We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Sweden
Most Swedes have liberal, cosmopolitan, secular and environmentalist values by Anglo-Saxon standards. This spares Western tourists from cultural clashes which might be imminent in other countries. However, some strict rules of etiquette are almost unique to Swedish people. Sweden – a country of numbers Swedish people are reputed to be rigid and organized. Almost everything has a number. Swedish people have a ten-digit personal identity number (starting by date of birth in the form YYMMDD) used in contact with all kinds of government authorities, usually mentioned before the name.
Customers in Swedish shops or bank need to take a queue number note from a machine to be served in order. Each product at Systembolaget is known for its product number (which is often easier to keep track of than foreign-sounding names), and the most important feature in selection is the alcohol content (often divided by price to find the most cost-efficient product). If you order a drink in the bar, be prepared to tell how many centiliters of liquor you want. Most grocers provide milk in four or more fat content levels (plus an organic version of each, barista milk and low lactose milk, not to mention filmjölk, yoghurt and all other milk products). Before going outdoors, Swedes check air temperature, and before bathing in open water, they check water temperature.
Many Swedes also own barometers, hygrometers and rain gauges to support the eternal conversation about weather with statistics. In conversation about housing, Swedes define their flats by number of rooms (En trea – “a three” – is simply a three-room-and-kitchen flat) and usually ask each other about the area by square meter. They have week numbers running from 1 to 52. The world famous furniture retailer IKEA diverts from this pattern, with Nordic product names. Though narcotics are not unheard of, most Swedes, old and young, are strongly opposed to them. Punishment is harsh, even for private-use possession, consumption, and intoxication itself. This also applies to cannabis. When it comes to alcohol, Swedes are as double-natured as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Before work or driving, one beer is one too many, and drunk driving is a crime genuinely despised in Sweden. However, drunkenness can be a regular part of many Swedish traditions (e.g. Midsommar, Valborg, etc.)–keep this in mind if you abstain from alcohol. Some Swedes frown on people being sober at a party and reject excuses other than driving or pregnancy–though no formal policy exists that would force one to drink against their will. Salespeople, waiters and other service employees are usually less attentive than their colleagues in other countries, to respect customers’ privacy, except a short “hej” to entering customers.
Customers are supposed to call for attention. When entering a bus or another form of public transportation it is often considered unpolite to sit next to another person if there is another twin seat available. Always ask if you should remove your shoes or not when entering a Swedish home. In most homes it is customary to remove your shoes. Only on very rare occasions is the wearing of shoes indoors considered acceptable. Generally, you will see a place by the front door of most homes where shoes are to be stored and can surmise from the presence of other guests’ shoes what is expected. If you just assume that you are to take your shoes off upon entry, in most cases you will have done the right thing. Bringing indoor shoes to other people’s homes is customary among some.
Most Swedish homes have wood flooring; wall-to-wall carpets are uncommon. Should you be dressed up and the host asks you to take your shoes off, then you should do that. As in every other culture one’s home is one’s castle, and you would not like someone to be disrespectful in your own home. Despite rumours of the “Swedish sin”, Swedish people are generally not accepting of public nudity except at approved nudist beaches. Don’t go skinny-dipping in public beaches if you are more than about four years old. Female toplessness is accepted but not very common (though prohibited at many public baths), breastfeeding in public is also accepted.
Male toplessness is accepted in the countryside and at the beach, but might be frowned upon in urban areas. Greetings between men and women who know each other (e.g., are good friends, relatives, etc.) are often in the form of a hug. Swedes don’t cheek-kiss to greet but are aware that other cultures do. If you are a visitor from France and do cheek-kiss a Swede, they will return the favor but probably feel a bit awkward doing so. Show up on the minute for meetings and meals, preferably five minutes before the set time. There is no “fashionably late” in Sweden. However, showing up early at a private invitation is considered rude. If it’s acceptable to arrive late it’s usually mentioned specifically (e.g.,”…arrive after 1700″) or there exist formal rules (some universities apply an “akademisk kvart”, an academic quarter hour, within which it is acceptable to arrive to lectures). In regards to homosexuality, Sweden is quite tolerant.
In fact, as of May 2009, same-sex marriages have legal standing in Sweden. The chance of facing extreme criticism or homophobia is low in Sweden, as the country has anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. Violence against gays and lesbians is relatively rare. Of equal importance is to avoid assuming positions or cultures based on identifiable signs. For example the Chinese girl you might meet may speak no word of Chinese and have never been anywhere near China. This point is especially true for individuals from areas with ethnic strife – don’t assume that anyone you meet is either personally connected to, or shares the viewpoints of their ethnic-origin Nation.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Sweden, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Sweden food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Sweden? Please comment below.