What we believe about a place can often be more powerful than the hard facts. A country's reputation can influence everything from foreign policy to foreign investment – to whether or not people want to visit or live there.
One recent study by the Reputation Institute, a consultant and advisory firm specializing in reputation, sought to quantify the idea of the most well-thought-of countries. They measured 16 different factors – including being a beautiful and safe place to visit, and having friendly and welcoming residents, progressive policies and an effective government – via an online survey with more than 48,000 residents in the G8 countries, representing the world’s eight leading industrialized nations. The 55 countries rated as part of the survey include those with the largest GDPs, largest populations, and countries with relevant events.
To find out if the reputation matched up to the facts, we talked to residents and expats living in the top five reputable countries.
Newly ranked as the most reputable country in the world (knocking out Canada), Sweden hits all the marks of being safe, welcoming and beautiful, according to its residents. The county is also unique in Western Europe, having been spared from much of the impact of World War II and remaining neutral today.
"Swedes seem to be happy with this independent status, while at the same time being one of the most welcoming countries for refugees in all of Europe," said Dr Ernest Adams, an American-born British citizen who lives in Sweden part time as a consultant and a senior lecturer at Uppsala University. "This is a virtue they have had for a long time – they saved almost all of Denmark's Jews during the war."
Most expats live in Stockholm where the business and government hubs are located. English is commonly spoken, though some expats initially feel that residents can be standoffish.
"But after being here a while, you begin to realise that people like to keep themselves to themselves and they afford that respect to others too, for better or worse," said Kat Trigarszky, current resident and author of an An English Mamma in Stockholm. "It's quite usual not to know your neighbours at all well."
Entertainment and luxury items can be quite expensive in the city (VAT is 25%, and residents regularly complain about the high price of alcohol, which averages around 130 krona a cocktail). Still, many Swedes cook at home, and save on car costs by using the country's vast and affordable public transportation network.
Despite dropping to second on the list, Canadians speak more positively than ever about their home country, especially as the government continues an "arms wide open" approach to Syrian refugees.
"There's a national concern to ensure that those who have suffered so much can rebuild the lives they deserve," said Jeremy Arnold, a native and frequent Quora author on life in Canada. "The average Canadian is defined by their zeal to see our inclusive and communal way of life protected. We love seeing the videos of Syrian immigrants enjoying their first Canada Day."
Canada also scores high for being one of the world’s safest countries. That doesn't mean it's without its problems. "It isn't a utopia. We have crime. We have gangs," Arnold explained. "But we also have a strong social safety net and a shared commitment to values like mutual respect and joyful multiculturalism."
Almost all Canadian residents live in cities that are within 100 miles of the US border, making it especially easy for American expats to come and go. "We also have fairly open visa policies for member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations," Arnold said. Vancouver and Toronto are perennial favourite expat spots, but many choose to live near friends and family or where previous generations of a country's expats have settled.
While both Vancouver and Toronto are expensive cities relative to world prices, Canada in general is relatively affordable compared to many other developed countries. Even the big cities can be navigated affordably by living a little further away from main amenities, said Arnold.
While natural beauty may be a matter of luck, factors like friendly residents and progressive policies come down to a country's wealth and culture, both of which Switzerland has in spades, explained Jason Li, who lived in Switzerland for three years and now lives in Canberra, Australia.
"It’s needless to say that Switzerland is a wealthy country. It has a long tradition of organized hospitality ever since the days of the grand tours of the English aristocracy and Thomas Cook’s first organized tours of the country in 1841," he said. "Twenty percent of Swiss residents are expats, and tourism is a significant industry, so those who work in hospitality and tourism are accustomed to dealing with foreigners."
While many expats end up in business centres like Geneva, Basel and Zurich, Li found himself partial to Lausanne, located in 60km east of Geneva.
"Unlike Zurich or Geneva, it is university town that is not dominated by industry," said Li. "Students from UNIL [Université de Lausanne] and EPFL [École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] provide the energy and thrust, and it has one of the best nightlife scenes in Switzerland."
Despite Switzerland being consistently ranked as one of the world's most expensive countries, residents do get the benefit of rent control and universal healthcare.
The land down under is loved by residents for its feelings of safety, security and peacefulness, driven in some part by the country's stance on firearms.
"Australia banned guns few decades back, which means that gun violence is minimal," said Ganesh Krishnan, originally from India who currently lives in Melbourne. "Here in Melbourne we can be assured that we can walk free of fear anytime, night or day, on the streets."
Retired US Navy sailor Pedro Vasquez feels similarly from his three years stationed in Canberra, praising the illegality of firearms. "This is very important to me because as someone that values life, I do not want to put mine at risk," he said. "I also like that Australians care so much about the environment and about animal welfare. Of course, it helps that Australians are such a friendly bunch."
Melbourne has been ranked as one of the world's most liveable cities, largely due to its extensive public transportation system that covers the city and much of the suburbs. Family-friendly Perth and economic hub Sydney also typically top the list of cities that attract expats from around the world.
The country tends to be very affordable to live, with universal and high-quality health care and government-funded tertiary education.
As a safe and scenic country, Norway more than lives up to its reputation according to residents.
"The prejudices about Norway are all true: the people are beautiful, gender equality is anchored in daily life and the natural scenery is breathtaking," said Barbara Schwendtner, an Oslo resident from Austria, and a guide for Your Local Cousin, a travel startup that matches travellers with locals. Norway is also a rich country, and is both investing oil money in development and saving in funds for future generations.
Expats also fit in here easily; residents don't really distinguish between locals and those who've moved from abroad. Most residents choose to live in Oslo, which is not a very big city, so activities usually congregate around the city centre.
No matter where they live, Norwegians spend plenty of time in the fresh air. "Norwegians are crazy about the outdoors!" Schwendtner said."They love to be outside, go cross-country skiing in winter and hiking in summer. The activity level of the population is extremely high, with gym memberships often offered to employees."
That love for the outdoors can be a good thing, especially as other activities can be quite expensive. "While one can dine out several times a week in other countries, the same lifestyle is certainly not recommended in Norway," Schwendtner said. "Naturally, people try to find leisure activities for less money, such as training or enjoying nature."