Characteristics of Swedes and Tips About How to Behave in Sweden
During my time writing and from my life experience, I have found that there are differences in how people behave and their views on different things. The difference is, to some extent, due to the country they are born and raised in. The differences are quite small but, yet, significant and can create both wonder and misunderstandings.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could have access to manuals about behavior and thoughts of people from other nationalities? It would make interactions between people from different nationalities easier, and it would certainly make it easier for me, as a Swede. But because such a manual isn’t available or so easy to find, I will instead describe the characteristics of a stereotypical Swede and typical Swedish behavior.
The Swedish Mentality
Ake Daun, a professor of ethnology at Stockholm University, wrote a book called the Swedish Mentality (1989), which is a gold mine for someone interested in this issue. He examined how the Swedes are perceived by other nationalities and came up with the following:
Swedes are perceived as chilly and distancing. Many of those who responded to the survey say that they have great difficulties to understand the Swedish temperament. The Swedes are also perceived as “socially closed” and “spiritually empty”. And because they are often quiet they are also perceived as smug!
In another study done by the Swedish National Board, immigrants to Sweden from Chile, Iran, Turkey, and Poland expressed laudatory words about equality, solidarity, freedom, and sound regulatory. The only thing they had trouble with was the Swedes! Their opinions about the Swedes was: “heart is missing," "sluggish mind," "cowardly, cold, shy people, and lack of close encounters”.
So, in summery, the typical Swede is socially closed, spiritually empty, missing a heart, sluggish in the mind, cowardly, cold and shy, and holds a distance.
Wonderful people, the Swedes, don’t you think? Who wouldn't want to meet such a person? And why am I pointing this out for you? When I read this it struck me as very interesting. Being Swedish, at first I couldn't see this at all. But, slowly, it began to make some sense to me why they responded this way and I will try to explain.
The traits aforementioned mainly concern situations wherein a Swede meets a stranger. I do believe that we have a much more open and warmer connection with people whom we know.
Is your view of the Swedes consistent with the description above?
An Attempt to Explain Swedish Behavior
In Sweden we have a proverb that every Swede knows: “Talking is silver, silence is gold.” We believe it is polite to listen, and it is a way to show respect. We do not like to interrupt the one who speaks, and it is also true that we probably unconsciously seek consensus in a conversation. Although we may disagree with some of the things the other person says, we avoid open confrontation with strangers. But I can understand that to have a conversation with somebody who just nods and says yes isn’t much of a conversation! For two Swedes, this isn’t a problem because we just take turns talking, and we also understand that silence is a possible message that the other person disagrees.
We are also very private and “want to be left alone” by strangers. We have an invisible “private zone” of about a one meter radius, and if a stranger steps over those invisible lines without a need, we feel very uncomfortable and even threatened. This doesn’t apply when there is limited space. In that case, it is OK to step over the invisible line. In the company of strangers most of us feel inclined to talk, so maybe that is why Swedes are considered to be socially closed.
There are some unwritten laws that apply to this.
How to Behave in Sweden
Don’t look directly at another person in an elevator or on the subway. It is better to look at anything else. Most people look down at their shoes or read the ads on the wall. This is even more important if you have to stand within someone's private zone. To look directly at a person you stand close to is considered to be cheeky, rude, and suggests an aggressive or sexual approach from you.
Do not say “hi” to a stranger unless you have a good reason. If you do, speak about the weather, mention that the bus is late, or something similar. The typical Swede doesn’t normally start conversations with strangers and will not just ramble on about things with someone they don't know.
Do not take a seat in a location next to a Swedish on the bus, theatre, or subway if there are plenty of seats available anywhere else. If you do, a Swedish will feel uncomfortable and become suspicious. They will be convinced that you are up to something bad! Remember, there is the “private zone.”
Learn how to stand in line properly. The Swedes are the masters of standing in line and we wait for our turn with great patience. Do not try to squeeze in or stand to close to the person in front of you. Standing too close to the person in front of you leads to body contact and you will cause a very unpleasant experience for a Swede. You will certainly get an angry look, and the Swede will also try to move further away from you by taking a step in some available direction. But, the Swede will almost certainly hold his/her place in line. Remember, we are very patient and we will keep our place in line!
Some Facts About Sweden
-Sweden is the largest country in Northern Europe
-Sweden is the third largest country in Western Europe
-The forest area in Sweden is 53%
Additional Facts About Swedish Culture
I am afraid that it is the same when it comes to showing feelings. The Swedes do not show their feelings in front of strangers if it can be avoided. If we for some reason don’t like a person, we show our dislike by simply avoiding that person. We show our dislike by not saying "hi", and we will look down or, if possible, just avoid meeting that person. Being the other person, you will never know why because there isn’t going to be an explanation or a confrontation, unless you have really made the Swede angry!
To show aggression in a Swedish group is such a taboo. Getting really angry in public will lead to many puzzled and condescending glances. You must know how to behave and restrain yourself, or you will be regarded as a man/woman without self control.
Also, we usually do not cry in public. If we do, we try to stop crying, or hide the fact that we are crying. Crying is mostly seen as a sign of weakness or lack of self-control. But, laughing in public is okay, and it is very common. I can’t really tell if we laugh more or less than other nationalities, but we are not so good at showing warm feelings to people whom we don’t know very well. Swedes tend to only show their feelings among friends and family.
We have No Problem Talking Bbout Feelings or Sex
Although Swedes don't like to display their feelings, they have no problem with public discussions about feelings or sex. In these cases we are very open-minded, and it takes a lot to make a Swede embarrassed.
We believe That the Society Should Provide Safety For Us
This can be seen as a dependence on government, and some may think that we blindly obey the government. But I see it more as we have confidence in something that actually works. We respect our authorities not because we fear someone above us, but because we feel content that both authorities and those below have made a collective agreement as a community. Democracy is very important and deeply rooted in Sweden.
Sporadic Contact with Relatives
Compared to other nations, we have a more sporadic contact with parents, which is something many immigrants interpret as callousness.
Feminism and Equality
Feminism is strong in Sweden, and equality has come a long way. Some argue that gender equality has gone a little bit too far, and if men and women become too alike, it will kill the eroticism between the genders.
The Jante Law or the Law of Jante
One can’t forget to mention the Law of Jante or, as we say, the Jante Law. The writer Aksel Sandemose lived in Denmark and wrote the book in which Jante Law is described in Norwegian. Jante Law is actually a fictional law and has had a great impact in Sweden. It formulated into words the unwritten law that says you should not be different or think that you are better than anyone else, in any way. Jante Law was of greater importance in the past when most people lived in rural areas. Today, Law of Jante has increasingly lost its importance. Jante Law may be on its way out, but it has influenced the Swedish style of today and is the bases for the Swede’s restraint. The law has been very negative on Swedish culture because it restrained people by making them think that they should not be unique, and that they should rather conform with everyone around them. However, some feel that the decline in popularity of the Law of Jante will cause Swedes to hold a mentality that advocates looking out for only for oneself, without caring about others, which is the opposite of Jante.
Personally, I like the Swedish way of being polite and to not seek trouble if it isn’t necessary. I also like their view of equality, and the great care they have for others. The thing we may lack is the ability to show our feelings and our warm hearts more easily.
More facts about Sweden!
Swedish Krona SEK
Constitutional monarchy, Parliamentary democracy
The Riksdag 349 seats
174,000 square miles
My Experience as a Swede
Writing in another language than your own is a challenge that I can recommend to everyone! I love to meet wonderful people from other parts of the world, and the interaction with people from other countries is a big part of the joy with writing for this site.
But, writing in a second language also has its drawbacks since reverse or odd sentence structure sometimes creeps into my text. It is also much harder to be funny in another language because comedy has a lot to do with sentence structure and slang. And slang isn’t included in ordinary school English! I imagine that some have been wondering about my writing, and, even more, about the topics I write. My intention is to slowly melt in more and more, while trying to keep my originality as a Swede.