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Eight unwritten rules that explain how Sweden works

The Local Sweden
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Eight unwritten rules that explain how Sweden works
Swedes love pick and mix: but only one day a week. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Having trouble understanding Sweden and Swedes? These unwritten rules - some of which are more important than those on paper - may help.


While complying with the laws is a must in Sweden, for anyone who truly wants to ‘get’ Swedes, they’ll need to understand these unwritten rules. 

Anyone who has moved to a different country - or who has even holidayed somewhere for an extended period - will be confronted with “unwritten rules”. 

These rules are sometimes more important to the locals than actual laws or regulations, but will often be difficult or impossible to discern. 


In fact, you’ll probably never really feel as if you fit in until you are not only aware of these rules, but comply with them without even thinking about it. 

Here are eight unwritten rules that explain how Sweden ticks. 

No small talk

Swedes are famously hard to make friends with, and this might be one of the reasons why. Swedes hate small talk. So much so, that small talk is referred to as kallprat (cold talk) or even dödprat (dead talk) in Swedish.

You may be tempted to strike up a conversation with your new neighbours if you've recently moved to a new apartment. Don't. Anything more than a simple "hej hej" when passing in the stairwell will cause them to avoid you for the foreseeable future.

Wondering how you can make friends in Sweden if you can't count on small talk? Try joining an activity such as a sports club or music association. Swedes love organised activities, and are much more likely to open up if there's a clear common interest from the start.

Respect personal space

This is actually one of the reasons behind Swedish silence and hatred of small talk. Not talking to strangers is seen as polite in Sweden, as you are letting people retain their right to privacy and respecting their personal space.

Those who have been in Sweden since before Covid will know that Swedes had no problems with social distancing when it was brought in as a measure to stave off the spread of the Coronavirus: they've been doing it intuitively for centuries. It's probably a good idea to keep staying two meters apart from the next person in the queue at Ica, unless you're trying to scare them off.

One exception to this rule is hugs. Usually - particularly younger Swedes - will greet someone they've previously met with a hug, rather than a wave or a handshake as is the case in other cultures. Best to avoid a kiss though, either on the cheek or otherwise: these are usually only reserved for romantic partners.

Swedes waiting at a bus stop in pre-pandemic 2015. Swedes have been socially distancing for decades. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

First out, then in

While we're on the topic of public transport...

This is a rule held so dearly by the Swedes that it will boggle their mind if you ask them to explain it to you.

But that’s probably because it makes complete sense to Swedes.

When waiting for a train or an elevator, wait for those on the train/elevator to get off or out before you try and get in.

The same applies for restaurants, rooms and in toilet cubicles.

Breaking this rule is a major faux pas and risks extreme consequences such as disapproving looks or quiet tuts from those nearby.


Drop the ‘pop in’

It’s perhaps no surprise that a country which prioritises planning does not like surprises, no matter how small they are. 

While a surprise ‘pop in’ visit might be a nice way to remind your friends that they are on your mind, in Sweden it will not be welcomed. 

If you want to show you care, schedule an appointment with your friend in advance, to give them enough time to prepare for your visit.

Call in sick

This one might have finally been driven home elsewhere due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a rule held in high esteem in Sweden is staying home if you feel even slightly ill. 

In English-speaking countries, studies have shown that workers believe there is an expectation to “suck it up” and push through their illness to come to work.

Workers have said they fear they'll be deemed to be "pulling a sickie", even when they're genuinely sick. 

In Sweden "sucking it up" and pushing through the symptoms will be seen as irresponsible, both for your own health and for the health of others. 

Sweden's generous sick pay laws in comparison with other countries might be behind this - although your first sick day is unpaid, the financial impact of calling in sick is relatively low, meaning there's less of a reason to drag yourself in to work if you're not feeling good.

Over the last two years, staying home if you have flu symptoms so as not to risk spreading Covid has become the norm in almost every country, but in Sweden this has been the done thing for some time. 



Owning a house with a pool is a very Swedish way to demonstrate that you're well-off. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Don't show off - or if you do, show off in the right way

Swedes are not particularly 'showy'. Big brand names on clothes or wearing a lot of bling isn't a big thing here, but that doesn't mean that Swedes don't like to display their wealth, they just do it differently.

Instead of wearing flashy designer clothing or lots of jewellery, Swedish displays of wealth are usually done more quietly, such as by owning a nice car or a nice house.

It's a careful balance, though: doing the school run in a Ferrari would be 'too much', but a new BMW, Volvo or Audi would just signify that you're pretty well-off.

Similarly, houses should be clean and respectable - hedges should be clipped, fences freshly painted and inside, everything should be minimalist Scandinavian chic with white walls, mysig lighting and wooden flooring.

This balance is reflected in the aspirational phrase Villa, Volvo, Vovve (detached house, Volvo car, pet dog) which is also the name of The Local's word guide to Swedish life. 


Don't be late, but don't be too early either

Swedes value punctuality and many would consider it incredibly rude if you turn up late to an appointment. Try to arrive as close to the scheduled time as possible, or even five minutes early - not too early though, or they may feel ambushed, especially if you're turning up to their house.

Similarly, if you can’t make it to a reservation at a restaurant, be sure to call and cancel. If you don’t, they’re likely to remember the fact they held the table for an hour under your name and lost business. 

And if you can make it but you’ll be late, then call to let them know. Most places have a policy of giving away a table after 15 minutes if the place is busy. 

On that note, just try and be punctual all the time. And if you are late, even if it’s just five minutes, let the person know - as soon as you know you're going to be late.

Eat as much sugar as you want - but only on Saturdays

Swedes love sweets. With the average family of two adults and two children eating 1.2 kilos of sweets per week, on average, Sweden regularly tops the charts of the biggest sweet-eaters worldwide.

That doesn't mean you can tuck in whenever you want, though. Sweets - along with other unhealthy foods - are reserved for eating on weekends, with tacos on Fridays and lördagsgodis (Saturday sweets) on Saturdays.

Wondering why Sweden only allows sweets on Saturdays? Our word of the day on lördagsgodis explains the grim background behind this weekend treat.

Swedish fika - coffee and cake - is one exception to this rule. Fika is permitted on weekdays, but usually only in the mid-morning around 10am or in the early afternoon around 3pm - so you don't spoil your appetite for the next meal.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
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Anonymous 2022/10/29 09:32
The aversion to small talk varies a lot between people I’ve found. In my experience it’s been well worth trying to strike up conversations with Swedes. I met my best friend here shortly after we arrived in Sweden through starting a conversation with him in a playground while our kids played. Having a local Swedish friend has helped me hugely in feeling at home here. I’ve got to experience so many things that I’d never have done otherwise. I stopped to introduce myself to another neighbour. It turned out that she works with recruitment in the company where I want to work. Once I’ve finished my current studies I know that my application will at least get in front of the right people. Networking and personal recommendations are so important in the Swedish job market. Another guy from my Daughter’s school that I struck up conversation with has also given me several job leads. I’ve also experienced the other side. One direct neighbour ignored me for months. When we saw each other I always waved, but it was never returned. One day we met walking so he at least had to acknowledge me. We ended up having a good chat, he turned out to be a nice friendly guy. One thing I’ve learnt is that it’s important to keep the conversations relatively short. Brits have the habit of having long meandering conversations, which Swedes hate. Overall though it’s been a real positive to talk to people, it’s massively improved the quality of my life in Sweden.
Anonymous 2022/10/22 00:29
Calling in sick is actually VERY costly in Sweden compared to other EU countries like Germany. Through the public health insurance in Germany I got paid fully for all the sick days at the beginning. In Sweden I lose all my pay on the first day and only get paid 80% the consecutive days. It is NOT generous pay at all. I don't know what kind of comparison you people are making but this has been, for me, by far one of the most negative outcomes I've experienced moving here. Maybe TMI but I suffer from PMDD so sometimes the pain becomes too much and I need to call in sick for a day every couple of weeks / once a month perhaps (it's not regular). I do not find it fair at all that when I make that decision, it equals to me making quite an expensive purchase for basically nothing.
Anonymous 2022/04/11 15:46
These are all so common sense! I wouldn't dream of having it any other way. Maybe me Scandinavian sensibilities coming into play.

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