As European as some of the Scandinavian countries seem, they have very distinct cultures – with traditions that go back millennia. Sweden, for example, is a country driven by the seasons with many perennial rituals guided by the weather. It makes sense if you think about it; for a country frequently blanketed in cold, holding outdoor festivals at very specific, warmer times of the year is only logical. But that’s just one example of how Sweden differs from Europe – and the U.S., for that matter. In truth, some Swedish customs and rules for etiquette are markedly different than what Americans are used to. So if you’re planning a visit, be sure to review these dos and don’ts before you go.
1: Be on time.
Whether you’re meeting a local contact for a tour or heading to a business tête-a-tête, Swedes expect you to be on time. This might not seem to be a big deal when you’re visiting, but if you’re invited to a local’s house or arrange a get-together while in-country, punctuality is expected. To be late is to be rude. And sure, the same can be said of gatherings in the U.S., but the Swedes are more particular about this; being on time is a sign of courtesy and respect.
2: Don’t ask businesses/individuals to serve you before or after hours.
This ties into a big overarching theme in Sweden: the sanctity of work-life balance. The separation of personal and professional is inviolable here, as citizens believe that they work to live, not the other way around. How does that apply to tourists? Well, in the U.S., it’s not uncommon for us to ask for service outside of standard hours or to request extra attention – usually for monetary compensation. In Sweden, however, money won’t get you more TLC, so don’t try it. Just respect business hours and the service parameters that are published for customers.
3: Don’t boast.
Picture it: You’re talking up a new friend/romantic interest at an upscale bar in downtown Stockholm. You want to impress, so you start to gush about your many achievements – and your incredible car/home/etc. It won’t take long before your new interest politely says goodbye and excuses him/herself. You see, the Swedes detest boastfulness and egotism. If your accomplishments are relevant to the conversation, include them, but don’t unnecessarily embellish.
4: Avoid off-color humor.
Every once in awhile, we’ll hear an off-color joke in stateside bars or restaurants. People may grimace or laugh, but it’s seldom considered a big deal – unless the joke is outright offensive. In Sweden, however, the reaction will likely be a bit more dramatic. Swedes are proper to the hilt and are keen on presenting themselves in a way that is refined and respectful. The last thing they want is untoward humor coloring conversation. Just avoid it.
5: Let the Swedes know you enjoy their country.
Despite their tamped-down egos and mild-mannered mien, the Swedes love their country and are very proud of their history and traditions. Don’t take their reserved demeanor as a lack of enthusiasm about their homeland. In fact, if you make a point to tell them how much you love their country, food, customs, or culture, you’ll make their day. Do so (genuinely) whenever you have the opportunity.
6: Don’t invite yourself over to someone’s house – that’s family territory.
If you’re into socializing, keep in mind that inviting yourself to another person’s home is a big faux pas. First of all, the home is family territory; inviting yourself over as a stranger is a no-no. Second, the Swedes don’t appreciate this kind of aggressive social behavior. Enjoy the locals’ company at bars and social spots in public, but don’t expect anything to come of it. (Though if you do get an invitation, count yourself lucky – this is a rare treat for foreign visitors.)
7: Don’t expect hugs.
Re-connecting with a friend? Meeting an extended family member? As close as you may be, don’t expect a hug during your initial greeting. The Swedes are fairly conservative when it comes to displays of affection – even among family members and friends. Don’t take that reserved nod and smile personally; this is just Swedish custom.
8: Make sure to dress well.
Are you seeing a theme develop? The Swedes are very keen on their appearance and presentation. To wit, they dress sharply. That’s not to say they don three-piece suits and flowing ball gowns when they go to the grocery store; they wear comfortable clothes, but make a point to ensure they are clean, well-fitted, and well-matched. If you want to impress, be sure you do the same.
9: Don’t expect big breakfasts.
Similar to continental Europeans, Swedes don’t usually indulge in a big breakfast. Expect the French/Italian standard in most hotels and restaurants – croissants or other simple pastries, coffee, and juice. It’s also common for workaday Swedes to simply sip on some coffee in the morning and then take a mid-morning break for fika, or a quiet retreat from work for a sweet snack and more coffee. Given their focus on work-life balance, this isn’t surprising; the fika ritual is often considered a way to pause, re-center, and remember what’s really important about the day.
BONUS: Try some aquavit.
While it’s certainly not required, enjoying a small glass of aquavit is quintessentially Swedish – especially during the holidays. However, as its flavor is a bit unusual to Americans – caraway is often the predominant flavoring agent – it can be intimidating. Never fear; if you’re not interested, politely ask for a Snaps (that’s Swedish for Schnapps), Glögg (mulled red wine), or local beer instead.
Finally, if you’re planning on spending some time in Stockholm and need inspiration on where to eat, check out our recent recommendations on Stockholm restaurants.