Expats and travelers alike are prone to getting some serious culture shock in Sweden. The country is very Westernized and (almost) everyone speaks good English. Still, some things will faze you.
With our complete, no-BS, foreigner to foreigner guide to Swedish culture, you are one step ahead of the game. Jumping right in!
Immediately On Arrival
Let’s get three minor but very surprising things out of the way:
Swedish people are obsessed with ketchup. Not mustard, not mayonnaise, not any other condiment. Ketchup is everywhere, even on the pasta.
Don’t be surprised if your friend serves you plain noodles with ketchup and calls it ‘my favourite food in the world’. You are allowed not to like it just don’t be surprised.
Texting while driving is ok. People do it all the time and the government does not mind. They say they haven’t seen any relation to more car accidents.
To be fair, Swedes are pretty great drivers. Try not to freak out when you see the taxi driver casually texting while he navigates traffic. Still, I wouldn’t recommend anybody to do this. Safety first, guys!
There is no decaf and Swedes love (love, love) their caffeine. Remember Pippi Longstocking from when you were little? Well, if you don’t, basically it is a children’s book where the kiddos drink a whole lot of coffee.
That should tell you a lot about how much the Swedish adore their caffeine. Coffee is quite possibly more popular than water and decaf is rarely an option. Better get used to those jitters (or start practising a lot of self-control).
Speaking of coffee, embrace the tradition of fika. It means coffee break and it is essential in Swedish culture. The coffee is served black, Americano style but there are plenty of sweets to go with it.
Obviously, cinnamon rolls rule the game but there are also a ton of other pastries you could get. Explore at your own risk of diabetes!
All About Swedish Food
I like to include a couple of paragraphs on food when I am talking about a country’s culture. You can learn a lot about people by knowing how they eat. And, right off the bat, Swedish food is much more than those infamous Ikea meatballs.
Starting off with the meatballs, though, the lingonberry jam they are usually served with is about to become your best friend. Not only is it a local’s favorite, it goes well with virtually anything.
Surprisingly enough, Swedes rarely put it on bread. Rather, it is used as a sour-sweet sauce to enhance dishes. Picking lingonberries is a glorious summer ritual, too. Most of your Swedish friends probably grew up doing it every year.
Pancakes, Cinnamon Buns, And Pea Soup
Another fun food fact, pancakes go with pea soup and they are a Thursday night special. The funky tradition has somewhat unclear origins. Some say it was the Catholics that would fill up on pea soup on Thursdays, as Fridays were always meatless.
Others think it was that maids only worked half-day on Thursdays and pea soup was a quick and easy dish for them to make.
Either way, don’t turn your head from the weird combo. It is one of those things that you would never expect to taste well (but they really, really do).
Finally, cinnamon buns are the quintessential Swedish dessert. Or breakfast. Or lunch, or dinner. Swedes don’t judge and they also really love their sweets. There is even a National Cinnamon Bun Day (Kanelbullens dag) celebrated on October 4th.
Christmas Is… Christmas Eve
Swedes celebrate Christmas on the 24th. The 25th is merely the other day of Christmas. All the family fun, the gift opening, the ridiculous amounts of food you shove into your mouth, all of that happens on the 24th.
When it comes to celebrations, Swedes are creatures of habit. They are not the most spontaneous bunch, generally speaking. This might be a good time to warn you about dating. Expect your girlfriend/boyfriend not to love the unexpected.
Dates need to be planned accordingly. Swedish culture is all about equality and emancipation so guys and girls alike keep very busy. Figuring out a time that is convenient for both of you will not always be easy.
And Midsummer’s Eve Is The Time To Let Loose
Going back to the parties and celebrations, the second most important holiday of the year is Midsummer. Yes, like in the Shakespeare play. The cities empty and everyone heads over to the countryside.
A typical Midsummer lunch consists of boiled potatoes, pickled herring, washed down with a lot of beer and some nubbe (a Swedish hard liquor, usually served ice cold in tiny shot glasses). After lunch, you raise the maypole, a symbol of fertility.
There is a lot dancing that follows and at this point a lot of people are tipsy so don’t worry about your poor skills.
At night, the parties begin. Legend has it that Midsummer’s Eve is a magical time for love.
Swedes can be a bit reserved and even conservative when it comes to partying. Not on Midsummer’s Eve.
It is a huge alcohol-fueled gathering where a lot of hookups happen.
Shakespeare knew it, now you know it. Have some responsible fun! And by responsible, I mean don’t end up drunk and lost in the forest.
Social Interactions In Swedish Culture
Or, in other words, how to make friends the Swedish way. Being an expat in Sweden can get lonely pretty fast. Swedes are reserved and emotionally detached most of the time.
They are very polite and pleasant, don’t get me wrong, but it is hard to connect with them on a more personal level. The culture is all about giving you privacy to do whatever the heck you want.
To Swedes, their perceived ‘antisociability’ is simply a way for them to give you (and themselves) space. People here prefer to mind their own business and would hate to intrude.
Which is why you should make the first move. The wrong way to do that is to ask questions. I know it is the most clichéd conversation advice in the book but it does not work in Sweden.
You would be surprised at how private Swedes can be. Instead of putting your buddy-to-be on the spot, approach them by sharing something about yourself. Humor in Sweden is very self-depreciating so a joke about how clumsy you are, or how often you get lost, or how you didn’t get enough sleep because you suck at maintaining a sleep schedule is a nice icebreaker.
If you don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about sharing mishaps with a stranger, go for the human Google technique. By the way, this isn’t my term, Charlie Houpert of ‘Charisma On Command’ came up with it.
Basically, the idea is to ask questions but not the personal ‘What do you do for fun?’ kind. Rather ask the kind of stuff you would normally Google (well, except for ‘Do penguins prostitute themselves?’ or ‘Why Pikachu loves ketchup?’).
Recommendations for restaurants, travel tips, how to make a Swedish recipe work… Anything that they would know about and that is neutral enough for them not to feel interrogated.
Laundry, Tobacco Sniffing, And Alcohol Deficiency
There are a lot of particularities about Swedish culture and one of them is laundry. In Swedish buildings, there is usually a common laundry room.
Whether you are renting or you are the owner, you would probably have to share your washing machine with the neighbors.
As weird as it sounds, finding a good laundry time is an impressive achievement. Schedules aren’t always easy to manage so don’t be sad if your friend cancels on you to do laundry. They probably could not get a better time slot.
Speaking of hanging out with friends, one thing you will notice they do is sniff tobacco. Swedes love it (or at least many of them do).
There are snuffing devices but most people just put it on the back of their hand. It is usually placed on a particular spot between their thumb and index finger.
There is a huge range of snuffs available in Sweden, even non-tobacco ones made out of glucose and aromas. Try out, even if it seems a bit ‘I am doing coke’-y. It’s not the best for you but hey, it doesn’t cause lung cancer either.
Finally, you would find your parties and casual nights with friends noticeably deficient in alcohol. Drinks are outrageously expensive in Sweden.
You can only buy alcohol from a state-owned chain and there are various restrictions depending on your age.
Swedes still love their drinks but they do consume less alcohol than you are probably used to. Casually sipping wine on a Tuesday night is frowned upon.
Closing Words On Swedish Culture
As Western and modern as Sweden might be, moving to another country or even traveling long-term is never easy. Give yourself some time to get used to Swedish culture, though, and I guarantee you will fall in love with it.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments down below!