Sweden and Unspoken Rules

5 faux pas to avoid in Sweden.

I did a lot of research before moving to Sweden in 2018. I read books, picked the brains of my Swedish friends, and had informational interviews with alumni from my university who were living in or from Scandinavia. But there are some things no one warned me about before moving to Sweden.

So I am here today to give you a fair heads up about these unspoken rules of life in Sweden!

Five Swedish faux pas to avoid

Save the final piece

In America, we can have quite a selfish and individualistic mentality. It can be once of “take” instead of “give”. Honestly, I think it stems in large part from the lack of a social safety network. The thinking can go something like: If you want something, you need to take it because no one will give it to you for free.

In Sweden, however, there is a more communal mentality. We all share and benefit from the resources around us and no one is entitled to more than anyone else. This belief comes though in everything from salary equality, the right to roam freely in nature (read my full post on Allemansrätten here), and paying high taxes into a social system that provides affordable healthcare, schooling, and parental benefits to all.

All of that to say, Swedes are careful to not be too greedy when it comes to sharing food. If you find yourself at a pizza party with some Swedish friends, there is a good chance one slice will be left to get cold in the middle of the table.

Swedes never want to take the last piece without a nice hearty discussion around it. First, someone might cut the final slice in two, thereby taking some and leaving some. Once the slice can’t reasonably be cut any smaller, a discussion will break out asking each and every person around the table if they would like the last piece. Only after consensus has been established (which Swedes are famous for), will someone finally take the last piece of now-cold pizza.

So if you find yourself invited to a Swedish dinner party, out to dinner with some Swedish friends, or at a work event with Swedes, be ready to stare longingly at the last piece of anything and go through the dance of politely offering/refusing/splitting the final piece.

Wear nice socks

In Sweden, we never wear shoes in the house. Being that it feels like it is Winter most of the year here, our outdoor shoes are often wet, caked with mud and snow, or just generally dirty. Who would want to track all of that filth into the house?! Like many other Europeans, Swedes know to ditch their smutsiga skor (dirty shoes) by the door.

This habit wasn’t that hard for me to adopt as my partner, who’s grandmother and father were born in Japan, already had us practicing this in the US. But it is good to remember that your shoes will come off and your socks will be on display. Save the grimy ones with the hole in the toe for working in the garden and instead break out some cozy cuties like these.

Stand, rather than sit

When I first took the bus in Sweden, I sat in an open seat next to a stranger and began my journey. I soon realized that this was not the typical course of action. More and more, people chose to stand rather than sit in an open seat next to another passenger!

I think this comes from the personal bubble of space all Swedes seem to have. Generally, you don’t walk too closely behind someone on the street…They will stop dead in their tracks without a moment’s notice! One of the most annoying things I’ve found Swedes do, which says a lot about how great this country is. And that personal bubble of space extends to the buses and trains.

When possible, a Swede will always select an empty row of seats or stand rather than sit next to a stranger. Of course, when the buses or trains get quite crowded people will take any available seats. And this rule also has an exception for those who take advantage of the accessible seats, such as those with walking limitations, pregnant people, and the elderly.

Known when to hug

Sweden has a reputation for being quite reserved, but I also find they are incredibly friendly and loving once you make it into their ~inner circle~.

In general, never hug a Sweden upon first meeting them. A handshake is clearly the way to go. But once you have met a Swede once in a social setting, especially a friend-of-a-friend at a party, be ready to hug out your hellos and goodbyes.

Of course, colleagues always provide a bit of a different circumstance to this general rule. While I typically greet the colleagues I work closest to with a hug, I do find, however, that Swedes generally open up for a hug after coming back from Summer vacation. I mean, we might not have seen each other for the better part of two months!

Maybe Swedes love the hug because they place high value on friendship and inclusivity? Maybe it is because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or cause any type of conflict? Either way, be ready to embrace the embrace.

Fun Facts:

  • As a bonus one, be sure to make eye contact while cheerings your drinks in Sweden! In the US, we generally look at the drinks rather than each other. But in Sweden, you should give a quick glance around the table to all of your companions as you say, “Skål!”
  • Most of these faux pas I enjoyed learning the “hard way” (which wasn’t very hard at all!). This is part of the beauty of moving to a new country and exposing yourself to all of the ways things are done differently. And I’ll definitely take a cleaner home and more hugs for the trade off of standing on the bus some days!

Tess’ Tips:

  • Interested in some Swedish socks? Check out Swedish Stockings, my favorite place to buy sustainable tights for work!
  • I have a whole post on Sweden and Friendship, which you can read here.

Hope you learned some new Swedishness today and I’ll see you in the next post!

  • This post was born from a discussion with colleagues, two Swedish and one Turkish. Together we compiled this list, all while enjoying some pizza (save for the last piece that was left untouched 😉). Thank you, Sevan!

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