so I had all this free time and I kept, you know, trying to figure out how to meet people and going on like Tinder and these dating websites and being like, maybe I can find people to, like friends, and people to hang out with here. But I was like stifled by it, because I just wanted to like put in a key word. I wanted to put in like 'anthropology', and see everyone on Tinder that liked anthropology! ‘Cause I knew it would be like, anthropol-…
Carlie: (laughs) Must be a big pool!
Melanie: Yeah, right? And you know if they liked anthropology I would totally get along with them, as I studied anthropology, and the people I’ve met, we like have just this way of like talking about the world that’s very similar, and, and I just started thinking about, what if I could do this in this app, oh I’d be so happy! And started writing them down, and then we were like, there’s nothing that’s really there for people that move to new places.
You can use other tools to try, but I want something that’s specifically catered to me, and so, I just started reading all the reviews on like iTunes and stuff of the apps that were not doing what I wanted, to see if there were other people that also felt the same way. And there were, there were a lot of people being like, I just wanna meet other couples, ‘cause we just moved to France or something, how do we do that, or why does this app like only show pictures, like why can’t I like talk about interests, or why can’t I run searches?
Like all of these things that were what I wanted too, and so I just started to talk to people about my idea, like ah, there should be an app like this, yeah, I wish there was too. And I was like, I’m gonna make it. And then as soon as I declared that, every like few weeks I was getting phone calls from friends being like, is your app ready yet? I really need to use it! Like I’m really struggling. And it was more and more, like I just like put the word out that I wanted something like this and I was gonna try to create it, and suddenly like everybody’s holding me to it.
Carlie: Tell me a little bit about what this app does. Why would I download Panion and use it when I’m in a new city?
Melanie: It lets you see all the people around you and all of their interests and all of your overlapping interests. So, you know, imagine you could just go anywhere in the world and you would see everybody, you would know all the people around you and it’s like what their profile of interests, values, experiences, were. So we’re trying to find the right combination of understanding like what makes people compatible.
We don’t just want to say OK you both like tennis, you’re compatible. ‘Cause that’s clearly not true. So, part of it we’ve realised is, is your experiences in life as well. And so we’re trying to find the way to kind of take those into account, like things that you’ve witnessed, you’ve experienced, you’ve done in the world, this kind of thing, as well as things that you’re interested in, things you want to do with somebody else. And to find a combination that helps us like pinpoint like the most compatible types of potential friends out there.
So, you know, you can see, you can scroll through profiles, and filter for people around you. You can filter by an interest, so you could say like, yeah I wanna find everyone who wants to play squash, and then I can try to meet someone to play squash next week, or something. But you will see all of their interests, and filled in like in a solid colour you see all of your overlaps. So you can kind of see these people have a lot of things in common with me, these people don’t have as many things in common with me, and you can, yeah, run searches of combinations of key words to try to kind of pinpoint like the people that you would wanna start meeting.
Carlie: So it’s not like Tinder, it’s not meant to be aa dating app or a shallow superficial "Hey I’m here for 10 days, let’s catch up and hook up" kind of app.
Melanie: Yeah, it’s really, in my mind at the beginning I was like, this is like key word searchable Tinder with substance. Platonic Tinder with substance! (laughs) It’s more efficient, because you’re not, look I get bored swiping through so many profiles to find that one that I want to like. Like I just want to run a search, I want to narrow it down, I want to... and yeah like there are a lot of dating apps out there. But there are a lot of people that don’t want to date but still want to meet people.
Carlie: Where is your app in its development? Is it out and available for people to download now?
Melanie: Yeah, it’s available for the iPhone, and we’re working on an Android version as well.
Carlie: I assume the main users currently are in Sweden, would that be right?
Melanie: Most of the users are in Sweden and Denmark. We do have, you know, some downloaders all over the place, and some, quite a few in the US as well. But the way that you grow a social app is by concentrating on one specific, two specific cities at a time, ‘cause it’s an app where like, you know, you’re meeting people in person, so it benefits you when there are people in your area. So we’re starting with Europe, like right now we’re starting with Sweden and Denmark, and then kind of growing out, out to neighbouring countries little by little.
Carlie: Melanie, when you moved to Sweden did you ever imagine that you might end up developing your own app?
Melanie: No! (laughs) I really had no idea! I think, I worked for Apple for three years, and my brother actually works for Google, so we’ve been kind of like into technology. I like problem-solving, and I was like, and I like social issues, but technology background kind of seeped in when I was like, I want to solve this social issue, like if I move a lot, and this whole topic of loneliness has been like in the media a lot lately, and in Sweden there’s like a whole different type of loneliness I never knew existed. Probably because of the crazy amount of darkness. I experienced it, and I was just like wow, like, I never knew I could feel this type of loneliness, and I never knew I could see this type of loneliness in other people around me, like a loneliness that you can feel when you just stand in front of them. So I wanted to solve a problem. And then I thought OK, well, this is the way I would solve this problem, and then the technology part just kind of came into it.
Carlie: What have you learnt through this process?
Melanie: Yeah, I’ve learned that it’s extremely hard to create any sort of customer-facing product, especially when you have a small team. I really like marketing and like design, and so I created this big presence for our brand, a website, and like, you know, a lot of marketing material, and I think I kind of created the illusion that we were this really big company!
And so then when something technical goes wrong, there’s like a lot of expectation that you’re just gonna be able to fix it faster, that you have customer service people 24 hours a day like waiting, and there are many times I’ve just been sitting there alone answering every person’s, you know, question or complaint. And I think a lot of people don’t realise like how small many of these start up teams are, behind the scenes. How much they want to change, but it takes a while to, you know…
Carlie: You’re still at Amazon guy in the garage stage.
Melanie: I’m that stage, but people don’t know it, because I tried to paint this really beautiful picture of us being this trustable brand. And it almost backfired, ‘cause it was like, now there’s all these expectations on me, and I’m like doing it the best I can, I’m working like 14 hours a day just trying to catch up, and you get some really angry customers sometimes.
You have so many obstacles that no one knows about, and so I urge people when they’re angry, and a company maybe if it’s not like a big company, an Amazon or like Google, but if they’re angry at something, to consider the bigger picture. Errors take some time to fix when you’re small and when you, like, are trying to get funding, and when you, you know, have never done it before.
Carlie: What are you doing to combat a bit of that? I noticed on the Panion website there’s actually a blog. Is that one of the ways you’re trying to show a bit of the insider’s perspective to your app users?
Melanie: Yeah. And it’s gonna be two sides. One is talking about friendships, adult relationships, like what it means to try to rebuild your social circle when you move, what it means to like get rid of toxic relationships in your life, and the other is, I wanna be transparent about what it’s like to have a start-up, and the process.
Carlie: Are you as lonely in Sweden today?
Melanie: No, I don’t think so. I think there is this, just, this like blanket of loneliness which is almost part of like the culture, in a sense. And maybe it’s also the age, I’m in my early 30s, and I think you know yourself really well by now, so you know what you like in a person, and you know what you don’t. And that makes you lonely, because you’re more selective, in a sense, and it’s harder to find the people that really, you know, you want to surround yourself with.
So, I think it’s a yes or no question, I have a lot of people here that I really like, and I [unclear]. I have a lot of friends and people I can rely on. At the same time, I feel like, in those like really dark days, no matter how many friends you have, like, you still feel this, maybe it’s like a chemical thing, but you do, you feel like kinda isolated, and lonely, and people hide in their homes, and it’s there.
Carlie: What would you say are some positives about Sweden, and what advice would you give anyone moving to Sweden?
Melanie: Um, I really like the life-work balance here. I really think that I’ve learned from Swedish culture, and Swedish society, how to take a break, how to not work on the weekends if I can, how do I like have a boundary between like leaving my work at my work, and like my home is for me. In Sweden your home is like this very cherished place, so you spend a lot of time decorating it, you make it really cosy, you spend a lot of time in it during the winter, you light candles.
Being active, like being in nature, but finding this balance between working hard and playing hard. Relaxing, that’s one thing, and the other thing is like, one of my favourite things in Sweden is just the food quality is so high. There’s a lot of focus on like yeah, health, and being active, and being healthy, and it’s like you can eat really healthy food in a lot of places, and a lot of fresh food, and it’s not expensive, like in the US where you buy organic and it’s like triple the price. I can have a really really comfortable standard of living and very healthy lifestyle here, for a lot less money and like, I don’t have to search for it, it’s everywhere, it’s around me. Yeah, I mean that’s really, really nice.
Carlie: So obviously you’re focusing your app right now on Denmark and Sweden, and so any listeners in those countries should definitely download it and give it a whirl! How easy is it to set yourself up on this app?
Melanie: Yeah, it’s free, you download it. Right now it’s connected to Facebook. It’s just an easy way for us to verify people and to make sure they’re legit, but we will be adding other forms of log-on. So you just connect to your Facebook, we just confirm a bit of information and have you choose some starting keywords to define yourself with, and then you just dive in and you can start running searches and chatting with people. And then hopefully meeting them in person! (laughs)
Carlie: Yes, and starting those meaningful connections!
Melanie: Yeah, exactly.
Carlie: Well that’s it for this episode. If you have any questions for Melanie, or want to share your own thoughts on living in Sweden, head to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums and facebook groups. We’ve got more episodes about all aspects of expat life, from moving with [unclear], to handling your taxes, learning languages, educating your kids abroad. You’ll find them and more at expatfocus.com/podcast. You can also listen through your favourite podcasting app. And I’ll catch you next time!