list For Members

My Swedish habits that foreigners just don't get

Emma Löfgren
Emma Löfgren - [email protected]
My Swedish habits that foreigners just don't get
Swedish habits. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

Do the Swedes have certain habits you just can't work out? Here, The Local's Emma Löfgren, who returned to Sweden from the UK four years ago, lists some of the Nordic traits that leave her foreign friends bemused.


1. Numbering the year in weeks

Swedes like rules and context and not knowing what week we're in, in relation to the calendar year makes us uncomfortable. At least, that's my hobby anthropologist interpretation. Therefore, we have taken to numbering all the weeks of the year from 1 right up to 52. So instead of saying "the week starting Monday, April 20th" we will simply say "week 17". Not only that, but we will know instinctively what week it is without checking. If you want to cheat to keep up with your Swedish friends, there's a website to keep you in the know.

All weeks have their own special number in Sweden. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/SCANPIX

2. Avoiding small talk at all costs

These are the people I like to engage in conversation with: My friends, family, colleagues and my dog (not in that order). The rest I just put up with. As a good efficient Swede, I will use as many words as I need – and only as many words as I need – to communicate with other people, including-but-not-limited-to shopkeepers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, waiters, the person who picked up my wallet that I dropped, doctors, nurses, my dog's veterinarian, the person who accidentally stepped on my foot on the underground, my neighbours and dry cleaners. As a Swede, I don't understand the value of any extraneous words beyond the sufficiently polite "hello", "thank you" and "goodbye" to strangers.

Don't talk to a Swede if you don't know them. Photo: AP Photo/CTK, Ludek Perina

3. Talking about money, sex and toilet visits

By contrast, if forced to make friends with a stranger at a house party, say, there are very few subjects we would not be prepared to discuss, be it money, sex or bladder functions. Few things embarrass a Swede, and we will happily ask each other how much we earn or how much we paid for our apartment – and then proceed to discuss the property market at length. Equally, there are few taboos when it comes to sex talk in Sweden and it's common for people to open up about their experiences and sentiments. But before we get into that, I'm just going to get up to go to the toilet and tell you exactly what I'm planning on doing once I get there (only joking, this time).

No topics are off limits for a Swede. Photo: AP Photo

4. Using English words when Swedish would suffice

I hear this every day on the underground in Stockholm. Two Swedes (who both clearly speak fluent Swedish) talking to each other in their common language (which is Swedish) about something that happened in their common (native) country (Sweden), but randomly inserting English words and expressions even when there is a fully acceptable Swedish translation. For example: "Jag borde inte gå ut och festa på en onsdagskväll, men 'you only live once', som man säger." Translation: "I should not go out and party on a Wednesday night, but 'you only live once', as they say." I don't even know why this is. Having lived abroad for almost a decade, I can sort of pretend to get away with it. But really, I can't – and fellow Swedes, if you're reading this too, maybe you can't either. It makes us sound silly.

Are Swedes getting too good at English? Photo: AP Photo/Caleb Jones

5. Drinking a lot of coffee

It's no secret that Swedes are some of the world's biggest coffee drinkers, with on average three cups consumed per person every day. But there are also very intricate rules as to where and when you drink it. I could write a dissertation about this, but here are the basics: I drink a cup in the morning to wake up; if everyone else around the table has a cup, I will have one too for social reasons (this is egalitarian Sweden, after all); I always accept coffee when it is offered, because it is rude not to; and I even have a cup just before I go to bed to relax. Yes, of course I am still able to sleep, why would I not be?

Swedes love their coffee. Photo: AP Photo/Luca Bruno

6. Paying for our beer ourselves

As a fellow expat Swede pointed out, buying rounds is a habit you quickly learn to adapt to when you're abroad. However, in Sweden, the concept does not really exist and everyone buys their own drinks. My British friends in particular have been offended when I have gone to the bar without offering to buy them a pint. But this is neither about rudeness nor selfishness – just necessity. Alcohol is so expensive in Sweden that I can barely afford to buy my own beer, let alone seven of them for the whole table.

I'll just buy my own beer, thank you very much. Photo: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

7. Not wanting to be indebted to anyone

If you do buy me a drink, I will buy one back for you before long. Swedes like to split the bill down to the penny (öre) and we can't stand being indebted. It's not always a great trait, as we would rather fail than ask someone for help and then end up in their debt until we return exactly the same favour. So assuming that you forcibly put the money I try to hand you for that beer you bought me back in my wallet, rest assured that at the next afterwork I will buy exactly the same kind of beer for you. There, debt neutralized.

Swedes don't like owing people money. Photo: Margareta Kubista Gustavsson/TT

8. Being scared of conflict

In southern parts of Europe, close friends will argue openly on the street only to be seen laughing a few minutes later. Swedes don't do this kind of disorderly conduct. Even when we disagree, we would rather quietly shuffle away in a passive aggressive huff. But to minimize all risks of an argument, we just make sure that we never disagree on anything. Conformity and consensus are the two words you want to remember when dealing with Swedes. And know that if you do raise your voice at me, I will assume that you hate me and never want to see me again. You wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you?

Swedes don't like arguing. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

9. Enjoying a very strict consumption schedule

If you thought Swedes were boring and predictable, think again. We love letting our hair down and will party hard – but never on a week day. We will stuff ourselves with pick and mix without any sense of 'lagom' moderation – but only on a Saturday. Erm, yeah, okay, in fact most of the things we do are strictly scheduled. The increasingly popular Friday Night Taco Dinner only on a Friday, alcohol mostly on Fridays or Saturdays, herring only at Christmas, Easter and Midsummer, crayfish parties in August, and so on. We even have particular days for when we're allowed to eat such things as waffles and cinnamon buns (conveniently named Waffle Day and Cinnamon buns day). Rules help control the fun, apparently.

Waffle Day is widely celebrated in Sweden. Photo: AP Photo/Matthew Mead

10. Queuing everywhere, except on buses and trains

Swedes, like the Brits, love a good queue and we don't look kindly at queue jumpers (not that you would ever run the risk of being told off for it – see number eight on this list). But there's one exception: if you're waiting for a bus or a train, you are allowed to gather in a disorderly group and must remember to all get stuck in the door while attempting to get on as a simultaneous lump of people, lest the train leave without you. Don't worry about completely blocking the door to everyone trying to get off the train – it's all part of the game.

Swedes queue for everything except public transport. Photo: AP Photo/Thibault Camus


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

Anonymous 2019/08/05 15:01
Funny that but all so true.

See Also