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How to visit your Swedish in-laws and get invited back

Meeting your in-laws for the first time is nerve-wracking in any country, but just so you're not taken by surprise: here's an informal set of rules and habits you may encounter if they're Swedish.

How to visit your Swedish in-laws and get invited back
Even in non-corona times, you may often find yourself spending time outdoors with your Swedish in-laws. Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

The first time I met my wife’s parents we had known each other less than a year, and she was already pregnant with our first child, which in some countries would guarantee an awkward introduction.

That it was the funeral of her much-loved grandmother made me even more fearful. 

But I was greeted with a hearty hug by her mother, and a gentle smile from her father, and then – without even a hint of the feared interrogation, I was immediately enlisted into helping lay out the tables where the many relatives and friends coming after the service were to be fed coffee and smörgåstårta

I imagine that most other foreigners who have come to Sweden for love have experienced something similar. Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experiences (with some help from my wife). 

1. Be informal 

New arrivals from some countries sometimes wonder how to refer to the parents of their beloved, as in some countries you might use some honorific, or the polite form of the word “you”.

Not in Sweden. Call them by their first names, and just say du. While some young Swedes are apparently increasingly using the plural version of “you” – ni – to address grand old ladies or gentlemen, you shouldn’t, and certainly not to your partner’s parents. 

Don’t call them Sir, Madam, or Mr and Mrs Svensson either.

You should of course be polite, though.

In Sweden this means sitting at the table for a long time before starting eating – longer, I feel, than would be the case in the UK. Just wait until the parents start eating themselves. 

And of course, it’s best to avoid controversial conversation topics, meaning it’s probably best not to talk politics to start off with, particularly the politics of religion or immigration. 

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2. Don’t expect a grilling 

In many countries – such as in the UK –  the first meeting with the parents of the object of your adoration is a sort of informal interview, where your suitability as a future son or daughter-in-law comes under scrutiny.

This is rarely the case in less hierarchical Sweden, where parents tend not to see themselves as having much say over who their children decide to pair off with.  

So if you are braced for a grilling, the meeting might come as a bit of an anti-climax, with your partner’s parents showing a bewildering lack of curiosity over your career, your educational achievements, or your parents’ social standing back home. 

This doesn’t mean they don’t care about you, it just means that they see it as up to their son or daughter to assess whether or not you meet the grade.

From the parent’s point of view, if you end up being a permanent fixture, they will have ample time to get to know your life story anyway. And if not, why waste time discovering it now?

In general, you should expect them to show slightly more curiosity in your background than the parents of a normal, ordinary friend would… but not much more.

3. Don’t try to sell yourself too much

Because of this same less hierarchical parent-child relationship, the parents of your boyfriend or girlfriend may feel as much under scrutiny as you do. 

So before you launch into an appraisal of your prospects at the law firm where you work, or detail your ground-breaking biochemical research, think for a little of how this reflects on them. 

If they, themselves, have never been big earners or achieved any academic glory, they might take your subtle boasts about your own achievements as an implicit criticism. 

Also, remember to ask them about themselves – in Sweden it’s less of an interview and more of a two-way get-to-know-you.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Jantelagen, the Swedish version of tall poppy syndrome, is alive and well. So the level of self-promotion that would be acceptable in countries such as the US, will be way over the mark.

By all means tell them what you do if they ask. But don’t ram it down their throat.

If there’s some overlap between your own career and theirs, it might be a topic to talk about, but if there’s none, it wouldn’t be an issue if you went through the whole meeting without mentioning what you do at all. 

In general, don’t try too hard to sell yourself. 

4. Don’t try to be the life and soul of the party 

In some countries, you might want to show your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s parents what a good laugh you are. 

The mark of success on your first visit home might be that you end up bonding in the pub until closing time with their father, or giggling over bottles of prosecco with the mother. 

Swedes, though, tend to take a bit longer than this to open up, and it’s fairly unlikely that they’ll let their hair down to this extent on a first visit. And you shouldn’t either!

While, obviously, you should try to be as charming and interesting a conversationalist as you are able, you might find the chit-chat on the first meeting a bit flat by the standards of some other countries, and feel that you didn’t really hit it off. There might even be awkward silences.  

Don’t worry about this. As long as no actual social catastrophe has taken place, your hosts will feel the meeting has been a success.  

Do you know how to use one of these? Photo: TT
5. Pitch in!

Swedish families are like bands of little gnomes. They bond around doing chores. This might be laying the tables for a wedding or funeral, making the food at Easter or Christmas, chopping wood, fixing a boat, car or caravan, painting something, or collecting berries or mushrooms. 

The parents, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or another relative, will probably invite you to get involved in some task or other. But if they don’t, it’s a good idea to look for jobs that need doing and offer to do them. 

Swedes prize thoughtfulness and consideration, so if you can show the ability to anticipate tasks that are needed and the initiative to get going, you will definitely win points. 

The worst impression you could give would be stay sitting at a table as everyone busies themselves around you – particularly if you’ve just spent half an hour lecturing everyone on what needs to happen for your share options to vest. 

Tasks are less gendered in Sweden than in most countries. But in my experience, boyfriends of Swedes are more likely to end up in a shed helping the father mend a chainsaw, while girlfriends of Swedes more likely to end up icing cakes. 

6. Don’t worry if you are useless at chores

Doing chores is not another, more practical, kind of interview for a prospective family member. You don’t need to already know how to use a chainsaw or make a prinsesstårta. But you do need to show an interest and a willingness to learn.  

Indeed, coming to Sweden ignorant of the sort of practical things Swedes love, but interested in learning about them is probably the single best way to make your way into the affections of your future in-laws. 

I know one international man whose relationship with his Swedish father-in-law seems entirely based around the sawing, chopping, storage, and burning of wood. 

You may know nothing, but if you’re in Sweden for the long haul, you have decades to learn. 

Good luck! 

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FAMILY

How to talk about family in Swedish

Talking about family in Swedish can be complicated. Discussing your relatives requires an in-depth knowledge of exactly how they are related to you, so it's time to start brushing up on your family history.

How to talk about family in Swedish

Let’s start with grandparents.

Swedish has four different words for “grandmother” and “grandfather”, depending on which side of the family you’re talking about. This may be confusing if your native language doesn’t have this distinction, as you will need to start reminding yourself of your family tree every time you discuss your grandparents in Swedish.

Although most Swedes refer to their mum and dad as mamma and pappa, more formal, less common terms for parents are mor and far, which are the terms still used in the names for grandparents – as well as other relatives.

Danish and Norwegian still use the terms mor and far to refer to “mother” and “father” respectively, which makes talking about your relatives in these languages a bit more intuitive.

Listen to top tips from a Swedish teacher on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

First off, let’s look at your maternal grandparents, or morföräldrar (“mother parents”). These are your mother’s mum and dad. 

To refer to your mother’s parents, you would use mormor (“mother-mother”) for your grandmother, and morfar (“mother-father”) for your grandfather. 

So what about your paternal grandparents? They’re referred to as your farföräldrar or “father parents”. Your father’s mother would be your farmor (“father-mother”), and your father’s father would be your farfar (“father-father”).

So to recap: your mum’s parents are mormor and morfar, and your dad’s parents are farmor and farfar.

This also means, bizarrely, that the same grandparent can be called two different names depending on their exact relationship with their grandchild. If a woman has a son and a daughter, for example, her son’s children would refer to her as farmor, but her daughter’s children would call her mormor.

Great grandparents can be referred to in two ways: by adding the word mor or far after the grandparent’s title, such as mormor’s mor (“mother’s mother’s mother”), or farfar’s far (“father’s father’s father”), or by adding the word gammal (“old”) before the grandparent’s title, such as gammalfarmor or gammalmorfar.

Confused? It doesn’t stop there. Your aunts and uncles all have special terms as well. These are similar to the terms for grandparents, in that they trace each family member linking you and your aunt or uncle.

We’ve already covered the word for “mother” in this context: mor. The Swedish words for sister and brother are syster and bror, meaning that your mother’s sister is your moster (shortened from morsyster) and your mother’s brother is your morbror. Your father’s siblings follow the same pattern: faster for your aunt and farbror for your uncle.

This only applies to aunts and uncles you’re related to by birth. Although Swedish does have the word tant for aunts and onkel for uncles by marriage (someone who is married to one of your parent’s siblings), nobody really uses these. You’re more likely to hear Swedes referring to these family members as their farbrors man (“father’s brother’s husband”) or morbror’s fru (“mother’s brother’s wife”) instead.

Nieces and nephews follow the same pattern: your brother’s kids are your brorson and brorsdotter (“brother-son” and “brother-daughter”), and your sister’s kids are your systersson and systerdotter (“sister-son” and “sister-daughter”).

Finally, grandchildren. The general word for “grandchild” in Swedish is barnbarn (“child-child”), which is the word you’re most likely to hear. Although this is becoming more rare, grandchildren can also be referred to using the same system as for other family members: sonson for your son’s son, sondotter for your son’s daughter and dotterson or dotterdotter for your daughter’s son or daughter, respectively. 

But what about your cousins? Are they your farbrorsson (father’s brother’s son) and mostersdotter (mother’s sister’s daughter)? Thankfully, no. They’re just your kusiner.

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