Swedes are an interesting bunch. They're efficient but they love a good coffee-break, they're humble but they hang flags on their front porches, and they can appear cold at a glance but are as warm as an Arctic sauna when you really, really get to know them.
And to me, they're also quite odd.
After my four years in the country, I've collected what I found to be their most unusual habits. I've touched on some of them before – click the links to read more.
It is customary to stand at least one arm's length from another Swede at a bus stop. Photo: TT
This is one of the first things I noticed about the Swedes. Over the years, I've learned that there are definitely exceptions… but they're shockingly rare. So rare, in fact, that when an elderly man recently wished me a Merry Christmas, I clutched my wallet closer in case he was about to rob me. Swedes don't like small talk and they just don't do it. I once asked an etiquette expert for her thoughts, and she told me that pleasantries just aren't a Swedish specialty.
I like this obscure little obsession. Ask a Swede to describe their house and they could say it's a two or a 39 (meaning a two room or 39 square-metre flat). They refer to the weeks in numbers. The 10-digit personal number is quite literally their identity. If you ask a younger person their age they might say 95 (because that's the year they're born). I've put it all down to efficiency, perhaps much like the lack of small talk.
3. Pride in the words fika and lagom
It is customary in Sweden to take at least four “fika” breaks each day. Photo: TT
I'm a self-proclaimed word nerd but I always found this weird. Fika (“a coffee and cake break”) and lagom (“just the right amount”) are the least interesting “untranslateable” words in the Swedish language but for some reason, they're the most loved. Swedes don't generally brag, but they get a tingly warmth in their eyes when they explain these words to foreigners.
But come on Swedes, you've got better unique words than that. Like “knullrufs” (when your hair gets messy after sex) or “traska” (when you pay for everyone's beers at the bar and leave without mentioning it). Yes, there are many better untranslateable Swedish words. Here are ten others I found. And nine more. Now let's stop going on about fika and lagom, once and for all. But on the topic of weird language habits…
“En kaffe, tack,” says the customer. “Here you go, have a lovely day,” replies the waitress. Photo: Shutterstock
Swedes love to answer in English when they're speaking to a foreigner. Even if your grammar and word choice are perfect in Swedish, a hint of an accent often means you're going to get an answer in English. It's tough, because practice is the only way to learn. One Swedish expert says it's the height of rudeness to answer a Swedish attempt with English, but I'm not sure. It could be another efficiency thing, to get the conversation moving more swiftly. But one thing's for sure, it's a strange habit.
Oliver Gee meets with Sweden's etiquette queen Magdalena Ribbing on Nyhetsmorgon
Just when you thought the Swedes were cold and ruthlessly efficient, the Swedish Hug comes along. This is how it works: If you talk to any Swede for more than five minutes, they automatically become your Hugging Friend Forever (HFF). You have to hug them every time you see them from that moment on (and again when you say goodbye). I'm serious.
My initial thoughts about this cuddly phenomenon landed me a place on breakfast TV talking about it with my hero – Magdalena Ribbing – who's now apparently my HFF too (see pic above). I still find the hugging to be a bit odd – strange enough to be the last of the five weirdest Swedish habits. But after four years in Sweden, I have learned to embrace both the habit and the Swedes. At last.
These were my final observations about this freezing and fantastic country. The Swedes sure have their share of idiosyncracies, and I love them for it.
Tack och hej då.