The ultimate A-Z guide to Swedishness

Oliver Gee
Oliver Gee - [email protected]
The ultimate A-Z guide to Swedishness
What does it mean to be Swedish? Photo: Emelie Asplund/

Is it ever possible to truly understand the Swedes? Contributor Oliver Gee says he has been "observing Swedes at close proximity for around eight years", and attempts to sum them up in this A-Z guide.


A is for Atheists

Swedes don’t have much time for church, with a study last year finding 42 percent of Swedes are "religiously unaffiliated". That was one of the highest figures in the Europe-wide survey, and fewer than one in ten residents of the Scandinavian country said they attended church at all.


B is for Business leaders

It was tough to resist the easy 'b' of blonde here, but beyond the classic stereotypes of blue eyes and fair hair, Sweden is increasingly becoming known as a top spot for doing business. In Forbes' list of the best countries to do business, Sweden is ranked fourth, after holding the number one spot in 2016.

REVEALED: The best places in Sweden for businesses

C is for Cashless

If you’re heading to Sweden, don't bother exchanging your dollars, euros, or pounds, as a growing number of shops and businesses will only accept card payment (or smartphone payment apps). Two thirds of traders think they’ll have stopped accepting cash by 2030, a recent study found.

D is for Dancing queens

We couldn’t really do a list like this without a mention of ABBA, could we? As cheesy as you may think their songs are, the Swedes hold a very special place in their hearts for the fantastic four who put the country on the musical map, and news of their upcoming reunion brought a smile to the faces of many. 


A post shared by @abbaofficial on Jun 6, 2018 at 3:11am PDT

E is for Environmentally aware

Sweden is very green indeed. Swedes recycle close to 100 percent of their household wastes, sometimes even importing waste from abroad so they have something to burn, and have invested significantly in renewable energy.

F is for Fika

Coffee and cake might be enjoyed around the world, but in Sweden a fika break is something more than that. Swedes will often get misty-eyed when talking about the pleasures of indulging in a good fika and take extreme pride in their country's take on the afternoon coffee break.


G is for Gender equality

Sweden is one of the most gender egalitarian countries on earth. They’ve added a gender neutral pronoun, ‘hen’, to their dictionaries, have the world's first self-proclaimed feminist government, and hold the strongest views on gender equality according to a 2017 EU study

H is for Hugging

Forget the handshake, forget the kisses, it’s hugs all the way for the Swedes -- in informal settings, at least. When you’ve spoken to a Swede for more than five minutes, you’re destined to hug them hello and goodbye forevermore. 

OPINION: Why I can't embrace Sweden's obsession with hugging

I is for Ikea

Ikea is one of the most successful Swedish-founded companies of all time, and though its headquarters may have moved to the Netherlands, it still holds a place in many Swedes' hearts. If you're renting in Sweden, it's more than likely that the property will be furnished with the flat-packed goods. Swedes, as a rule, also love Ikea’s meatballs and are quite likely to know the unusual names used for some of the pieces of furniture. Test them, you will be surprised.

J is for Jeans

Strolling down a Swedish street it can almost seem as if the country's residents have a uniform, and it’s made up of jeans on the bottom half (with a monochrome top). Casual or business, jeans are the single must-have if you’re looking to fit in with the Swedes, young or old, male or female. And keep them fairly slim fitting if you really want to match the locals.

K is for Kings of Tech

OK, OK, 'technology' doesn't start with a 'k', but hear me out. Thanks to tech mammoths like Klarna and King (both beginning with K), Sweden has dominated the Nordic Tech scene and has made Sweden famous for innovation around the world.

L is for Latte pappas

Walk around a Stockholm park on a weekday and you’ll likely see dads of all ages with a latte in one hand pushing a baby in a stroller with the other. Why? Well, Swedish dads get generous paternity leave (more on this later) and Swedes are among the biggest coffee consumers in the world. Makes sense, but if you're from a country where paternity leave is less common, it's quite a sight to behold.

M is for Melodifestivalen

If you thought the Eurovision Song Contest was over the top, you might groan when you learn that the Swedes take it a step further. In the weeks leading up to Eurovision, Sweden has a massive televised competition to determine who will represent Sweden. Melodifestivalen draws large crowds and has Swedes glued to their TV screens on Saturday nights, so it's a must-watch if you want to join in with fika break chat in spring.

Benjamin Ingrosso won the 2018 edition of the contest. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer / TT

N is for Number-obsessed

Ask a Swede to describe their house and they might say it's a two or a '39 square' (meaning a two-room or 39 square-metre flat). They refer to the weeks by their numbers, and can often tell you exactly which week we're in without thinking twice. You might be surprised to ask a young person their age and get the answer '95', but it refers to the year they were born. And the ten-digit personal number is quite literally their identity; it's impossible to do many things without this magic code. Yes, it's fair to say the Swedes love numbers.


O is for Outdoorsy

Looking for a Swede? Head outdoors. Sweden launched Europe’s first national park back in 1909, but even for centuries before that, spending time in the great outdoors has been a major part of the Swedish lifestyle. And it's no wonder: four in five Swedes live within five kilometres of a national park or nature reserve, and the country boasts some of the best hiking trails in the world.

P is for Parent-friendly

Remember those latte pappas? Swedish parents are offered 480 days of paid parental leave, which is likely to astound those from countries with less generous policies. What’s more, each parent has an exclusive right to 90 of those days, meaning they both get the chance to spend one-on-one time with their child.

Q is for Queer

Sweden often comes at the very top of rankings of LGBT-friendly spots to live or visit. Gay marriage has long been legal, there’s a thriving gay scene in the larger cities, and the pride parades are a spectacle to behold each year.

R is for Royal family fans

This seems like a glaring paradox to anyone familiar with the Swedes' reputation for modernity, equality, and rationality, but they will gather in large numbers to cheer their hereditary monarch as he passes by on a gilded horse-drawn carriage.

The royal family take a group photo. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

S is for Systembolaget

The state-run alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, was created to minimize alcohol consumption. It's the only place you can stock up on drinks with an alcohol content above 3.5 percent, and its limited opening hours mean long queues before closing time. Say goodbye to buying alcohol from shops on Sundays, public holidays and Saturday afternoon, and say hello to expensive drinks. 

T is for Tall

The average Swedish man is 181.5 centimetres tall, enough to put them up among the top ten tallest people in the world. Women, at an average of 166.8 centimetres, aren’t far behind. 

U is for Unspontaneous 

I hate to include a negative point here, but unfortunately most Swedes aren't the kind of people to appreciate a knock on the door and finding out that their neighbour has come around for an unscheduled visit. Often, they may not even answer if you turn up unannounced. It’s probably to do with the fondness for efficiency, but means less organized newcomers should remember to schedule meetings with Swedes well ahead of time. 

V is for Volvo

Like Ikea, Volvo is no longer technically Swedish after being acquired by a Chinese group, but the car brand is still very popular in its home country. The Swedish dream is sometimes said to be owning a "villa, Volvo, vovve" (house, Volvo, and a dog). 

W is for Winter survival

In case you hadn't noticed, Sweden can be deathly, deathly cold. The temperature once hit -58C somewhere in northern Sweden. The rest of the country doesn’t get that cold, of course, but it’s regularly sub-zero in the winter months, with snowfall sometimes as late as April and May even in the south. But on the bright side, the Swedes tackle it with courage, cunning coziness (not to mention excellent central heating), so your winter experience shouldn't be too tough.

X is for eXpensive

If we’re going by the Economist’s Big Mac index, Sweden is the third most expensive place on earth, behind only Switzerland and Norway. The ubiquitous double-decker burger now costs $5.26 (48 kronor), and most of the rest of the things on sale here, from clothes to property to alcohol, are eye-wateringly expensive too.

Y is for Yes

If you’re going to understand the Swedes, now is as good a time as any to learn one of their linguistic idiosyncrasies. In the far north, instead of saying "ja" for the word "yes", they make a fascinating little sharp intake of breath. It still means 'yes', but it will baffle you if you’re not expecting it. 


Z is for Zlatan

Love him or hate him, footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic put Sweden on the sport map for the first time since Björn Borg. Zlatan gave cab drivers around the whole world a topic of small talk for when they have a Swede in the taxi, and gave Swedes something to be proud of when the conversation switches to football. 


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 2021/04/19 13:17
Thank you for a very pleasant and positive article. As for N for Numbers, I can't resist adding the obsession with the exact temperature, like "Det var 4,2 grader på balkongen I morse." For some reason, I chuckle every time.

See Also