But, like many, I’m not one to just automatically believe things on the internet are true, plus customs can vary widely by region or by age group. So, knowing that my family is looking mostly at southwestern Sweden, I found some wonderful folks there closer to our age group willing to chime in their thoughts. For the moment, this is just a re-sharing of the Expats In Sweden list of customs, and as each topic is posted as a post, I’ll update the list item to be linked to the detailed answers.
Answering the telephone
Most Swedes will answer their phone by saying either their first or last name or both. It is also practiced in some areas to answer with your own phone number. People rarely pick up and say hello without giving you any indication of where you have called.
Be on time!
Swedes are neurotic about punctuality, agendas and time tables. Notably, we use a number of stock phrases that are significant for this way of thinking e.g. “Time is money” or “Don’t waste time”. It is considered very disrespectful to be late both professionally and privately. If you are late, do call and let the waiting person(s) know and you will be easily forgiven. Always apologize if you are late.
There is something called the “academic quarter of an hour”. That means if you are going to someone’s home you may be fifteen minutes late – at the very most. If a plane or bus is supposed to leave at a set time, Swedes get very frustrated if kept waiting. There are however, situations when we expect to be kept waiting, such as doctor’s or dentist’s appointments.
On weekdays you can call people between 9 am-10 pm. Don’t call before 10 am on weekends. It is also considered bad form not to introduce yourself even if the person answering is not the one you are looking for. We sometimes introduce ourselves even though we dialed the wrong number in order to be polite.
Swedish drinking habits are quite different than those of other people. Already in 1630 a Frenchman visiting Stockholm complained about the Swedes’ drinking habits. Not only, do they get drunk, but they make innumerable toasts and make longwinded speeches to accompany them, he said.
The following funny story told to me by the Princess Lilian also depicts how foreigners may view the Swede’s drinking and speechmaking. A Frenchmen, a Swede and a Norwegian were sentenced to death and the day before the execution they were granted their last wishes. The Frenchman asked for a three course meal followed by a cigar. The Swede asked for a dinner and also wanted to make a speech. The Norwegian’s last wish was to be executed before the Swede began his speech.
Swedes love their coffee and they like it strong. This is the reason why Swedes drink the most coffee per capita in the world. Coffee also offers social qualities. Most places of work will have two “mandatory” coffee breaks per day.
If someone loses a member of the family it is common to call and give your condolences. If it is not a close friend a written note sent to the home is an appreciated gesture. In former days white lilies were often sent in conjunction to the note, today however, it has lightened up and if you want to send flowers any kind will do.
Swedes love to take classes outside of work. Various schools send their course bulletins straight to your home. Most of them are started by various unions for the members to develop new skills, however the selection is wide. Ceramics and arts and crafts are on offer as well as languages, bookkeeping, computers and dance classes. Most any interest can be triggered by a course available. The schools to look for are Folkuniversitetet, Medborgarskolan, and TBV.
Dating in Sweden
The equality between the sexes may be the reason for the lack of traditional courtship in Swedish relationships. Ask any Swedish man and he will assure you that females often call them and that they frequently split a dinner check in half. Going Dutch, even on dates, has clearly been adopted in Sweden.
Foreign females are often surprised, by what they perceive as the Swedish males lack of attentiveness. Males coming from cultures where dating and courtship is part of life will find Swedish women very appreciative and sometimes confused by that form of interaction.
Everyone is expected to bring something called Patientbricka. It looks like a white credit card with your name, address, and personal identification number. It will be copied onto your journals and used for Försäkringskassans records.
Swedish people often have a very scientific approach to diseases and want to know as much as possible about the illness and it’s cure. Doctors are often personable and friendly and will listen to your complaints before giving you a diagnosis. He also believes that you will look after your own interests. Therefore, he will not scare the patient but usually tell you that whatever the seriousness of your condition it can be cured or arrested if you follow his directions. This does not mean that your condition cannot be worsened if you ignore his warning. If he double-checks medications in his medical dictionary a Swede will be pleased whilst people from other countries may question his skills.
Children start school at six and there is daycare for everyone before that to enable parents to work. The median is 2.1 children per family, which is rather high, actually one of the highest birthrates in Europe.
Several generations in the same household is uncommon in Sweden. Children leave the home in their late teens or early twenties and usually live alone for a few years before starting their own families. The result is of course, that young Swedish families cannot rely on the help and support from their parents to the same extent and of course the opposite situation applies for the older generation when their needs increase.
Old people have the option to live in adapted apartments with limited help or gradual steps toward an old peoples home. It is not expected or demanded that children take care of their elders. As the fiscal climate tightens this may change.
Family news – births, birthdays, engagements, marriages and deaths
It is very common to announce family changes in the papers. Each daily newspaper has a page designated for family news. You place an announcement for a fee. To ensure that everyone sees the announcement many place them in the two major papers, Dagens Nyheter or Svenska Dagbladet.
If you notice a change in a friend/colleague’s family situation it is customary to drop a note of congratulation or condolence.
First name basis
Swedes are informal and rarely use titles when addressing one another. We also call each other, often without age distinction, by our first name.
Gender roles and equality
Most women in Sweden work outside the home both before and after marriage. They also continue working after having children, but after a maternity leave of 12-18 months. Not only is this because families need a dual income to survive, but it is also considered a woman’s right for self fulfillment. Consequently, men are expected to do a larger burden of the work within the home and to be equally responsible for child rearing. However, most will agree that the domestic chores still largely fall under the woman’s domain. It is also not unusual that mothers of young children engage in part time work in order to spend more time with their children.
When the children are ill it is also more common for the mothers to stay home to care for them. This is often explained by the fact that the man is the primary breadwinner in the family and his day of partly lost income influences the family to a larger extent.
Some traditional gestures are still upheld. For example, men often open doors for women and let them enter first. Men propose marriage even though it is also often a common decision between the two parties without involvement from the families.
Getting friendly with the locals
The effort will most likely be on your part. Moving to a new country or just a new city is usually connected with a lonely beginning. You have to make an effort to meet people and become part of their everyday lives. A few hints on how to do it in Stockholm are:
• Take a class at one of the schools. Evening classes are available for those who work.
• Use your children and meet other parents when you leave and pick up your child at school or activities.
• Go to the gym. Choose a nice one where people stay around afterwards.
• Any sports activity that you like. At the tennis, squash centers or golf course, they can usually pair you off with someone if you ask them.
• Invite people to your home or to do things.
• Find common interests and engage in them with other interested people.
• Go out to bars and restaurants and meet people.
• Contact the local international clubs.
• Find out who else from your country or even city lives here. It is always easier to become friends with your nationals when you are abroad.
If you are invited to someone’s home or a party
If the invitation is in writing you are expected to reply in writing. If you are invited in person or by telephone you can accept or decline right away or call back with an answer. Also, be sure to check if there is a dress code. If the event is in a home ask for the door code.
• When you are invited to someone’s home, do ask if the invitation is extended to your children or pets. If, the host/hostess have arranged for a baby-sitter they will not expect other children or pets as guests.
• Swedes often bring a gift when going to someone’s home. Flowers or wine are appreciated gifts. If you have something from your own country, most people will appreciate that.
• Punctuality is a virtue. Seven o’clock means seven o’clock if you are invited for dinner. Chances are that the food is almost on the table. Arriving late often means inconveniencing the host/hostess.
• For table seating at informal affairs, usually the host/hostess will tell you where they want you to sit. On more formal occasions there will be a table seating plan at the door and/or name tags at each seat. If there is a table seating plan the man finds the lady on his right and escorts her to the table. Only during the engagement period do couples sit next to one another, otherwise you will be assigned to a dinner companion. You are expected to make small talk throughout the meal and dance the first dance with your dinner companion.
• The meal is usually commenced by the host/hostess welcoming everyone and toasting. Don’t drink anything but water before the first toast is made. When there are less than 8 people don’t eat before the host/hostess has taken the first bite or asked you to begin. When toasting you should pick up your glass and try to look everyone in the eye (if you are less than 8 people at the table), then take a sip and afterwards again make eye contact with everyone before putting down your glass.
• The person sitting on the left of the hostess will make a thank you speech during dessert.
• If coffee is taken in a different room, stay with your dinner companion. Men usually bring women coffee.
• Call or write and thank the host/hostess within ten days. Try to reciprocate by inviting them to something.
• People rarely invite you to dinner twice in a row, but wait for you to return their invitation by arranging something.
Also look under Shoes indoors.
Independence is important to us both financially and practically. An old Swedish saying is that “A good man can take care of himself”. The Swedish language is full of proverbs and stock phrases that glorify independence, personal responsibility and individual capability. The ability to accomplish things unaided is always held as an ideal.
Most restaurants have daily lunch specials. It is reasonably priced and this is the main meal of the day for many Swedes. A salad, bread, coffee and a beverage is often included in the price which varies between 45-75 SEK.
Although Sweden has been governed by the socialist party for most of this century, the monarchy has not been threatened by the public opinion. The Swedish Monarch is down to earth and well liked and respected by most Swedes. When UK and Monaco were raged by continuous royal scandals the Scandinavian Royal families were held up as examples of how the ideal Monarchs should behave.
Paying in restaurants
At lunch time you will often get separate checks, whilst at dinner you will get one for the whole table. If you go out as a group it is not uncommon that people figure out how much they owe and will pay only for that part. Splitting the check evenly is also customary.
Not only is Sweden a member of the UN Security Council, but we are great peacekeepers at home. We shun conflicts. We prefer not to raise an uncomfortable issue if it means risking having to raise our voice.
Swedes are fond of their animals. Cats and dogs are treated as family and live inside the home. However, there are regulations for how to keep your pet . They must not make noise that disturbs the neighbors. When taking your dog for walks you are requested to pick up your animal’s disposal and bring to a garbage bin. You may not hit your animal. The pet should get the necessary shots for various diseases. Name tags with address and phone numbers are helpful if the animal strays.
It is fairly uncommon to neuter your dogs while it is more commonplace with cats.
Dogs must be on a leash during the period March 1 through August 20. For more information about regulations, good exercise areas and parks to walk dogs call Stockholm’s Kommun and order the book “Hund i Stockholm”.
Swedes identify themselves largely with their professions. One of the first questions asked a new acquaintance is: “What do you do for a living”? It is also common to say I am a computer consultant, rather than I work as a computer consultant. This has created problems as the rate of unemployment has become higher. Status is closely connected with a person’s choice of profession not age, whom you are related to, personality or other characteristics. However, not only high status professions render respect, a job well done in any area is well looked upon.
The Swedish state religion is Protestant Lutheran. We have freedom of religious expression as long as it does not violate other laws. Our social lives are more often than not disconnected from any involvement with a church or denomination.
The state and the church will be formally separated in 1998. Although Swedes don’t go to church, a great deal of morals and ethics still have its platform based on the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.
Different rules apply for different occasions. In rural areas people often take off their shoes inside, while it is less common in cities. If you are formally invited to someone’s house, you are not expected to take off your shoes, but if you drop by in the daytime do ask if the hostess wants you to take them off. Some people will bring indoor shoes with them in a bag when invited somewhere in order to be able to walk to the other persons house without ruining their nice shoes. Weather conditions should, of course be taken into consideration.
Shopping in Sweden is an uninterrupted affair. The store clerk or personnel will not approach you, instead you are left largely alone. You are allowed to touch things and try them on. If you want assistance you have to ask for it or your right to privacy will be observed.
Swedes like to socialize at home. Our restaurant and pub habits are not quite as developed as in other countries. Social patterns differ greatly depending on the season. We are much more outgoing in the summers and are more willing to do things in the middle of the week. This can be attributed to the amazing long, light evenings and that during school year many are enrolled in evening classes.
We like to plan our socializing and don’t like surprise visits. Among young people it is quite ordinary to bring different ingredients, pay for your portion of the dinner, or even each pay for the expense of your dinner. The background is that food and drinks are very expensive in Sweden.
Talk about the weather
As the fall and winter months are so long in Sweden, we are obsessed with the weather. We love to talk about it as it, is the one common denominator we all have. The way most American men can discuss football and baseball for hours, we talk about the weather. The weather is also used as an explanation for tiredness, illness and poor moods. The way a foreigner thinks of Swedes may differ greatly depending on the season.
The answer is no
When offered something, unless we know exactly what it is, we always say no. We can however, often be persuaded. Instead of saying no we like to be polite and say “Nja, well let me think about it”. This is still a negative response and we expect the other person to understand that we have said no.
A response such as “Hm, I think that may be difficult” usually means no that will not be possible.
Jantelagen is a term often used. It means that you should never think that you are better than anyone else. To be understated is important. What Swedes consider bragging would in many countries only be to tell it like it is.
If someone compliments you on a job well done or your new haircut a Swede rarely responds with “thank you”. Instead we explain how easy it was and how anyone could have done it or that the haircut really doesn’t look very good or that at least it wasn’t expensive.
Visiting friends and acquaintances
Swedes like to plan things. If you want to visit someone, call in advance and ask them if it is convenient. A Swede will find it embarrassing if their home isn’t orderly or if they don’t have anything to offer you when you come. The high need for privacy can also be disturbed by a surprise visit.
Swedes have very restrictive views on violence, domestic and otherwise. Parents are not allowed to discipline their children physically. Neither is the school or anyone else. It is prohibited to hit anybody for any reason. To use physical violence is considered a sign of weakness, especially when a bigger person hits or hurts someone smaller. A stock phrase that depicts that is “Where common sense or ability to express oneself ends violence starts”.
Work and leisure time – two different things
Swedes like to divide their time exclusively between work and leisure. We also like to separate work colleagues and private friendships. A commonly used expression is “Never mix work and pleasure”.
Don’t be surprised if your work colleagues don’t ask you to participate in their leisure time or don’t introduce you to their friends. This has nothing to do with you coming from a different country, they don’t spend time outside work with their Swedish colleagues either.
People rarely discuss private matters at work and they are hesitant to recruit friends or family to their own place of work.