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How to be Swedish – in ten easy steps

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How to be Swedish – in ten easy steps

Matthias Kamann, the author of 'How to be Swedish: a quick guide to Swedishness in 55 steps' shares his ten best tips for Swedifying yourself.


1. Drink a lot of strong coffee

Winters in Sweden are long and dark. To get some extra energy and heat, Swedes found coffee to be the drink of their choice.

Swedes really love coffee, they drink an average of 3.2 cups a day. It is an essential part of their daily routines. One in the morning, several at work, and in the evening one cup (to avoid falling asleep during an episode of Wallander).

But beware, Swedes don't drink their coffee the way you used to in your old country. Swedish coffee is strong. Very strong. So strong indeed, you will notice when you pour your standard amount of milk into the cup but your coffee strongly resists turning from black into brown. Basically, you can consider Swedish coffee a bit stronger than Espresso and slightly weaker than tar.

That said, the first time you try Swedish coffee, only try a little Espresso-size mug, to find out which impact it has on your digestion. Just make sure you drink your coffee with a toilet within a few seconds' reach. So, get your digestive system prepared for your 3.2 cups of strong coffee per day!

Once you're used to Swedish coffee, every other coffee in the world will taste like black coloured water.

READ ALSO: 18 mistakes foreigners make when first moving to Sweden

2. Take off your shoes

You've received an invitation to come over to a Swede's home. You are a bit nervous because you're not used to Swedish culture and customs yet. You ring the doorbell and your Swedish friend opens the door for you. You say "Hej!" and your friend says "Nämen, hejjj! Välkommen in!"

What do you do once you have stepped over the oversized door sill onto a fine door mat? Right. You take off your shoes and place them carefully in front of the vast shoe collection sorted in a practical two-level skohylla (shoe shelf) under the coat rack.

If you're not used to taking off your shoes at home, you want to make sure not to embarrass yourself with socks that not only look like Swiss cheese but maybe even smell like it.

So, make sure to always wear a pair of fresh, immaculate socks when you visit a Swede!

3. Find it difficult to receive a favour

Swedes have good personal qualities. They can be generous and welcomng. Plus, many Swedish people have a good memory.

In combination this means Swedes can remember that you bought them a beer, even if it's a while ago and that they haven't bought one back for you yet.

When you're out in a pub or a club with a Swede, it's completely fine if you buy them a drink. But have a look at a Swede's face when you indicate to the waiter that you are paying for both. Your Swedish friend will make the same facial expression as a student trying to memorize vocabulary. If they won't have the chance to invite you to something that same evening, they will take care to equalize the debt next time you meet, even if that is just for a fika. You bought him or her a beer in a Swedish pub before? Expect the best latte macchiato with cream and syrup in return. Remember, alcohol is expensive in Sweden.

A way to reduce the feeling of guilt, in situations of receiving a favour, is to say "thank you" a lot. "Tack, tack, tack-tack!"

So, if a Swede ever invites you out for something, or buys you a beer, don't forget to return the favour within an appropriate time… say, the same evening or at the latest the next time you meet for a fika.

4. Fear magsjuka, stomach flu

No one wants to be ill. Including Swedes. But there is one illness they particularly try to avoid, "magsjuka", the stomach flu.

What happens when you have magsjuka? It's when the content of your digestive system splits up into two parties. One leaving your body the way it entered it. The other party taking the backdoor. Both in a hurry. Which makes you hurry to the bathroom, and stay there for a while until you can return to your bed, drink tea and continue watching streamed movies from the internet.

It is also a bit unpleasant to have, because Swedish people around you will treat and avoid you as if you were a zombie.

In Sweden you often hear the word magsjuka in connection with the following words…

- don't go to work!

- äckligt (disgusting)

- handsprit (hand sanitizer)

- var är toan? (where is the toilet?)

Well maybe not the last point, since people who have magsjuka, and move around in public, usually don't admit they have it.

Have some fun, go on public transport during rush hour. Pretend you're calling a friend and say loudly and clearly "My doctor just told me I have magsjuka". Then, enjoy the reactions of the people around you and pick your favourite seat.

So, beware of magsjuka, use plenty of handsprit and hold your breath as long as someone stands closer than an arm's length in front of you.

READ ALSO: Ten weird taboos you must never break in Sweden

5. Have a fredagsmys, cozy Friday

Swedes take their work very seriously. They arrive on time. They leave on time. To recover from a stressful work week some Swedes decided to introduce a relaxing activity on Fridays, called fredagsmys, literally "Friday coziness".

Ideally a fredagsmys happens right after having tacos for dinner. Having tacos for dinner is called a tacokväll, "taco evening". Which is a great compromise if two people in a relationship haven't been able to agree whether to eat pizza or sushi that evening.

Finding the right food for a (hopefully) romantic and relaxing Friday still tends to be less difficult than finding a TV show or movie both parties agree on. Important: Don't forget some crunchy snacks! Chips (that's crisps for British readers) are widely associated with a fredagsmys in Sweden. Rumour has it that chips producer OLW came up with the idea of fredagsmys to promote their snacks. Their TV commercial included a catchy melody that every Swede knows: "Nu är det freeedagsmyyys…". Just ask a Swede and they will hum it for you (with slight embarrassment).

So, it's Friday (soon), put on your comfy sweatpants and gather with other family members or your partner in front of your TV and satisfy your need for snacks, entertainment and cuddling.

READ ALSO: Six things Swedes get tired of hearing abroad (seriously)

6. Be bad at small talk

It's maybe not too uncommon that people get easily nervous when they have to talk to strangers. But what's a bit different with the Swedes is that they even feel uncomfortable talking to people they have already met before.

If you're in Sweden and start talking to a stranger on the street or on a bus, you might be perceived as a weirdo. Swedes will reply politely and answer all your questions with a friendly smile on their face. But, please, try to round off the conversation as soon as the Swede takes a longer look at the mobile phone while you're talking.

Of course they can talk a little when they meet a friend. But when they meet someone that's just an acquaintance, they do everything to avoid an awkward small talk conversation. One trick Swedes often use to avoid talking to you: they avoid eye contact.

It can actually happen that a person you've met before just passes by in the shopping street staring at the screen of their phone or simply in another direction. No worries, totally normal in Sweden! Don't take it personally, they do it with their fellow "old-Swedes" as well.

So, whenever you bump into a Swedish friend, and accidentally make eye contact, simply talk about the weather. It's the safest way to do small talk with another Swede without making him or her feel awkward.

READ ALSO: Nine bizarre eating habits that confuse foreigners

7. Avoid your neighbours

You have moved into your Swedish apartment. Now, just like every Swede, once in a while, you have to leave your apartment. To shop laktosfri yoghurt, work or go to spinning classes at the gym.

Leaving your apartment, fellow soon-to-be-new-Swede, can put you in a tricky situation. To get to your bike or car, you first have to pass through the hallway of your apartment building. Danger zone. Why? Because you could bump into one of your neighbours. And you don't like to meet them because they might potentially attack you with small talk.

You don't want to waste your precious time engaging in dull conversations about the weather, do you? "Tjeeena! Vilket fint väder idag!"

On your way out, you first listen carefully or check your titthål (door spy) if a neighbour is currently patrolling in the hallway. If you hear steps outside, wait a few seconds!

To make the waiting time feel less awkward, check again if you have all your keys, wallet and mobile phone with you. Then, if no one is outside, get out and quickly lock the door! Once you're outside the house, you're free.

READ ALSO: 12 Swedish words with awesome literal translations

8. Eat candy on Saturdays, lördagsgodis

Swedes have the highest consumption of candy in the world. Seventeen kilo, that's the amount of candy (including pastry) you'll have to eat to become an average Swede. But most Swedes, particularly the younger ones, are not allowed to eat candy whenever they want. Swedish parents prevent children from eating too much by adopting a rule they themselves learned as children: Sweets preferably/only on Saturdays.

The concept of limiting oneself to eating candy primarily on Saturdays is called lördagsgodis (literally Saturday's candy) and is very popular among Swedes, not only on Saturdays.

To get your weekly sugar dose, you first have to find the godisvägg, close to the cashier in your local supermarket. Godisvägg is the "candy wall". It's usually opposite the "chocolate shelf". Together they form the "sugar canyon". Before that you'll have to pass deep freezers filled with ice cream. Those 15 metres will certainly put your food discipline to a hard test.

READ ALSO: Nine chats that are only odd if you live in Sweden

9. Dream of living abroad (at least for a while)

Sweden is a small country. Not that small actually, at least when it comes to land area (more than 400,000 square kilometres). But with a population of ten million people, Sweden is considerably small. Although the country of Sweden is unarguably beautiful – thanks to its vast nature and eye-pleasing landscapes – Swedes tend to dream about living somewhere else, at least for a period of time, at some point of their life.

Because Sweden is a bit cold and dark in the winter, Swedes like to be in southern, sunny places. Many Swedes also consider themselves "a bit boring", therefore they seek out surroundings with more "passionate" and "energetic" people in countries with a more expressive culture. Often, Swedes want to feel free and discover the world – pretty much like their Viking ancestors did.

You, as a new-Swede, should get used to conversations with old-Swedes in which they tell you that they would love to work in a sunny country during the winter and then come back to live in Sweden during summer to experience this most wonderful of Swedish seasons.

Many Swedes travel right after school or after finishing their studies. Particularly those in their late teens or twenties will tell you that they want to travel through Australia in a mini-bus, work as an au pair or do an internship in the United States – especially in Los Angeles or New York – go backpacking in South America or work as a bar tender in London.

By the way, real Swedes are easy to recognize on a plane. Those otherwise so workday-alcohol-abstinent folks – once liberated from home-pressure and jante-mania – are among the first to order a little bottle of wine. Justifying their choice with the words "det är ju semester", "it's vacation after all".

So, choose your destination for your three-month (at least) trip… and don't forget to update your Facebook cover image or profile picture, showing you walking over Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking Machu Picchu or resting on the roof of a Volkswagen Bulli in the Australian desert.

READ ALSO: 14 things that shock French people in Sweden

10. Be safety-conscious

Good news for you if you also prefer things to be safe. Sweden really is the right place for you.

Swedish safety-thinking can be found in many places. For example, have a look at Ikea's assembly instructions – half of the pages are safety instructions, showing you how to install that shelf in a way so it won't tip over on your toddler. Yeah, those pages you usually skip reading.

The two areas Swedes are bad at when it comes to safety: elevators and sex.

Yeah, there are still elevators without the inside door. Get your shoe laces stuck in the door and your shoes are likely to be torn off your feet.

When it comes to sex, Swedes tend to take fewer precautions. No surprise then that the use of condoms among Swedes isn't as widely spread as chlamydia. Many Swedes avoid condoms even in casual encounters. In 2007 the EU warned about a special type of chlamydia from Sweden, it even got the name "Swedish chlamydia".

The absence of condom use is compensated for by the use of a safety item you can find in almost any Swedish wardrobe: the more and more popular "reflexväst", reflective vest. To become a real Swede you must own one and put it on when you walk outside in the dark. Which in winter is almost the whole day. According to many Swedes, this is necessary to avoid being killed in a car accident. The rising popularity of the reflexväst has the effect that almost all Swedish pedestrians, in winter, look like Minions.

All in all, living in Sweden is likely to be more safe than staying in bed.

READ ALSO: Eight things in Sweden that aren't so lagom

Matthias Kamann moved to Växjö from Germany as a foreign exchange student in 2005. He is the author of 'How to be Swedish: a quick guide to Swedishness in 55 steps' and runs the website. The article above is an adaptation of a blog entry first published here.


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