When living In Sweden one notices an infinity of small things that people do here on a daily basis which are odd for most people around the world, but are perfectly normal in this country. One could write entire books on the topic, but I will do my best to squeeze in as much as I can into this article.
Pedals on fridges
You would not even notice they are there unless someone points it out to you, but once “enlightened”, you can never go back to the old way of opening a fridge. Apparently it is done to ensure the appliance lasts longer as pressing the pedal releases air so that the door’s rubber isolating layer does not get ruined.
Most Swedes carefully place their shopping on the conveyor belt so that the cashier can scan the items, taking extra care in aligning everything so that the barcode faces the scanner. There are two schools of thought on why they do this: some say it is to make the transaction faster and be able to reduce to minimum the contact they are forced to have with the person serving them; whilst others instead believe that they do this to help the cashier as they are such nice people. I follow the latter school of thought, as Swedish people tend to be kinder rather than introverted and this just underlines how extremely kind they are.
On the 25th of every month all Swedish students in full-time education get ‘CSN’ that is money from the government around 3000 SEK in the form of a grant and up to 7000 SEK in the form of a student loan. On that day, Swedish students from Malmö to Umeå go absolutely crazy and start spending like there is no tomorrow, so you will find massive lines outside clubs and hordes of booze-craving Swedes raiding System Bolaget (the only place to buy liquor in Sweden).
One of the major causes of mortality amongst young people in Sweden is suicide. Many people call on the government to invest more resources in creating a special department within the public health system to address this issue. One would understandably think that this would be a taboo topic in Sweden, instead it is not. On the contrary, there are even some chart topping pop songs with lyrics that talk about dying young. To mention two: ‘Shoreline’ by Broder Daniel and ‘Some Die Young’ by Laleh. These songs are regularly played on Swedish radio and in clubs; what better song could you choose to show off your moves?
Swedish cuisine tends to be rather healthy, but there are some peculiar dishes which one can only find here. One example is meat with jam such as the traditional meatballs served with lingonberry jam. A more recent invention is the ultimate fast-food and all-time favourite pizza in Sweden: the ‘Kebab Pizza’. As odd as it may sound, it is a simple Margherita base (tomato sauce and mozzarella) with a full on kebab on top of it. From personal experience it sounds like a recipe made in hell but it is rather tasty, definitely a top-notch hangover cure. What I cannot culturally accept is pasta with ketchup. They say that Swedish ketchup is better than the one you find elsewhere, but as an Italian I refuse to even consider trying it.
Sauna culture in Sweden is a big part of the folklore, not as big as it is in neighbouring Finland but still something everyone does regularly. People have private saunas for their block of flats, at the gym or there are public ones. Most of them are sex segregated but there are some that are mixed. As a true Swede wearing a swimming costume or underwear is a big No, so one must enjoy the sauna completely naked. One would believe that the stereotypically awkward Swedes would be even more reserved when in their birthday-suit but oddly they are not. On the contrary, many engage in conversations with strangers, even if they are completely sober.
It is rare to find a Swede with a truly Swedish accent when speaking English, which in my opinion is a real shame. At least that tends to be the case amongst the younger generations. Most of them pick-up the accent used in their favourite TV series or if they have had the experience of living abroad either on exchange or just working and travelling , they most likely will have the accent of the English-speaking country they have visited. It is amazingly funny when a Swede tries hard to put on a posh British accent, which is considered really cool of course.
No small talk.
Small talk with strangers or even acquaintances such as neighbours is not the done thing in Sweden. Waiting in line in any given situation or going to a café must be done in total silence, unless you are with someone you know. Your Mp3 player and big, antisocial headphones become your best friends.
Personal space, please!
When in Sweden respect standard personal space and double or triple it. When sober, Swedes like to keep distance.
SwEnglish – Swedish ways of communicating whilst speaking English
Some, mostly the older generations, tend to gasp when having a normal conversation. At first one is taken aback by this way of communicating and believe it may be related to something said that particularly shocked or scared the Swede. Most likely that is not the case, it is just a way of showing interest and understanding when someone is talking. To express mild surprise Swedes say ‘jaha’ (a combination of Yes and ‘Aha!’) and this often makes its way into the way they speak English too. To an to a British person ‘aha!’ might sound mildly sarcastic but in Sweden it is not meant that way. It shows interest. In the north of Sweden people say ‘yes’ by breathing-in sharply and briefly; the first few times you experience this it is quite amazing.
Dealing with Stress
If a Swedish person had to choose between dealing with Satan in person or a stressful situation the choice is easy, Satan all the way. Stress is seen as a quintessentially negative thing in Swedish society so when someone says ‘I feel stressed’ it is a big deal here in Sweden. The first contact I experienced with Swedish society was in a London airport boarding my SAS, Stockholm bound flight. It was one of those rare occasions in which it was snowing rather heavily in England and as it is so rare, nobody knows how to deal with it and everything is absolute mayhem. The Situation got so bad that they were planning on shutting the airport and grounding all flights at which point a SAS stewardess made an announcement on the intercom and I quote: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen good morning and welcome on board this SAS flight to Stockholm! We don’t want to stress you, but please take your seats as soon as possible as they are threatening to close the airport and we really want to get back to Sweden’. She said this with a slight note of panic in her voice; one cannot blame the poor soul for wanting to get back to Sweden as the thought of being stranded in London for an unspecified amount of time with a full-on snow storm is anyone’s idea of a nightmare. The key point is that even with apocalyptic weather (for English standards) the stewardess felt the need to make sure that nobody had to stress whilst hurrying up.
The drug many people are legally high on in Sweden. It is basically tobacco in a sachet that people put under their lip which releases a nicotine fix up to 10 time stronger than the average cigarette. It also gets to your brain much faster as the sachet releases its ‘magic power’ through the gum straight into the blood stream. It is apparently very bad for your health and it is illegal to sell in every other EU country, but when Sweden joined they asked to be exempt from the ban as part of the conditions for joining the Union. Some people are heavily addicted and get through more than a pack of 20 a day. The fact that Snus is legal, readily available and fairly cheap (average price for a box is around 30 SEK) is something worth looking into. Both Snus and Cigarettes are fairly cheap considering the average wage, whilst alcohol is super taxed and other drugs including ‘recreational ones’ such as Marijuana are banned with punishment for those found in possession very high. Why is this? Well, my theory is that cigarettes and snus are not heavily taxed as a nicotine-fix makes people less stressed and most of all increases their efficiency levels. On the other hand, if somebody gets drunk, the next day they will be hungover and that would have a severe impact on their efficiency, which in Swedish society would be totally unacceptable.
Forget being a gentleman.
If you go on a date and wish to pay for your Swedish partner, even if it is just a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun, you will be in for a surprise. Women here feel very independent and the idea that a man must pay for them makes them feel ‘inferior’ or ‘in debt’, so they would rather go halves as opposed to getting a free ride. If you offer to help a lady with carrying stuff or executing a physical chore they might get offended; you might hear answers such as: ‘do you think that only because I’m a woman I cannot cope?’. Some might say this jokingly with a smile on their face, others might take serious offence and give you a lecture on feminist propaganda (the latter tend to be a minority referred to by some Swedes as Femi-Nazis).
Donald Duck at Christmas
On the 24th of December at 3pm every year the exact same episode of Donald Duck, dubbed in Swedish, is played on national television and everybody watches it. It is truly an institution and people have compared it to the Queen’s Christmas message which in Britain is broadcast every year at 3pm on the 25th on national television.
A tool for everything
Every Swede has an ample set of tools in their house and each has its specific function. Some are unique to Sweden or rarely can be found anywhere else (except possibly IKEA). A Cheese-slicer, how else is one supposed to cut cheese, surely not with a knife? A Spray for dish washing, A shoe-horn and the list continues…
Putting Effort but Not Showing it
Taking ages to comb hair to make it look perfect, not only for women but also men, is a normal thing in Sweden. The key is making it seem as if they have made no effort and that it was a natural look. Stockholm guys did not pick-up on this social cue and use tons of hair gel to go for the combed back hair style (some controversially refer to it as ‘brat look’).
Standardisation all the way, people of Sweden tend to conform quite a lot. Here are a few examples: where does everyone buy furniture from? IKEA. Where do people get their music? Spotify. Clothes? H&M. Underwear? Björn Borg. Cars? Volvo. Phone/Laptop? Apple. Bags? Fjällräven. Shoes? Adidas, All Star or Timberland (for winter). Alcohol? System Bolaget / Booze cruise – Viking Line (from Stockholm to either Helsinki, Riga or Tallin).
Tak for idag!
Translated literally ‘thanks for today’ is something I first heard when helping out at the Fika at the end of a shift and it is really nice to hear that from your bosses as it makes you feel appreciated. You then notice that people say it in many other situations too, such as after an outing, when leaving a pub (in which obviously everyone paid for their own drinks) or after a night clubbing.
Article originally published in ‘Nya Gamla Phosphorus’ Östgöta nation’s periodical magazine in December 2016.