23 Unwritten Rules According to a Swede (What NOT To Do in Sweden)

Last Updated on Categorized as Life

No one wants to be the person who comes to a new country and pisses everyone off by breaking a bunch of unwritten rules you didn’t know about. So I figured there will likely be some people out there wondering what things you should avoid doing when in Sweden. Because there are a lot of no-nos in Sweden, some more serious than others, that might not exist at all or to a different degree in your home country.

So let’s dive into the 23 most common things you should avoid whilst visiting Sweden:

1

Do NOT brag about yourself

You may be the best thing since sliced bread, but Swedes have an inherent distaste for anyone who tries to brag about themselves and their accomplishments. That said, a classy humblebrag will usually fit right into the passive-aggressive Swedish way.

Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård embodies this spirit perfectly when he explains why its hard for him to take a compliment or deal with success as a Swede:

Alexander Skarsgård Is Too Swedish To Be Cocky
2

Do NOT take the last piece of a sweet treat

A classic 2-layered Marabou Aladdin chocolate box, a favorite among Swedes up until they removed the “Trillingnöt” in 2014. It is considered a grave offense if one takes from the bottom layer before the top layer is eaten. Photo: “Christmas 2013” by sebilden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Swedes generally avoid taking the last piece of a treat (cake, chocolate box, etc.) as it can be seen as a selfish, rude, and inconsiderate thing to do to others. That said, someone always get to take the piece in the end, but only after several minutes of offering it around to everyone and their grandma.

3

Do NOT ignore personal space

The Swedish culture is naturally a very distant one, with Swedes generally keeping their distance to each other out of respect for each other’s personal space (even before the pandemic!). 

Här är bilden från en svensk busshållplats som hela internet asgarvar åt  just nu
As evident by the number of pixels, this image was taken long before the social distancing laws were introduced during the pandemic.
4

Do NOT open a can of Surströmming inside (ever!)

I’m sure you’ve seen all the YouTube videos of people opening surströmming cans and barfing their. brains out due to the extremely potent and rank smell that will seemingly spread for hundreds of yards instantly. The lesson here is, do not under any circumstances open a can of the surprisingly delicious fermented herring inside, as it will require industrial-grade sanitation efforts afterward (you might as well throw away everything in the room unless you want to keep smelling it for years to come).

In case you’ve missed it, here’s a great example from our Irish friends:

Irish People Try Surströmming (World's Smelliest Food)
5

Do NOT enter a home with your shoes on

A non-negotiable rule for 99% of Swedish homes is to take of your shoes before you enter someone’s house. This is rooted in practical reasons, as it would be incredibly messy if everyone dragged in a mix of mud and snow with them after a trip outside in the winter.

6

Do NOT act overly chivalrous

Swedish women might be offended if you run around the car to open their door, or any other similar act of chivalry, as gender equality is a cornerstone of Swedish culture. Smaller acts of general kindness are definitely ok though (such as holding a door open).

Going with the trend of other Nordic countries in recent years, the Swedish Social Democratic party elected the country’s first female prime minister in 2021.

Magdalena Andersson, Statsminister (Prime Minister) of Sweden. Photo: “Magdalena Andersson” by EU2017EE is licensed under CC BY 2.0
7

Do NOT evangelize

Sweden is one of the most secular countries in the world, and trying to push your religious beliefs onto someone in Sweden will usually result in a swift ending of the conversation, and very little chance of hanging out with said Swede again.

A Jehova’s Witness stand on the streets of Sweden, generally not very popular with the locals who’ll likely nervously look the other way when the zealous witnesses approach and try to convince them. Photo: “Nytänkande hos Jehovas vittnen. De har ett stånd på Årjängs marknad!” by nilsbryntesson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

To clarify, Swedes aren’t against talking about religion, but they do strongly dislike when someone is trying to shove it down their throats.

8

Do NOT stand on the left in an escalator

As a general rule, people walk on the left and stand on the right in a Swedish escalator, and especially in the deep Stockholm subway this can result in a harsh reaction from people who are in a hurry and are trying to walk instead of stand still.

Here’s an example of how it usually goes when people try to stand on the left in the Stockholm subway escalators:

Raj Raj - irritera stockholmare - stå fel i rulltrappan
9

Do NOT ostracize your kids in public

Swedes can react quite strongly to anyone scolding or punishing their kids in public, and will not hesitate to come up and give you a surprisingly vocal — by Swedish standards — lecture in parenting.

10

Do NOT forget to pay your share of the tab

After a long work week, Swedes love to go out to a bar with their colleagues to blow some steam off on so-called AWs (After Works). If you for whatever reason would miss to pay for your share of any shared bill that may be accrued on your table as a whole, you will never hear or feel the end of it from your Swedish co-workers.

11

Do NOT talk politics with strangers

This may not be a unique thing for Sweden, but it is considered very rude and provocative to bring up politics with people you have just met over here. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially in modern times, when a big chunk of Swedes vote for either far-right or far-left parties.

12

Do NOT go outside without proper clothing

We have a saying here in Sweden that everyone who grew up here knows by heart: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes”. Walking out on a cold winter day without proper clothing will result in expressions of disbelief from Swedes, and some might even get upset and urge you to reconsider your lax stance on clothing.

13

Do NOT act chauvinistic towards women

While Swedish women might be renowned for their looks in certain parts of the world, there is nothing that will cool their interest in you as fast as a whistle or a catchall.

If you insist, it might work better with something along these lines (courtesy of LittleRoamingChief):

14

Do NOT cut in front of people in lines

Swedes have a weirdly strong belief in queuing up for stuff, and an even stronger belief in the sanctity of the line order. Cutting in line might be one of the rudest things one can do in Sweden, and will produce a strong reaction from those you have just cut in front of.

15

Do NOT ask how much someone is making

Most Swedes would be absolutely horrified if you ask them directly how much money they make. It’s just not something we do here, unless it’s between co-workers that is (in which case you should definitely do it, as it promotes more equal pay).

16

Do NOT be late (or early) to an appointment

“Late” by Photo Extremist is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Few things will rile Swedes up more than someone who is inherently late to everything (trust me, I have a tendency to be that guy and have not heard the end of it among certain circles). And this goes for showing up early too! I’ve literally witnessed my mom and dad on their way to a dinner party stopping their car on the side of the road for 15 minutes, just to avoid being early to said party.

17

Do NOT sit next to someone on public transportation if there's room elsewhere

Swedes aren’t very open to conversations and interactions with strangers (which I personally find baffling!), so sitting down next to someone on a bus or train when there are plenty of free private seating options available can be seen as a borderline act of aggression. That said, the worst reaction you are likely to see is a long trip of absolute silence, or perhaps some very awkward small talk if you’re lucky.

Here’s a great example of Swedish bus seating etiquette posted by Skånetrafiken (the transportation agency in southern Sweden) on their FB page:

18

Do NOT be a bigot

Ok so this might in some cases be an actual rule (and thus criminal) instead of an unwritten one, but even seemingly innocent remarks that come even remotely close to bigotry or hate speech, will in most Swedish circles be met with disgust and social ostracization.

19

Do NOT expect local businesses to be open in July

“Fractured Prune Closed for Summer :|” by justgrimes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sure, July might be one of the busiest travel months of the year in Sweden, so it might seem weird for a place to be closed when it might attract hordes of tourists. The thing is, most Swedes tend to have time off and travel in July as well, even business owners. So don’t be surprised if you’re met with a “closed for the summer” sign on the door of a local business you’re trying to visit in July. Don’t fret though, larger cities and national and international chains do tend to be open still.

20

Do NOT be loud in public settings

When Swedes are asked to describe American tourists, one of the more common remarks they have is usually “they are very loud”. I say to each their own, but don’t be surprised if you’re met with scowls and muttering if you shout or speak without consideration for your surroundings. Unless you’re drunk on the weekend, then it’s generally fine according to the binge-drinking Swedes.

21

Do NOT forget to small talk about the weather

Swedes aren’t very good at small talk in general, but one common topic that unites all Swedes, friends or strangers, is to talk about the weather.

Person A: “It’s a cold one today isn’t it?”

Person B: “It sure is! Supposed to last until next week”

Person A: “Yeah I heard it was going to snow hard over the weekend too”

Person B: “Really? Ah what a wolf winter we’re having!”

Here’s some further guidance how to fire up Swedish small talk like it’s nobodies business:

Learn Swedish For Beginners: Weather
22

Do NOT show off your wealth

As part of our “Jantelagen” culture, it is frowned upon and borderline rude to show off how rich and powerful you are in Sweden. This has resulted in affluent figures ranging from Prime Ministers to CEOs living fairly modest public lives, without the flashy items and lifestyle one can usually see in other countries.

Here’s Spotify founder Daniel Ek explaining how his view of the Law of Jante has evolved (over a classic Swedish cinnamon roll fika):

Why Spotify Co-Founder Daniel Ek Has Embraced Jante Law
23

Do NOT forget to say thanks

Swedes definitely go overboard with thanking people in general, and it doesn’t even have to be for anything special. If I had a dollar everytime someone said “Tack för senast” (“Thanks for the last time we hung out”) whenever we’ve been at a dinner or fika with someone, I’d likely have the GNP of Sweden in my bank account.

While you definitely do not have to take it as far as us Swedes do, it’s imperative to say “thank you” in most situations you feel could warrant it (when someone holds a door for you, when someone serves you at a cafe, etc.).

Otherwise the silly Swedes might think you’re a bit rude!


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By Karl Andersson

As a native Swede with a Finnish mother, Karl identifies as both Nordic and Scandinavian. He left Sweden at 19 to explore the world, and stayed abroad for almost 8 years—during which he backpacked, worked every job there was, earned a degree from UC Berkeley, and met the future mother of his children. He ultimately returned to his native Malmö with his love, where they now have 3 Swedish-American boys eager to explore the world.

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