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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?
In Sweden, small talk between strangers on public transport is generally not welcome. Photo: Simon Paulin/ Imagebank Sweden

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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For members

SWEDISH HABITS

Eight unwritten rules that explain how Sweden works

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

Eight unwritten rules that explain how Sweden works
Sit down to pee and win friends. Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

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 for longer than two years 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.

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