Here’s what Swedes say it takes to be truly Swedish

The struggle to try to integrate is one many internationals experience, and Sweden is no exception. So what exactly does it take to be considered truly Swedish, according to the Swedes themselves?

Here's what Swedes say it takes to be truly Swedish
Swedish National Day celebrations in 2016. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

The results of a new survey by the Pew Research Centre help provide an answer, with Sweden among the nations quizzed on the importance of issues like cultural norms, country of birth and language to national identity.

The good news for Sweden's foreign-born population is that one of the the things it's impossible to change is of little importance, with few Swedes making a strong connection between the place someone was born and their national identity.

Less than one in ten (eight percent) of Swedes polled responded that “having been born in our country is very important for being truly Swedish”, the lowest of the 14 countries which were asked the question.

That is also less than the European median of 33 percent, and way below the 52 percent of Hungarians and 50 percent of Greeks who answered that birthplace is very important to be truly considered one of them.

Relatively few say national identity is strongly tied to birthplace

Customs and traditions are also given little importance by the Swedes when it comes to assigning national identity, according to the survey. Only 26 percent of Swedes polled said that was the case, which again was the lowest of the 14 nations asked that question. Hungary had the highest level of agreement (68 percent) followed by Greece (66 percent).

There was however a notable difference in opinion on that issue depending on political sympathies. The survey showed a 24 percentage point difference on the importance given to Swedish customs and traditions by sympathizers of the populist Sweden Democrats (SD) compared to those who see the party unfavourably.

Of those who view SD favourably, 44 percent said sharing national customs and traditions is very important for being truly Swedish, while 20 percent of those who have an unfavourable view of SD said that was the case.

Similar divides were found when responses from sympathizers of Ukip in the UK and the National Front in France were compared with those who see the parties unfavourably.

Europeans favoring right-wing, populist parties more likely to see culture as very important to identity

The survey suggests that Sweden's reputation as a largely secular country is deserved. Only seven percent of Swedes think being a Christian is essential to their national identity, the lowest of the 13 nations asked that particular question. The majority (57 percent) said religion is not at all important to being a Swede.

Age also played much less of a role in Sweden in shaping that view than in many other countries. The 'oldest-youngest' gap in the country (the difference in opinion between those aged 18-34 and those aged 50 plus) on that subject was one of the lowest of the nations surveyed, with only eight percent more of Swedes aged 50 plus answering that Christianity is very important to national identity compared to those aged 18-34. In Greece there was a 26 percent difference.

Older people more likely to see link between Christianity and nationality

So what exactly do Swedes think is important to be considered truly Swedish? Don't be fooled by the Swedish love of speaking English: according to the survey, the majority still think that being able to speak Swedish is key, with 66 percent saying speaking the national language is very important for being truly Swedish. Only two percent said it was not at all important.

The importance given to language was not unique to Sweden however. The majority in each of the 14 countries polled on the question said the same, and the median across Europe was 77 percent.

Language seen as most important requisite of national identity

There does appear to be a generational shift taking place on the issue in Sweden though, with the youngest generation 23 percentage points less likely than the oldest generation to say language is very important to being Swedish. In the Netherlands the difference was 11 percentage points.

The moral of the story? Learn the local language if you ever want to be considered truly Swedish. At least for the foreseeable future, anyway.

For members


‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT


Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden