swedish traditions For Members

When and how should you give a speech or toast in Sweden?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
When and how should you give a speech or toast in Sweden?
Very often in Sweden a speech is simply the prelude to a toast. Photo: Susanne Walström/

Anyone who has been to a wedding, dinner or even a birthday party in Sweden will know that there are usually A LOT of speeches. But who should speak, and when, and what should they say?


How speeches work in Sweden

While in the UK or US, a speech at a wedding or dinner is an event, prepared in advance and given a dedicated slot in the proceedings, in Sweden they are both more spontaneous and more frequent.

Speeches are almost always combined with a toast – the famous Swedish skål. The procedure has perhaps more in common with toasts in Russia than with those of the UK, France, or the US (although you won't see any snaps glasses shattered on the ground with bravado). 

You can even give a speech and toast at a relatively informal event, such as, say, a reunion of old university friends at a restaurant. It's a way of breaking out of the to-and-fro of conversation to make a direct, heartfelt statement to the group.  

Speeches in Sweden can be emotional, perhaps surprisingly given Swedes' reserved reputation. It is quite common for the speaker to actually shed tears.

But they don't need as many jokes as, say, a British or American after-dinner or Best Man's speech.

According to the etiquette expert Magdalena Ribbing, who long had a column in Sweden's Dagens Nyheter newspaper, bringing a personal touch to a speech is the only thing that is essential.

"A speech in social life does not need to be funny, and does not need to have a twist or be original, but it must spring from the personality of the speaker," she wrote in her book Hålla Tal (Giving speeches). "An impersonal speech is close to meaningless. So long as it comes from the heart of the speaker, a speech can lack form and structure. It will still be a speech."

When should you give a speech in Sweden? 

Anyone present can, if they wish, make a speech at formal or semi-formal Swedish event, be it a wedding, a dinner, a birthday party, a funeral, a graduation dinner, a New Year's Eve party, a Midsummer Party, or even just a reunion of old friends. 

But in practice, the more central a role you have in the proceedings, the more appropriate it is to make a speech, and the more formal the event, the more formal the rules on who should speak. 

As elsewhere, the speech begins with the speaker tapping a spoon or the side of their knife on their glass to bring the room to silence.


At a dinner 

At a dinner or birthday party, the host or hostess is normally expected to hold a welcome speech, or välkomsttal, which Ribbing recommends should be "short, concise and friendly". At a sit-down dinner, the välkomsttal should come once the guests are seated and their glasses filled. 

The speech can be as simple as saying something like, "It is so wonderful to have so many friends, old and new, here to celebrate our anniversary. I know that both Gustav and I feel incredibly fortunate to have such a fantastic set of friends and you are all extremely welcome. Skål". 

You can also add in a few extra sentences about the reason why everyone has gathered, or to draw attention to any particularly valued guests who have travelled a long way, returned after a long absence, or had something significant happen to them. 

At a formal dinner, there is also a tacktal, or thank-you speech. The tacktal is traditionally given by the man seated to the left-hand side of the hostess, who as tacktalaren, or "thank-you speaker", is the most honoured guest. 

This speech is little more than a toast. This is what Ribbing recommends: "Tack för denna utsökta måltid, säger jag på mina och alla gästernas vägnar. Vi skålar för vår fantastiska värdinna" ("I wish, on behalf of all the guests and of myself, to say thank you for this delicious meal. A toast to our fantastic hostess."). 


At a wedding 

At a Swedish wedding, there are usually so many speeches that a friend or relative of the couple is chosen as the Toastmaster or Master of Ceremonies to bring some order to proceedings. Anyone wishing to speak should normally contact them in advance, so that they can get a sense of how many speakers there are likely to be.

The speeches at a Swedish wedding come in the following order, following a tradition that Ribbing claims has been in place "for centuries". 

First, the Master of Ceremonies introduces a short toast to the bride, and then there is a welcome speech – välkomsttal, which is held by the father (or mother) of the bride, who is traditionally seen as the host.


Then comes the father of the bride, then the father or mother of the groom, then the priest or wedding officiant, then the elder generation, then the brothers and sisters of the bride and groom, then the best man, bridesmaids, and ushers, then cousins, uncles and aunts, then the chef, then, finally, any friends present who wish to say something.  

Added together, that's a lot of speeches. So friends and lesser relatives should keep theirs to well under a minute, normally limiting their remarks to one heartfelt comment and a toast.

Even those who might traditionally make longer speeches at a British or American wedding, such as the best man or the father of the bride, should, if possible, keep their speeches to under three minutes. 

The bride and groom don't traditionally make speeches in Sweden, but if they wish to, Ribbing suggests that their speeches come immediately after the priest or officiant (or alternatively after the mother of the groom). 


At a birthday party 

In Sweden, it is traditionally the 50th birthday party which is marked with the biggest do, and not the 21st and 40th as in the UK and US.

But almost any birthday can merit an event sufficiently formal to warrant speeches. This is particularly the case, for every decade you mark – the 20th, 30th, 40th, and so on. In Sweden this is called fylla jämnt, which literally means to "to reach an even one".  

According to Ribbing, the birthday girl or boy should hold the välkomsttal, unless their parents, a friend, or partner is the clear host of the event. After that, the guests make speeches in rough order of seniority, starting with the oldest and closest relatives, and then moving through from closest friends to those who are newer and less close.  

All speeches at a birthday party should obviously include congratulations and good wishes for the future, but those of the closest relatives and oldest friends will typically include a short resumé of what the birthday girl or boy has achieved so far in life, as well as an anecdote or two.   

A speech at a birthday in Sweden should be quite lighthearted (it's more like a British or American best man's speech than anything that happens at a Swedish wedding). 

Ribbing recommends building the speech around an image, such as a ship, the sea, a tree, a river, or a mountain, and comparing the qualities of the person and their life to that image. The image, she suggests, should have some significance to the person, with an avid climber, for instance, compared to a mountain. 

She also recommends preparing an amusing song or verse about the person and their life, and performing it as part of, or perhaps instead of, a speech. 


At a work event 

At office or department Christmas or summer parties, or at work leaving dos, rank and file employees tend in Sweden to leave the speeches to their bosses, who should use the opportunity to publicly praise employees for what they do. 

Even a speech at a work social event should follow Ribbing's advice and be direct and "from the heart", although obviously not as personal as a birthday speech might be. As a boss, you should as much as possible drop the corporate language and talk to your employees as human beings, expressing appreciation for their efforts and good humour. At Christmas, a boss might also hand out small presents. 

At a leaving do, the person leaving, their boss, and their close colleagues are all likely to say a few words. 


Avoid any unpleasantness 

While in Sweden, a speech is an opportunity to publicly express personal feelings that aren't aired in day-to-day life, according to Ribbing, these should not be negative ones. 

"A speech," she says, "should be friendly and warm and not include any jibes that might destroy the mood, attacks on the evils of the times, the wretchedness of politics, or the fall of man." 

"The speaker is giving a gift," she sums up, "in the form of words". 


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