Warning: 8 faux pas to avoid committing as a newbie in Sweden

If you've lived in Sweden (or read The Local) for a while, you are probably familiar with the social norms. But for a newbie, certain quirks can be confusing. Brit Ellie Day recounts the mistakes she made when she first moved to Sweden – so you don't have to repeat them.

Warning: 8 faux pas to avoid committing as a newbie in Sweden
Don't be a semi-feral houseguest, learn the rules. Photo: willeecole/Depositphotos

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When you start to ingratiate yourself with a new community with unfamiliar social norms, it can be easy to unwittingly display behaviour which leaves you feeling about as welcome as Donald Trump at Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Whether you're already installed in Sweden, planning a move to the country, or simply toying with the idea of a few days spent here, spare yourself any etiquette-related blushes by avoiding the following:

Small talk with strangers

As anyone who has spent any length of time in London will know, talking to strangers is widely-acknowledged to be the reserve of mouth-breathing perverts and scammers. This attitude plays out pretty well in Sweden – striking up a conversation on the bus is unlikely to win you any new friends, but will certainly earn you some odd looks and extra seat room as people move to avoid you, helpfully allowing you additional space to wallow in the shame of your failed social interaction.

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Keeping shoes on in the house

If you're going into a Swede's home, the first thing to do is to take off your shoes when passing over the threshold. Sweden is often snowy and there is lots of rural terrain (think forests, lakes and puddles) – your host is likely to be reluctant to welcome both you and the clods of mud on your trainers into their homes. Dodge the reputation of being a semi-feral houseguest and take some slippers with you when you go to visit a friend.

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Confusing Sweden and Switzerland

Since moving to Sweden, a number of my friends and family have asked about whether the Swedish chocolate is really as good as it's touted to be. They're getting confused with Switzerland. It's a common mistake due to the two countries' similar names, which has, understandably, grated on both nations and led to the creation of this PR campaign last year involving taking tourists on a 'Swederland' trip to Switzerland accompanied by a Swedish tour operator. This was apparently to help the visitors to differentiate between the two countries, though this bizarre hybrid experience may have confused many further. A top-line guide for reference: Switzerland – skiing, chocolate, cuckoo clocks and mountains; Sweden: skiing, fika, Abba and forests.

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Arriving late

Tune your watch upon arrival – punctuality is built into the fabric of Swedish society. I once made the mistake of arriving to a lecture 10 minutes late and was greeted by a sea of disdainful shaking heads in the audience. A very sobering experience. Whether you're meeting a friend for lunch or attending a business meeting, arriving late is seen as a mark of disrespect, a sign that you don't value others' time. Observe the 'fashionably late' approach at your peril.

Owing money

Although happy to discuss money at length – whether salary, someone's recent house purchase, or the increasing cost of milk – owing money in Sweden is anathema. Potentially because it can result in awkward situations when one side has to ask for the money back, which feeds into the next faux pas…

Actively pursuing conflict

While complaining is considered something of a national sport in the UK, and it's not unusual to witness our neighbours in France pursuing colourful 'discussions' with gusto, Swedes will go to great lengths to keep the peace. The accepted wisdom here is that the only good conflict is an avoided conflict. A Swedish friend of mine once walked out of a hair salon with ginger hair when she had asked for blonde, loath to request a correction because the offending hairdresser is also her cousin's hairdresser and the connection could make the situation awkward for all involved. Swedes even have a non-committal word for those moments when you're uncomfortable pronouncing yourself for or against a subject – nja, meaning neither nej nor ja. The key word here is diplomacy, at (almost) any cost.

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Swedes' naturally tendency towards lagom – an understated, 'just enough' ethos – extends to their reluctance to speak too highly of their own achievements and abilities. The lack of hierarchy, relatively flat social structure and little collective or individual ego among Swedes means that anyone seen to be blowing their own trumpet unduly is considered fairly vulgar (figuratively speaking, that is: blowing an actual trumpet in Sweden is obviously completely fine).

Criticizing Eurovision

Granted, we all know the flaws in the system, the political undertones dictating who votes for whom, the consistently novelty-value songs, the bamboozling outfit choices. Maybe it's the afterglow of the Abba glory years, but Swedes dive into the whole process with a reckless abandon which is admirable – and you'd better do the same if you want to be invited to any Eurovision parties this year. There is no space for music snobbery in the Swedish Eurovision experience. From the much-hyped Melodifestivalen (the country's qualifying process) to the final show, if you don't want to become a social pariah, you've got to embrace what Eurovision throws at you, sequin-costumed gimmicks and all.

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