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LIVING IN SWEDEN

10 maddeningly Swedish passive-aggressive habits

It's a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason. Swedes have exalted passive-aggressiveness into an art form. Here are some of the ten most annoying examples you're likely to come across and how to handle them.

10 maddeningly Swedish passive-aggressive habits
In Sweden's shared laundry rooms, passive-aggressiveness is elevated to an art. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT
Swedish national culture frowns on most of the standard ways to express anger or disappointment with others. There's not much place for raised voices, in-your-face insults, rude gestures or, indeed, actual physical violence. 
 
And when it comes to the piss-taking or merciless ridicule some other cultures fall back on, let's just say the Swedes aren't naturally gifted. 
 
In some ways, this is for the best. It's part of what makes Sweden such a peaceful, orderly, and pleasant place to live. 
 
But it doesn't mean Swedes don't find ways of making their anger felt. Here are some of the subtle punishments you may find get meted out to you.  
 
 
1. Over-neatly folding your laundry for you when you overrun your time in the tvättstuga
 
The behaviour patterns of Swedes in the shared laundry rooms, or tvättstugor, in the basement of most blocks of apartments is the stuff of legend, and a worthy study for anthropologists. 
 
Much of the commentary centres on the tvättstugelapp, or 'laundry note', the texts of which can be master-classes in passive aggressive language. 
 
But the pinnacle of tvättstuga passive-aggressiveness must surely be what sometimes happens if you overrun your allotted time.
 
In most cultures, this would call for accosting you in a corridor, or pulling your clothes out of the dryer and leaving them piled up on the floor.
 
But in Sweden your neighbour is more likely to instead fold every single piece of your laundry, even the underwear, with Marie Kondo-like precision and leave it in a series of neat towers. 
 
The message here is: “Look at all the additional effort your inconsiderate and selfish behaviour has forced me to make.”
 
Do: Find out who had the laundry after you and apologise profusely.
Don't: Think, “oooh, how kind, someone's folded my laundry”.
 
 
2. The silent treatment 
 
I asked my mother-in-law how someone in a Swedish village would be treated if they say, ran over a beloved village dog, and she said they would just withdraw all social contact. Total social isolation. 
 
Withdrawal of social engagement is a key weapon in the Swedes' arsenal of passive aggressiveness, as it can be very painful for the victim, but does not require the perpetrator to raise their voice, express anger, or break any of the rules of Swedish reserve. 
 
It's particularly deadly when used in offices, where some foreigners complain they have been mysteriously cut out of all office social communication, sometimes by all the Swedish members of staff. 
 
A lesser version of the silent treatment involves saying only what is absolutely necessary to be socially acceptable, and no more.
 
Do: Confront them. They will rather let you back into the fold than risk an argument.
Don't: Pretend you don't notice. They know how to play this game, and they will win.
 
Someone attempting an overtaking manoeuvre Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
 
3. Speeding up on the motorway when you try to overtake them 
 
Drivers from other countries often find it confusing when driving on Swedish motorways in Sweden that when they move to overtake, the other driver speeds up, making it difficult to overtake. When they are finally overtaken, they then slow down again. 
 
The message here seems to be: “I am travelling at the correct speed and I am not going to let you overtake me in order to break the speed limit,” or perhaps it is simply a way to make you look at your speedometer and realise that you are breaking the speed limit.  
 
Do: Just ignore it.
Don't: Lose your cool and engage in motorway rage.
 
4. Complaining about a neighbour directly to the landlord 
 
If someone has a loud party, or leaves a mess in a shared corridor in a block of apartments, in most cultures the solution would be a knock on the door (or even bashing a broomstick to the ceiling). In Sweden, an aggrieved neighbour is quite likely to report you directly to the landlord. 
 
While this avoids the need for person-to-person confrontation (to the relief of the aggrieved Swede), to foreigners its seems like a step too far to put someone at risk of losing their home for a one-off transgression. 
 
Do: Realise the threshold for contacting the landlord in Sweden is lower, so the landlord will not take it too seriously.
Don't: Feel as if your neighbour has reported you to the police.
 
 
5. Going directly to the boss 
 
If you are even close to getting into a workplace conflict or disagreement in Sweden, be aware that your Swedish co-workers, perhaps before you even realise there's an issue, are quite likely to take it to the boss. 
 
To foreigners, again, this seems like total overkill, endangering their career rather than just voicing a complaint or disagreement to their face. But to a Swede, such considerations are dwarfed by the sheer embarrassment and discomfort of raising the issue one on one, and the boss is seen as more of a mediator than, well, a manager.
 
Do: Realise the threshold for contacting the boss in Sweden is lower, so the boss will not take it too seriously.
Don't: Feel as if your colleague has reported you to the police.
 

Don't you dare jump this queue, or we will hover weirdly and mutter 'jaha'.  Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
 
6. Drawing back and hovering weirdly if you jump a queue
 
If you jump a queue in Sweden, those now behind you are unlikely to say anything. But that doesn't mean they won't react.
 
They sometimes take a rather exaggerated step back, to make queue space for you, hoping that you'll realise what you've done. They might raise their eyebrows a little. At the very most, they'll say something under their breath, such as jaha or jaså, two common expressions of mild surprise. 
 
If you fail to pick up on this, you may never learn of your transgression, but be sure that those queue-jumped will talk about it once you're gone.
 
Do: Say “oh, I'm sorry, did I jump the queue?”
Don't: Think “oh, that nice man is making some extra space for me”.
 
7. Heavy deployment of the Swedish imperative 'we' 
 
For those coming from more individualist foreign countries, there's almost nothing as chilling than the way Swedes use the word vi, meaning 'we'.
 
Use of the Swedish forced-collective 'we' is closely correlated to the level of passive-aggressiveness in any exchange. 
 
An example might be här städar vi upp efter oss, “here we tidy up after ourselves”, in a laundry room note, a father might tell a child who has run off to play without helping clear the table, i vår familjen ställer vi in disken i diskmaskinen – “in our family we put the dishes in the dishwasher, a teacher might say i vår skola spottar vi inte på varandra, “in our school, we don't spit on one another”. 
 
The attraction for Swedes is that in framing a complaint as a statement about “us” or “we”, they avoid a direct person-to-person “you” confrontation. To a Swede, writing, “You haven't tidied up after doing the laundry”, or saying “You haven't cleared the table yet”, might feel too aggressive. 
 
Going for the “we” points to a norm of behaviour which should be followed, rather than criticising someone for not doing it. 
 
Do: Grit your teeth and take the hit.
Don't: Say, “You and me are not a 'we'!”
 
A man at the bottom of a hole he may struggle to get out of. Photo: Oded Balilty/TT
 
8. Disingenuously describing a clearly wrong way of doing something as a valid option 
 
Swedes generally combine a very clear sense of the right and wrong way to do things with a dislike of confrontation. They have thus developed ingenious ways of on the face of it accepting other people's ways of doing something, while making it absolutely clear that they in fact do not. 
 
A common way of doing this is to use the phrase så där kan man också göra, which means roughly, “well, that's one way of doing it”, or in other words clearly the wrong way. 
 
Swedes would also generally prefer to say jaha or jaså and express mock surprise, as they watch you, for instance, dig a deep hole you won't be able to climb out of. 
 
Do: Think carefully about whether you are, in fact, doing something totally idiotic.
Don't: Say, “Yes, I worked it out all by myself”. 
 

9. Tutting and pursing of lips
 
This is perhaps less passive-aggressive and more actually aggressive, but if you break any of the rules of Swedish behaviour many foreigners are unaware of – such as cycling on the wrong side of a cycle path, or placing goods barcode up on a supermarket conveyor-belt – Swedes are not averse to tutting. 
 
Tutting is perhaps less common among Swedes below the age of about 60, who would instead more likely imperceptibly purse their lips. 
 
Do: Pretend you haven't heard/seen it.
Don't: Angrily snarl, “what are you trying to say?”
 
10. Using passive-aggressive words like anmärkningsvärt 
 
You don't get to be the world's most passive-aggressive nation without building up a whole class of passive aggressive vocabulary. Perhaps the most passive-aggressive word of all is anmärkningsvärt, meaning, literally 'remarkable' or 'noteworthy'. 
 
This is because it on the face of it contains no approval or disapproval, or indeed any linkage to the speaker at all. The thing or situation described is of a such character that it is simply 'worthy of being noticed'. 
 
If you are going through the accounts of your housing association, and one of the members realises that the treasurer has signed off on large payments to a mysterious bank account that he claims not to know anything about, another member of the board might, before calling the police, describe the payments, and the situation, as anmärkningsvärt. 
 
Do: Think “this is quite serious”.
Don't: Just think “oh, I'd noticed that too”.

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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Are these the 50 most ‘Swedish’ things in existence? (part two)

Quick-cook macaroni and ketchup, always knowing the week number, Queuing tickets, and soaking in every tiny ray of sun in spring: These are some of the objects, foods, and behaviours our readers (and other foreigners) consider the most Swedish in existence (part two in a series of two).

Are these the 50 most ‘Swedish’ things in existence? (part two)

You don’t have to be living in Sweden long before you start puzzling at some of the things that pass for normal, so, half in jest we asked The Local’s readers for what they think are the most “Swedish” things in existence.

We got so many responses that we’ve divided our article into two parts. This is the second part in a two-part series. You can read the first part, on Swedish “objects” and “clothes” here

THE MOST SWEDISH FOODS

It’s fair to say that many of the foods people came up with did not give the most flattering picture of Swedish cuisine. 

The most common suggestion for an uber-Swedish dish was quick-cook macaroni with tomato ketchup. This perhaps reflects the horror some other nationalities feel upon witnessing it. (As it happens, Swedes are world-class ketchup consumers, each of them wolfing down 2.7kg of the tangy red gloop a year, behind only Finland and Canada, and way ahead of the US.) 

Other unflattering food suggestions included “bearnaise with everything” (largely true), Kebab pizza (yum, and also, if you’re Italian, an aberration), and Flygande Jakob (vile). 

Pasta with heaps of ketchup. Photo: Antti Nissinen/Flickr

On a more general level, several people simply cited “salt“. For them, the most Swedish thing was to load already salty foods with even more salt. Could this be the result of a country that before the advent of refrigeration lived off salted fish, meat and vegetables for much of the year?     

On the borderline of the questionable foodstuffs category came various types of food in tubes, such as skinkost and räkost (processed cheese with bits of ham or prawn blended into it), and Kalles caviar (objectively delicious).  

I’d personally also put korv, Swedish sausage, in the questionable category. While arguably the national snack food, I find the classic Swedish varmkorv hot dog sausage of considerably poorer quality than their German equivalent. Thank God for falafel rolls. 

I’d make an exception for a tunnbrodsrulle, the flatbread common in northern Sweden which is often used to make a sort of hot dog wrap, with potato, a sausage, crispy fried onions, ketchup and mustard. It justly got a mention.

Salty liquorice (sweets flavoured with ammonium chloride) which came up a lot, is certainly beloved of Swedes, but disliked by many, perhaps most, others.

Also on the borderline was potatisgratäng i en påse, or “potatoes au gratin in a bag”, the supermarket packets of sliced potatoes in a creamy sauce which can be simply poured into a tray and shoved in the oven. 

But Swedish food can also be fresh and delicious, and its cake and pastry-making is often up there with some of the best baking countries. 

The suggestions reflected this, with some readers putting forward truly delicious (and extremely Swedish) treats. 

The ingredients for Janssons Frestelse Photo: Janerik Henriksson / TT

Obviously, many people mentioned the Swedish staples such as meatballs with lingonberry, Janssons Frestelse, and pickled herring (which is served whenever there’s a celebration, so Easter, Midsummer, Christmas). 

Other delicious Swedish foods mentioned included smörgåstårta, a type of savoury sandwich cake, in which layers of white bread are stuffed with prawn, tuna, liver pâté and ham, sometimes all in the same cake. I think it’s fantastic, but it’s not for everyone. 

Dill, the go-to herb the love of which Swedes share with Russia and much of eastern Europe, obviously got tipped.  

As did boiled potatoes, which are often flavoured with it. If they do not seem like something particularly Swedish to you, then you have yet to be initiated into the Swedish secrets of how to cook them properly (prodding them with a provsticka, to get the perfect softness, and then steaming them dry in the pan). You have also probably never tasted the first chestnut-flavoured potatoes of the summer. 

A kladdkaka. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

On the sweet side, the obvious Swedish favourites like kanelbulle cinnamon rolls, got mentioned. 

But there was also nyponsoppa, the rose-hip soup Swedes see as a cure-all for any sneeze or sniffle, ostkaka med saftsås, the Swedish baked cheesecake, and rabarberpaj med vaniljsås, the Swedish rhubarb crumble that is a common summer treat. 

Semla buns, the fluffy buns stuffed with almond paste that are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday but now seem to be eaten throughout the spring, also got a mention. 

I’m not certain if kladdkaka from ICA, the sticky, semi-chewy chocolate cake you buy frozen from all Swedish supermarkets, should be classed as delicious or questionable, but it’s certainly very Swedish. It’s the lagom, “not great, but good enough” option for every late-remembered birthday or office leaving do celebration. It was mentioned by at least one respondent, as was daimtårta, a similarly trashy-but-nice cake made with crushed-up Daim bars. 

MOST SWEDISH HABITS OR PHENOMENA 

One respondent mentioned “sunning yourself in February by closing your eyes and leaning against a wall or in the middle of a park“. There is something very Swedish in the way people will cross the road to walk for a few seconds through a tiny patch of sun.  

On a similar theme, several respondents suggested “eating outside“, noting that their Swedish colleagues would take pack lunches out into the nearest park to eat even in spring when the weather is quite chilly. The same goes for the restaurant terraces, which have sprung up over the last decade, which are often busy from April to October. 

Another respondent wrote “being outside every day, no matter what“, which as a person from rainy Britain, I’d disagree with.

In my experience, Swedes tend not to go for a walk or send their kids out to play if it’s raining, whereas Brits very much would (otherwise we’d get no fresh air at all). 

Respondents had a different response to Swedish unsociability, with one noting approvingly “the very Swedish ability not to notice others”, saying that as a disabled woman, it was empowering that no one offered to help her, while another bemoaned the lack of chit-chat with strangers. 

Other Swedish habits that came up were an obsession with the ability to light the most perfect fire when camping, which I would argue is part of a larger cultural phenomenon.

An unusually large proportion of Swedish conversation seems to revolve around detailed instructions on how to perform certain tasks properly, such as insulating a roof, freeing a car trapped in snow, or growing asparagus. 

Another reader mentioned “never carrying cash“, which reflects Sweden’s lead in the shift towards a cashless society. 

Being able to walk on those icy, unsalted sidewalks without slipping and falling“, came up, and this is certainly something Swedes (particularly those living north of about Kalmar) can do effortlessly, and which many foreigners never learn. 

There were other examples cited of Swedes’ easy way with extreme cold, with one pointing out how Swedes use nature as a refrigerator or freezer, sticking food or beer outside their kitchen window or on the porch. On the same theme, one mentioned cycling on five-metre-thick snow. 

Is snus, Swedish sucking tobacco, a food or a habit? It’s certainly so universal that you will witness even the smart-suited chief executives of Swedish companies jamming their finger into their lip to secure one of the tobacco bags. 

Make sure to brush up on your snapsvisor or Swedish drinking songs if you want to fit in at Midsummer. Photo: Janus Langhorn/imagebank.sweden.se

Swedish alcohol habits also came in, with several readers putting forward the snaps and singing as extremely Swedish, perhaps this is down to what another reader described as the Swedish dual personality, “drunk and not-drunk”. 

One observant reader noted that in Sweden there is often no music in restaurants, shopping centres, or cafés. To the extent this is true (and it’s not always), this seems to be a result of the importance in Sweden of not imposing oneself on others. 

One person pointed out that pretty much everything closes in July. Swedes value their holidays and the sense of solidarity means that few begrudge a summer break even to bureaucrats, nurses, and shop and café staff. At least in the last two weeks of the month, you’ll struggle to get much government admin done, and you might find your favourite neighbourhood café shuts its doors. 

Several people brought up the Swedish habit of watching Kalle Anka at Christmas, which I think is only the most prominent example of the Swedish love of doing apparently lame things in very large numbers or to a strict routine

Somehow linked to this is the Swedish love of special days for special foods, such as Taco Friday, Lördagsgodis (Saturday sweets), or days like Kanelbullens dag, all of which got mentioned

MOST SWEDISH THINGS TO SAY 

One person argued that the most Swedish thing to say was “ah”, with the sound then repeated “100 times when listening to a person talking to you”.
 
The same person suggested Näämen!”, an expression of surprise, as the most Swedish phrase/word imaginable.  Then there’s “jahaaa” to signify a realisation. 
 
Another mentioned the Swedish breathing-in noise for yes Swedes make (north of about Uppsala) to signify agreement. See The Local’s viral video here
 
For me, the word tyvärr, meaning “unfortunately”, is the most Swedish of words, used as it is to tell someone they can’t do something, while avoiding a direct conflict by pointing to some external rule or circumstance.  
 
It’s almost certain in a list like this, that we missed out some of even more Swedish things. Is there anything else that should be here? Please tell us in the comments below. 
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