Sweden Survival Guide – How to Survive Sweden

Sweden Survival Guide - How to Survive Sweden
How to survive Sweden

Are you going to travel there anytime soon? Do you want to have pleasant experiences without ending up in potentially dangerous or, even worse, awkward situations? Do you want to avoid a feeling of discomfort during your time in Sweden? Here is how…

Important phone numbers in Sweden

  • 112Emergency number in Sweden (call whenever you're in real trouble and need an ambulance or reach out to the police)
  • 114 14 – Police number for non-urgent matters
  • 113 13 – Information number in case of accidents and crises
  • 1177 – Healthcare advice

How to survive conversations with a Swede

You have finally ended up in a conversation with a Swede and exchanged more than sightseeing tips or recommended dishes from the menu. A Swede asks you questions about your life and you ask questions back. You find yourself in a proper conversation with a Swede. Congratulations. There are a few things that you can do wrong. Things you can say that will make the Swede want to round up the chat and go back to eat their räkmacka or order another strong coffee.

Don't show off

Don't tell Swedes directly how great you are at something (unless they told you first), or how much better your country is in comparison to Sweden. Be humble. Do your best to state you're just an average person.

Don't complain too much

Swedes only complain about the weather. But even then only shortly in order not to sound too complaining. Apart from that they like to complain about people who complain too much.

Beware of small talk inabilities of Swedes

Talking to strangers is only accepted if you are clearly from another country and need to get information to find your way or get advice how to buy a ticket for the bus. Approaching a person publicly in order to enjoy a quick round of verbal exchange for entertainment is considered weird, if not creepy.

Don't make sexual innuendos

Swedes like sex as much as people from other countries. And although Swedish media brings up a lot of sex-related content, it is rarely talked about with people you recently met. With your closest friends, of course; but with Swedish acquaintances you should definitely avoid starting to talk about sexual topics. Sometimes it appears even more inappropriate to talk about sex with a Swede than actually having it with them.

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Don't misinterpret Swedish friendliness

Just because the Swede welcome you with a big smile and held a super cheerful five sentence conversation with you, doesn't mean they want to become your best friend. Initial conversation excitement, particularly with a foreigner like you, is their way to welcome you to their country.

How to survive situations in public in Sweden

Don't cut in line

Swedes hate those who do. Swedes won't tell you to go to the back of the line, but they will hate you and judge you and express their despise for your rude behaviour with an irritated facial expression, silently.

Don't forget to look out for the ticket dispenser

Whenever you enter a pharmacy, bank, post office, bakery or any other place where one could expect a line, look for the nummerlapp automat – ticket dispenser. This is put in place so others can't jump the queue as easily. Just grab your ticket, stare at the number display, and wait for the personell reaching for the buzzer button.

Avoid sitting next to someone on the bus or subway

Often times Swedes prefer to sit rather than stand. Swedes also like to be alone, not being bothered by strangers. Strangers are very common in public transport. In order not to make a Swede feel uncomfortable, don't pic a seat next to a Swede. Pic an empty double seat instead.

Don't speak loudly in public

Swedish nature is calm. So is the nature of the Swedes. Unless being heavily drunk, Swedes like to express themselves calmly. Particularly in public. So, whenever you dine in a nice restaurant or have a fika in a Swedish café, speak with a soft voice. The people two tables to the left of you aren't interested in your rant about how polite yet distant Swedes can seem like or the discussion with your partner about how much you are supposed to tip a Swedish waiter.

Surviving situations in your apartment/building

Don't ignore the arglapp

Even the calmest Swedes can be angry. Whenever you find a paper note at the entrance of your apartment building, you should definitely have a look at what's written on it. It can be arg (angry), the lapp (note). Or rather, the person who wrote it and complained about noisy neighbours or other disturbances that he or she wouldn't want to personally address. Writing one's thoughts anonymously on a paper and posting it can make a hall way a bit like a real life Twitter feed. But not only there. Although entrances are popular, one typical place for the arglapp to be spottet is the following …

Don't forget to remove the ludd (fluff) from the dryer

There are few things that can increase a Swede's blood pressure as much as finding out that someone who used the commonly shared washer and dryer didn't remove the fluff. If that happens once, fine. Two times is one time too many. Then the anger will be displayed on a paper in the laundry room. Written on it: “Ta bort ludden!” (Remove the fluff!).

Surviving an invitation

Don't eat the last piece of cake or pastry on the plate

Someone invites you for dinner, a party or fika at their place. Common sense in some countries, not so much in others – to leave the last piece of cake, potato or slice of salmon on the plate. (So the host can eat it when taking the plate back to the kitchen (… I believe that this was the original reason why this social norm was established.) If you don't bother to be perceived as someone who is greedy or can't control ones impulses, go ahead, take the last kanelbulle and try to enjoy chewing it until you look into the hosts disappointed eyes.

Beware of Swedish fika rules

  • As already established, don't eat the last cookie or cinnamon bun. Show that you have some sort of self-constraint.
  • Eat only a few pieces. Fikabröd (fika bread/pastry/cookies) are there to be enjoyed in small dosages, and not to mindlessly stuff your face with it.
  • If the other person wants to eat a cookie, but you are on a diet and want to cut out carbs … bad luck. If you agree to a fika, you can't show up with excuses why you can't have a little snack. Just take one little piece.

Beware of strong coffee

Swedes drink a lot of coffee. Whether that is because it's so dark outside (a sort of compensation for a lack of vitamin D in winter) or because Swedes consider themselves a little too calm and need to feel a tiny bit more alive, coffee drinking plays a profound role in the life of a Swede. If you prefer just water, juice or even just tea, you might face a Swede with a micro expression of scepticism.

Beware Swedes will serve you water from the tap

Tap water in Sweden is actually clean and clear. You can drink it without concern. Swedish Vodka also is clean and clear, but unfortunately never comes out of the tab.

Don't use your “normal” dinner knife for spreading butter

The otherwise uncomplicated Swedes really try to add more variation to their cutlery arsenal inn their kitchen drawers, by adding a dedicated wooden smörkniv (butter knife). If you, according to Swedes, spread butter on your bread using a normal knife, according to common Swedish opinion, your level of sophistication is of that of a person from the middle ages.

Surviving a Swedish party

Swedish parties are great! The one who gets drunk the quickest initiates the living room dancing. The one who initially dances least usually also is the same person who drinks too much in the end.

Bring your own booze

Swedish alcohol is bad for your liver and bank account. Since Swedes care more about their finance than their liver, they commonly decided to not bring a party host close to bankruptcy by establishing the rule that everyone brings their own Vodka (or Swedish beer, or cider, or whatever gets you drunk the quickest).

Don't forget to introduce yourself and say hello to every singe person at the party

It takes a while until you have shaken hands saying “Hej, (your name)” while forgetting the name of the person you said hello to just a few seconds ago. If you remember one or two names, you're good. If you remember all names at a party of, say, 15 people, you're also likely going to be the one who dances last.

Surviving Swedish social norms

Don't break the law of Jante – jantelagen

It's actually not that complicated, the law of Jante, jantelagen. Originally stemming from a Danish novel, it basically reflects the Swedish norm of saying “don't think you're better than anyone else”. In short, don't stick out! Don't be too different from the others in a negative way, but certainly also not in a too positive. Just stay lagom.

Beware of the meaning of lagom

Swedish modesty and humbleness, described in the jantelagen, also is a result of the lagom ideal. Roughly meaning with measure, not too much and not too little, just the right amount; lagom can be considered a guideline for any type of behavioural decision: Choosing a lagom amount of vacation days for relaxation. Picking lagom expensive wine at the restaurant (in order to neither look cheap or wasteful). Or having the right amount of ice cream on a warm summer's day.
Det blir lagom“, is something you're likely going to hear in any Swedish conversations every time someone fills someone else's mug with coffee or plate with köttbullar.

More about Swedish culture

Surviving the Swedish work place

Beware of flat hierarchies

Swedish hierarchies are flat. So flat indeed that you won't even know what kind of academic title your boss has – unless you are at a meeting with international business partners, (“oh, she has a doctor's degree in literature?!“). Also, address everyone in the company by their first name. And be nice to all(!) your colleagues, no matter how different their taste in sports, interior decoration or outdoor activities is.

Don't skip the office fika

Community and a feeling of belonging to the group is paramount in any Swedish organisations. Although team bonding events have gained in popularity, the single most established team bonding activity still is joining your colleagues for a cup of coffee in the designated fika rum (fika room) or kitchen. About twice a day. And at least 15 minutes. If you think you have too much to do so you regularly can't join the fika, you will risk being judged as a loner having zero social competence.

More about working in Sweden

Don't blend your colleagues with your non-work friends

You have an apartment or house, and (unless we're in the midst of a pandemic) a place where you go to to work. You have pillows to sleep on and other to rest your head on while sleeping. In Sweden, social groups are divided in a similar manner: one evening you have a beer with your old friends, and the other you hang out with your colleagues. Blending your personal with your work-friends only happens at weddings.

Survive Swedish food

Don't open a can of surströmming indoors

Surströmming looks like herring in a can – smells like a bag of garbage forgotten outside in direct sunlight. The moment you open a can for the first time you quickly take the decision not to try it. But then you notice the people are around you staring at you looking for your reaction not only to the smell but also to the taste. Since you still try to please your Swedish friends' need for entertainment, you take a bite and make a funny face showing disgust, followed by saying out loud “doesn't taste as bad as it smells”. At least that's what people report to me when they talk about their first surströmming experience.
I once was on the way to try eating some, outdoors. But dogs came in the way and started licking the can once I opened it a tiny little bit. Their excitement was unexpected (check out my video, here).

More about Traditional Swedish food and traditional Swedish recipes

Surviving Swedish winter

Beware of winter darkness

The further north you go, the more of days are dominated by winter darkness. At some places, north of the polar circle, you can even experience days without any direct sunlight. Lower exposure to sunlight leads to reduced vitamin D levels in your body. In order to increase those, Swedes either take supplements or fly to a mediterranean island (or Thailand). Or improve their mood by dreaming away and making plans for their next summer vacation.

Beware of the cold

Swedish winters are cold. I mean, as cold as “if you leave your hands outside the glove for more than 10 seconds you will have no sensation in your finger tips for the next hours”-cold. You suddenly think twice whether you should take out your phone to answer a text message or take a spontaneous picture with your phone.

Surviving Swedish alcohol stores – Systembolaget

Systembolaget – state owned alcohol monopoly for sale of alcoholic drinks containing more than 3.5% of alcohol.

Beware of Systembolagets opening hours

Spontaneously want to buy a bottle of wine for a late dinner on a weekday, after 19.00? Bad luck, Systembolaget (or Systemet as Swedes call it) is already closed. (Restaurants and pubs still sell alcohol but you're not allowed to take it with you.) You want to buy a bottle of whisky to bring to a friend's birthday party and want to get it on your way there, on a Saturday evening? Too late! Systemet has been closed since 15.00. What about Sundays? Nope, closed. Who drinks alcohol on a Sunday anyway? ;)

Beware of the sky high pricing

A bottle of vodka costs about € 25, a bottle of cheap wine starting from € 6, and with cheap I mean headache-inducing. So, whenever you can, better bring your own booze, not only to a party but also to Sweden.

Beware of queues on Friday afternoons

Since Swedes love alcohol as much as standing in line, you can find queueing enthusiasts gathering at Systembolaget on a Friday afternoon, after work, for their weekend intoxication preparations and liquid gift buying routines.


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