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SWEDISH HABITS

Patience and chores: How to get on with your neighbours in Sweden

Some joke that the best way to piss off a neighbour in Sweden is to try to start a conversation. But streets and blocks of apartments in Sweden can actually be quite friendly places. Here's how to make it work.

Patience and chores: How to get on with your neighbours in Sweden
'Hej, hej.' A man out for a walk in a Swedish suburb. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

1. Take your time and be patient

Swedes can initially be reluctant to form close friendships with neighbours – out of fear, perhaps, that if the friendship sours, it will be socially awkward to have to keep meeting the neighbour every day in the stairwell afterwards.

Also, as there are practically no stay-at-home parents in Sweden and even toddlers are in daycare, most buildings and streets are empty during the day.

This means that the relationships you have, while sometimes friendly, will tend to be limited to short chats in common areas, as you rush in and out to work or on the school run.  

When you move somewhere new, start by just by saying hej as you pass neighbours in the stairwell. If a neighbour then asks you if you’ve just moved in, reply politely to their questions, telling them where you’re from and what you’re doing, but without oversharing or getting too personal.

You can ask a few questions in return. But you would not generally invite them around to your house for a meal or drink straight away or expect a similar invitation from them.

This is partly because having an untidy, disordered apartment or house is shameful in Sweden, so people want prior warning before they have visitors so they can show them every room in a ritualised tour

Children in Sweden are, of course, as eager to play with other children as children from anywhere else, so foreigners with young kids might find they get to know their neighbours more quickly than those who don’t. 

Also, understand that some of your neighbours might not be interested in even short chats. If so, don’t pester them. Otherwise, you risk condemning them to a life spent checking you’re not in the stairwell before they dare leave their apartments. 

2. Take part in the höststädning and vårstädning cleaning days

Most housing associations in Sweden have collective chore days, normally on a Saturday or Sunday, when the neighbours all come out and tidy up the communal spaces, spending a few hours pruning, weeding, planting, and driving rubbish and broken things to the tip.

It might be höststädning (‘autumn cleaning’) or vårstädning (‘spring cleaning’). Don’t miss this! Swedes love to bond through doing chores together. It’s all part of the Lutheran work ethic.

It’s at events like this that you’re most likely to deepen your relationship with your neighbours. There will probably be a fika of coffee and cake as well, where you and your neighbours can sit and chat. 

Perhaps, more importantly, if you miss it, it will look like you’re not willing to make any efforts towards the collective good, which is never a good thing in Sweden.


Gardening during vårstädning. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

3. Get involved in the housing association 

Whether it’s a rental housing association (hyresrättsförening), an association for a commonly owned building (bostadsrättsförening), or another kind of neighbourhood association, get involved. It’s a good opportunity to show that you are willing to pull your weight, and an opportunity to get to know a few of your neighbours better. Until your Swedish is good enough, it’s probably a good idea to avoid being appointed treasurer or chair. 


It’s important to take part in your building’s housing association. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se

4. Take part in any and all communal social events 

As well as chore days, some neighbourhood groups or buildings hold occasional parties, normally in the garden in the summer. This might be a kräftskiva (crayfish party), a barbecue, a fika of coffee and cake, or evening drinks with wine or beer.

Swedes are generally more comfortable with this sort of pre-planned sociability, taking place in a safe, neutral space. If they ‘know the script’, the potential for embarrassment is less.

Don’t miss these events if they’re happening, because it’s another chance to get to know neighbours a bit better. 


This neighbour’s barbecue ended up in an argument apparently. Photo: Karin Markhede/TT

5. Leave as little trace of yourself in communal areas as possible

When you’re moving in, you will probably have to leave some furniture in a stairwell, or park a trailer or removal van inconveniently in the street. Don’t leave it there too long if you don’t want to make a bad first impression, even if you leave an apologetic note (which you should anyway). 

Swedes tend to be very careful about not inconveniencing others or impinging on their lives in any way. And they expect the same level of consideration in return. 

This also means not leaving rubbish piled up outside your front door, not leaving a broken bicycle for years in the communal bike shed, or broken child toys in the garden, and not leaving anything in the stairwell, or side of a shared street for more than an hour or so. 

Generally, keep in mind that the level or duration of disturbance or mess deemed acceptable in Sweden is lower and shorter than it would be in most other countries. 


Don’t leave broken bicycles or other detritus in communal areas. Photo: Noella Johansson/TT

6. Respect Swedish laundry room etiquette 

The Swedish laundry room is legendary for the anonymous angry notes left for those who don’t follow the rules.

But before you condemn Swedes for their passive aggressiveness, it’s worth considering whether such a shared facility would even be possible in your home country. 

You should be careful not to take anyone else’s time in the shared laundry room, or to let your own time overrun.

You may think that it does not inconvenience the next person if you finish off your drying while they are putting their clothes in the washing machine. But to Swedish eyes, it does. 

If someone has not turned up for their time an hour after it has started, this does not mean you can take their slot. 

You should leave the shared laundry room exactly as you found it (and if possible a bit cleaner). 

This means: 

  • cleaning out the fluffy felt from the dryer and putting it in the felt bin
  • making sure there are no stones, old plasters, or other detritus left in the washing machines 
  • sweeping and mopping the floor 
  • wiping the top of the washing machines so there is no trace of powder 
  • leaving the doors of the machines slightly ajar so the insides can dry 


In Sweden’s shared laundry rooms, passive-aggressiveness is elevated to an art. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

7. Don’t play loud music or make a lot of noise after 10pm (or perhaps at all!) 

As previously mentioned, Swedes try not to impinge on the lives of others and expect not to be impinged on themselves.

Even if you are the world’s best DJ or finest jazz pianist, your neighbours will not take kindly to hearing your inspired mixing or improvising through the walls. This is particularly the case after 10pm (or before 10am for that matter).

It is acceptable to throw occasional parties which can both be loud and go on late, but only on Friday and Saturday nights. If you do this, it’s expected that you warn your neighbours in advance by putting a note through their letterbox, or posting one to the elevator or front door.  

You can’t do this very often though. One loud house party a month is too many. 

8. Pull your weight when it comes to communal jobs 

Even outside of collective chore days, there may remain other communal jobs, such as snow clearing, lawn mowing, autumn leaf disposal, and in some streets and buildings, Christmas tree disposal. If you possibly can, you should make sure you do at least as much of this as your Swedish neighbours. 

There might be a lawn-mowing or gardening schedule. If so, you should make sure you do what’s expected of you when it’s your week. If you live in a row of houses, it may very well be expected that if you clear snow from your front door across the garden that you also clear a path all the way to the car park for your neighbours. 

9. Ask for and offer help 

Despite being very individualistic, Swedes love to help – when asked. It’s very engrained in Swedish culture to help people with things and be useful. Borrowing tools. Giving tips. Even, occasionally, borrowing a rare cooking ingredient. Anything where they have the capacity to help you, will make them feel useful and also be a great way to break the ice.


A neighbour putting up a note offering to shop for elderly neighbours during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

Member comments

  1. “If someone has not turned up for their time an hour after it has started, this does not mean you can take their slot.” This is not true. In some parts of Sweden, the rule is that if you’re late just for 5 minutes, your booking time will be transferred to anyone who comes after. In some parts, you’re allowed to be late for 30 minutes.

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For members

SWEDISH HABITS

When can you talk to a stranger in Sweden without annoying them?

In Sweden, it is normally seen as rude and intrusive to start a conversation with a total stranger. Except, that is, in certain well-defined circumstances. Here's our best stab at what they are.

When can you talk to a stranger in Sweden without annoying them?

Every time I return to the UK from Sweden, I’m astonished by the amount of chit-chat.  After ten years living in Sweden, it seems like every interaction with strangers, however small, is punctuated by a short conversation, a joke, a grumble.

This starts from the moment you have your passport checked (“You’ve got your hands full”), to the person sitting opposite you on the train home: (“So, where are you headed?”), to shopkeepers, your taxi driver, and, of course, the semi-intoxicated middle-aged man at the public bar in any pub in the country (any topic you can imagine). 

In Sweden, this sort of chat is much, much less common.

Swedes are generally uncomfortable with small talk, which is sometimes even referred to as kallprat, (“cold talk”), or even dödprat (“dead talk”).

In many situations, they will experience someone starting a conversation as simply jobbigt (a hassle). More often Swedes avoid small talk out of consideration. If there’s one thing Swedes guard more zealously than their own privacy, it’s the privacy of others. So what feels to foreigners like being cold and unfriendly behaviour, is actually a form of thoughtfulness. 

But just because small talk is unusual does not mean it doesn’t happen. It is just restricted by a set of informal rules. 

In general, speaking to strangers is acceptable under one or more of three conditions: that there are external circumstances that limit how long the interaction can take, that you have something in common with them, that you are both focused on some sort of third element, which dilutes the intensity of face-to-face contact. 

READ ALSO: Eight unwritten rules that explain how Swedishness works

Here are the situations when it is permissible to talk to a stranger in Sweden without annoying them: 

When they are out walking their dogs 

Owning a dog opens up a whole new world of communication in Sweden, so long as you don’t mind all of your conversations revolving around canine husbandry. There’s even a film called Hundtricket (“The Dog Trick”), featuring a young Alexander Skarsgård, in which a man tries to get a girlfriend by buying a dog. 

Walking dogs fits all three of the conditions: it is a limited time activity; you are all dog owners, so have something in common; and you have an external thing to focus on (the dogs), that you can engage with if the conversation drops off and becomes awkward. 

In a rastplats, or dog park, in a Swedish city, people will go into extraordinary depths about their pets’ breeds, origins, habits, and health problems. 

The focus, though, generally stays on the animals. It’s quite common for a dog owner (like this one) to know the names of all the local dogs, but none of the names of their owners.

In time, you might start to ask relatively innocuous questions like whether the other owners left the city on the weekend, or else talk about the weather, but you’re unlikely to ask other dog owners (if they’re Swedish anyway) about their job, or where they come from.

You don’t even need to own a dog to take advantage of Hundtricket. It is quite acceptable to ask strangers about their dogs, even if you don’t have one yourself. Ask about their breed, their age, and perhaps whether you can stroke them. 

At the playground with their children 

This follows more or less the same rules as the dog park. Parents hovering at the edge of a town or city playground can strike up conversations with one another. This fits two, or perhaps three, of the rules: they have something in common (children), and they have an external thing to focus on (children, again).

The externally set time limit is also there to some extent, as children (in Sweden, as elsewhere) tend to wander off, start crying, or need parental attention, providing the Swede with the required escape route should the conversation become awkward. 

When they are having a cigarette break outside

This is the consolation smokers in Sweden receive for their shortened lives.

If a Swedish smoker finds themselves having a cigarette break next to another smoker, they can spark up a short conversation.

The situation meets at least two of the three necessary conditions: the cigarette limits the interaction to about five minutes, and the two Swedes have their unfortunate habit in common.

If the chat becomes uncomfortable one minute in, they can even pretend to be focusing their attention on an external factor: the joy of their cigarette, savouring every drag.

On an organised tour or activity of some kind 

If you have signed up for a guided tour of an art gallery, or any sort of time-limited group activity, it’s OK to start a conversation with those on the same tour. This is because the time of the interaction is controlled by the length of the tour, and, perhaps more importantly, you have a third external event to focus on if the conversation gets awkward.  

At a concert or football match  

This is a bit of a grey zone. But at standing, or occasionally even seated, events where you are there to watch something, it’s more acceptable in Sweden to start a conversation with a stranger. This is partly because you have something external to focus on, but also, I feel, because you are not trapped in the interaction. It is quite possible to move away, ostensibly to find a better angle to watch the performance or game. 

When there is a common disaster or disruption 

Sparking up a conversation on a long train journey is one of the worst things you can do to a Swede. Even a half an hour journey is too long to count as a real time limit, you have nothing obviously in common, and the circumstances often more or less force you to be aware of one another. Doing this is to condemn the Swede to a painful period of mild awkwardness. 

The moment the train is delayed or breaks down, however, everything changes. Suddenly you have something in common, and a lot to talk about. What has gone wrong? Is there anything on SJ’s website? Are you going to make your connecting trains? 

Swedes love problem-solving, so the more the disruption involves expertise, the more they are likely to pool knowledge and help each other out. 

Swedes don’t tend to complain to the same extent as people in the UK, but if the disruption is long-lasting they might also start to grumble, expressing their dissatisfaction at how they’re been treated. Once the problem is solved, it might then be acceptable to ask a few other questions of the people you’ve been talking to, such as, “where are you off to?”, or “where have you been?”

It’s not just trains.

If a water main bursts on your street and there is terrible flooding, or the power goes off in your apartment building, or the entire street gets parking tickets because of some change in zoning, you might also find strangers in the neighbourhood talking together, sometimes for the first time in years. 

In The Local’s offices, a burst water pipe, which has flooded the corridor outside the kitchen with foul-smelling water, has led to the first social interactions between us and the Swedes in the surrounding rooms. 

“Were you affected?” they asked. “Have you seen the damage on the first floor?”

As The Local’s reporter was obviously in the middle of making a cup of tea, the interaction also had the benefit of being a time-limited event. 

When there is unusually bad weather 

In a sense, this is an extension of the situation above. Swedes do not discuss the weather with strangers in the same way that people in the UK are renowned for doing. But if there is a sudden rainstorm that leaves everyone caught in it soaked, or an enormous snow dump that blocks traffic, then you can talk to strangers about the weather and how it has affected you.  

Outside of Sweden 

Swedes, like people from most other countries, are much more likely to befriend their compatriots when abroad than when at home. When travelling by train from Malmö to Brussels, Swedish families making similar journeys seemed quite happy to strike up a conversation in a way they never would have been on a train from, say, Malmö to Stockholm. 

Simply being Swedish, which means nothing at home, qualifies as “something in common” once Swedes are abroad. 

At a club or music festival

In bars, pubs and restaurants, Swedes tend to arrive with their friends and limit their conversations to those they already know.

This changes, however, if you’re somewhere where people stand or dance, such as a club or music festival. These places function somewhat closer to the way a concert or a football match does.

Even though there is not always an external factor to focus on, you are at least not trapped at the same table, and it’s always possible to drift on to someone else.

Moreover, clubs in Sweden, as elsewhere, are more or less designed as places for meeting like-minded strangers, meaning the barrier for social interaction is lower. 

Everyone is also often drunk, so of course, anything goes. 

 
 
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