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How to handle these 10 maddeningly Swedish passive-aggressive habits

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
How to handle these 10 maddeningly Swedish passive-aggressive habits
Neatly folding their neighbour's socks is almost like leaving a horse's head in their bed to Swedes. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

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 confront them.


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.


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.


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 familj ställer vi in disken i diskmaskinen, "in our family we put the dishes in the dishwasher, or 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'!"

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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ML 2023/11/24 09:46
I think this is really interesting. Back in the US, being passive aggressive would make you the crazy pariah of the group and not the other way around. Being direct but polite is seen as the most proper way to solve a problem. Passive aggressive behavior is almost seen as toxic to US culture.

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