SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

SWEDISH TRADITIONS

The ten weirdest taboos you must never break in Sweden

Blending in with the locals in a new country is never easy, so at least make sure you avoid these social faux-pas with The Local's handy guide to Swedish taboos.

The ten weirdest taboos you must never break in Sweden
Whatever you do, don't jump the queue. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

1. Don’t question the alcohol monopoly

Sweden’s state-owned alcohol retail monopoly Systembolaget is untouchable.

Don’t challenge it, or your Swedish partner and friends will launch into a tirade about how the selection of wines is really good, how knowledgeable the staff are, how it’s really not all that expensive (ha!) and how it keeps overall alcohol consumption down (which anyone who’s ever been to a Swedish party would sincerely question, see number six below).

Get in line, get on time and pick up that box of beer. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

2. Don’t leave fluff in the laundry room

Forget having your own car, summer house or private island. Owning your own washing machine is a sign you have really made it in Sweden. Until then you’ll have to wash your underwear in the communal tvättstuga (laundry room) and contend with all manners of passive aggressive notes from your neighbours, whom you otherwise never speak to. Spotted some fluff in the drum? About time you wrote your own laundry room note (tvättstugelapp)!

“I can’t believe Lasse left fluff in the dryer again!” Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

3. Don’t hog the butter knife

The Swedish butter knife, usually made of wood or colourful plastic, was invented for a reason. The butter knife is better. The whole table gets one to share between themselves and you simply have to wait for your neighbour to butter his or her toast before it’s your turn.

When you’re done, remember to put the knife back in the butter. Do not under any circumstances leave it on your own plate. Also, don’t try to avoid the problem by using your own dinner knife instead. This is not done.

Also, don’t use the butter knife for anything other than butter. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

4. Don’t drink until you’ve made eye contact with everyone

Cocktails? Wine? Champagne? Doesn’t matter. Any time there’s a toast you must make eye contact with every single person at the table before you take a sip. It’s not enough to look at their eyes; you must have impeccable timing or simply be very persistent until you have had that awkwardly intimate moment with everyone. You may then proceed to hide in your drink.

See how awkward he looks? Photo: Miriam Preis/imagebank.sweden.se

5. Don’t jump the queue

Swedes have been standing in line since the dawn of time. They love nothing more than grabbing a ticket and forming an orderly queue to buy pretty much anything. Attempting to jump to the front of the queue will be met with a sterner look than when meeting the taxman to tell them your tax return is late.

However, nobody will actually tell you off, because that would mean the Swedes would have to communicate verbally with a stranger (which coincidentally is another faux-pas not included in this list).

“Oh, a queue! I must join it.” Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

6. Don’t propose an alcohol-free Midsummer

We’ve totally got your back if you want to stay sober, but just be aware that you may get a few weird looks if you suggest skipping the booze for Midsummer. It’s a time to drop your kids off with the in-laws and meet up with your friends to do the frog dance, lip-synch badly to old Swedish tunes and embrace the national spirit.

By spirit we mean aquavit, for actually, Midsummer seems to be about getting completely sloshed by getting your hands on any booze still available before Systembolaget bolts up (don’t forget to observe number one and five in this list). There’s a reason it’s always celebrated on a Friday – so you can spend the rest of the weekend recovering in time for work on Monday.

The Swedish Midsummer frog dance. Photo: Henrik Holmberg/TT

7. Don’t have coffee at your desk during fika

The obligatory coffee breaks at many Swedish companies may start to wear you down, so you may want to sip on your caffeine fix at your desk. Don’t. This leads to collegial alienation and eternal social exclusion. The same goes for your hour-long lunch break which must be enjoyed in the office kitchen while discussing Volvos, sommarstugor (‘summer houses’, a Swedish favourite) and Ikea furniture. Oh, and remember that a Swede never says no to coffee

“… and then yesterday I came home to find fluff in the dryer!” Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

8. Don’t go on holiday in September

Didn’t you realise that the entire country grinds to a standstill for July and most of August too? Even many restaurants in some of Stockholm’s tourist hotspots close for the holiday season, while some newspapers take a break and turn off the printers for half the summer (as no news occurs during this time of year of course). Your boss is the only one who may appreciate your offer to stick around at the office for the summer, while he or she is off enjoying their sommarstuga.

Swedes enjoying the sun in Malmö. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

9. Don’t decline to take out parental leave

Staying at home with your newborn child for at least six months, usually more, is well ingrained into Swedish society. That goes for mothers and fathers alike, who are both entitled to at the very, very least three individual months which cannot be given to the other parent and are lost if they are not used.

So switch on your automatic ‘out of office’ email, bid goodbye to your colleagues and prepare for months of being allowed to have your coffee wherever you like (although not necessarily being able to drink it while it’s still hot).

Not taking parental leave is a big no-no in Sweden. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

10. Don’t eat the last biscuit at a dinner party

There’s a Swedish rule stating that a final morsel of cake must be left on the table at the end of every meal, with none of your humble Swedish friends wanting to be the one to think so highly of themselves to presume that they are entitled to it. If, after at least 15 minutes, nobody has made any claims to it, you can extend your arm very carefully, stop mid-air, pull your hand back slightly and say in a concerned voice “oh, sorry, does anyone want the last biscuit?” Nobody will say yes, and the biscuit is yours. Just be aware that you will forever be known as “that pushy foreigner” among your Swedish friends.

A good way of making sure nobody gets the last slice. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

SHOW COMMENTS