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10 Things Not to Do in Sweden

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When traveling to a new country or meeting people from abroad, most of us are concerned with not overstepping some invisible boundary or inadvertently stepping on toes. The good news is that travellers to Sweden fill find them mostly forgiving regarding social faux pas, but a general understanding about the "do's and don’ts in Sweden" definitely comes in handy for any traveler.

Many a traveler has been there; that terribly awkward moment when the entire table goes quiet and stares at you. Trying to be as inoffensive as possible should at least be a consideration to get the best out of the Swedes...and this is how you do it:

1. Don't Assume All Swedes Speak English

Speaking Other Languages
© AndreYutzu SXC.HU
English might be a universal language, but don’t expect to hear your mother tongue in most parts of Europe. In fact, you can only be guaranteed to hear English in the UK, but it is certainly not the predominant language in Sweden. This is not to say that Swedes can not speak English, but keep in mind that this is not their first language. Whatever you do, when you encounter a non-native English speaker in Sweden, do not raise your voice and speak more slowly to them as if they were raised in the back of a chicken coop. Learn a few basic Swedish phrases instead.

2. Don't Use Highly Animated Body Language

Many non-Scandinavians don’t realize how animated they can be in a conversation. And the more animated they get, the more excited they get, as can be overheard in many a conversation. This is the quickest way to irritate the locals, and you can expect to be gently reprimanded if your voice carries over to the next table. When you see a Swede unconsciously turning their body away from you, or shade their eyes as if they are blocking out the sun, take this as your cue; it’s you they’re trying to ward off.

3. Don't Feel Pressured by Silence

What you may perceive as an awkward silence, a Swede will perceive as a comfortable pause. “Don’t say what you mean, mean what you say” aptly describes the way of a Swedish conversation. Swedes are direct communicators and every word is calculated to carry a meaning across. You will hardly ever overhear conversations that are filled with social pleasantries and small talk, so don’t rush to fill the gap simply because you are used to keeping up constant chatter back home.

4. Don't Educate the Swedes

This can come across as extremely arrogant, whether you mean to or not. Don’t assume that because Sweden is a neutral entity, Swedes are uninformed about the political complexities that go on in other countries. You will actually find the Swedes read a lot and take their education pretty seriously even from a young age. This is not to say that you cannot indulge them with interesting snippets about your homeland, but don't be confrontational or look like a foreign know-it-all.

5. Don't Talk Down the Vasa Ship

The Vasa Ship at the Vasa Museum.
Stockholm Vis. Board
The medieval Vasa ship in Stockholm is a matter of national and historic pride. As far as Swedes (and now you, too) are concerned, it is the greatest engineering feat of mankind. Or at least, medieval-kind.

6. Don't Get Decaf

Learn to enjoy coffee in Sweden - do not ask for a decaf substitute, it's awful and not always available. Coffee and cinnamon buns might as well be the society glue, giving people a reason to get together and be social especially in Stockholm.

7. Don't Mention the Finnish Ice Hockey Team

When you are in Sweden, you support the Swedish Hockey team. End of story. This is the safest option, unless you want to start an argument. Don’t mention any other hockey teams. For the time being, you are a Swedish hockey patriot! The Swedes and the Finns have a long and complex history, so anyone not from Sweden or Finland had best leave it at that.

8. Don't Ignore Personal Space

The Swedes love their personal space. They are not touchy-feely by nature. In fact, don’t even stand too close at the cash register in a shop. Don’t sit next to someone on a bus if there is an open seat just for you elsewhere. Think about it; if a complete stranger sits next to you in an empty bus, wouldn’t you too feel uncomfortable...or perhaps cling onto your handbag for dear life and look for the nearest escape route?

9. Don't Diss Swedish Beer...Or Anything Else

Or go on about how much better the beer is in your home country. In fact, don’t talk about how much better anything is in your home county. It is rude and obnoxious, no matter where you go. Yes, the Swedish beer is much lighter and may taste like a watered-down version of your homebrew, but the Swedes happen to like it. If you don't like it, just enjoy a different drink.

10. Don't be Flashy

Your trip might not be about making friends, but if you come to Sweden as the cast of Jersey Shore, you are in for a world of rebuking. The social filters will go up and your new local acquaintances will try to avoid you like a gunshot to the head. In Sweden, everything is done in moderation, from everyday clothing to late night clubbing in Stockholm. People have fun, but just enough without making a nuisance of themselves. Remember that loud antagonizer at your local bar? You won’t find them here, so considering this inclination towards moderation a blessing.

About the Swedes...

Swedes have their own unique quirks that make the country what it is. The Swedes are predominantly upper middle class, and boasts the most far reaching security system in the world. They are proud people regarding both their nationality and towns, and you will find many Swedes patriotic.
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