Swedish Culture – Quick Guide to Cultural Norms, Customs & Values in Sweden

Swedish Culture Guide

Swedish culture is pretty interesting, often a little weird and sometimes rather funny.

When you go to Sweden or talk to a Swede, you might notice that they behave a little different from people in your home country. Some might even go so far and say Swedes are a bit weird. Or is it just you who is weird? (From the perspective of a Swede, you probably are. ;) ) On this site I will share the most important characteristics of Swedish culture, aspects that might be useful and good to know next time you travel to Sweden or interact with a Swede.

What you will find on this site

  1. Culture – What is culture, actually?
  2. First impressions
  3. Swedish culture statistics
  4. Swedish culture shock
  5. Swedish self-perception
  6. Common Swedish cultural values and traits
  7. Religious beliefs
  8. What Swedes fear
  9. Business & workplace culture in Sweden
  10. Swedish food culture
  11. Swedish clothing
  12. Swedish music
  13. Swedish art
  14. Swedish design
  15. Swedish traditions

Culture

Since “culture” is used in many diverse contexts, let's have a look the actual definition of the term. According to Wikipedia “Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.” In this post I will focus on behaviours and norms of Swedish society, as well as typical customs and habits of the people in Sweden.

First impressions – what others think of Swedes

These are common impressions of how Swedes are perceived by foreigners visiting the country or getting to know people from Sweden.

  • Cold/distant
  • Quiet
  • Fashionable, well-dressed
  • Excellent English skills (over 90% speak English fluently)
  • Clear affinity towards an intense alcohol intake, at least on weekends

Random Swedish culture statistics

If you like numbers, here are a few…

  • 55% own a pet
  • 86% find that alcohol and socialising are intertwined
  • 25% of all Swedish citizens are born in or have both parents coming from a different country
  • 82% drink coffee daily; in average 3.2 cups per day

More statistics and fun facts about Sweden, here.

Culture shock – Swedish customs and behaviour you should be aware of

Things you might find confusing or even irritating when you are in Sweden.
Strange Swedish habits:

  • Address everyone by their first name. You will only see your Swedish bosses' last name and maybe academic degree in the footnote of their email or international business card. In all other situations it's Marie or Lars-Åke. (More about Swedish working culture, here or further below.)
  • Take off your shoes when you enter a Swede's home.
  • Swedes like their coffee strong. The first time you try Swedish coffee make sure to have an unoccupied bathroom somewhere nearby. Swedish coffee can have a surprising culture shock on your digestive system.
  • “On-off” drinking habits. On the one hand you might encounter plenty of drunk party goers on a Friday or Saturday evening: Swedes stumbling out of home parties at 1am, in one hand holding a drink and in the other a phone, shoe or potential one night partner. On the other hand, Swedes are very sober during the week. Telling a Swede that you drank two glasses of wine at dinner last Tuesday, makes them suspect you might have a drinking problem.
    More about drinking culture in Sweden, here.
  • Pretending not to recognise you when they are sober again
    It can happen that you have a great chat with a Swede at a party or pub, drunk, and a few days later see them walking into your direction on the sidewalk. Chances are high they will look into a different direction. Not because they don't like you. It's just that they are sober now, and they weren't when you met. Chatting to someone in a sober state can make Swedes feel uncomfortable. More so when they met a person in a drunk state before.
  • Swedes avoid small talk
    If you're still ending up in a small talk situation, avoid these topics: politics, religion, alcohol. Instead talk about the weather or vacation or weekend plans.
    Say: Nämen, det var länge sedan! (It's been a while!) in a slightly overly exaggerated and surprised tone.
    Finish by saying: Det var kul att se dig. (Indicating it was nice with a little chat until now, but now it's getting annoying and it's time to go on) Du får ha en riktigt trevlig helg. Or: fortsatt trevlig dag.
    (Here I'm commenting on Swedish small talk behaviour in a video (BBC).)
  • Keep a little more distance to the Swede in front of you in the queue. Or anywhere else. Swedes were socially distancing already long before any pandemic circumstances.
  • Joking: Sexist or racist jokes are considered highly inappropriate – inte roligt (not funny). On the other hand, Swedes welcome any sort of joke about Norwegians or Danes.
  • Be quiet: Swedes don't have arguments in public. You hardly ever hear a Swede shouting at another person on the street. The loudest you'll hear a Swede in public is when they are still infants.

Swedish self-perception

Gillis Herlitz, publisher of the book “Svenskar, Hur vi är och varför vi är som vi är” (Swedes, how we are and why we are the way we are), asked Swedes what they think is typically Swedish, here are some of the common answers:

Typically Swedish according to Swedes

  • Quiet
  • Reserved
  • Lagom (described further below)
  • Obedient to the authorities
  • Cold in relationships
  • Afraid to get in contact
  • Envy
  • Shy

More about what Swedes think about themselves – Swedish Self-Image

What Swedes are proud of

When you ask Swedes what makes Swedish society special, they often give at least one of the following answers:

  • Gender equality
  • Environmental consciousness
  • Their way of educating and raising children
  • Their democratic system
  • Orderliness (ordning och reda)
  • Justice/fairness (rättvisa)
  • Their social welfare system

Common Swedish cultural values and traits

The core believes and values of Sweden and Swedish society. They are deeply rooted in the common conscious and recognisable when you observe how Swedes discuss political or societal topics. Just have a look at the major news outlets in Sweden and you can get a feeling for the predominant values and moral standards that Swedish people identify with or aim to live by.

Humbleness & Modesty – “Following jantelagen and doing things lagom

Swedes despise pompous behaviour. They try to display themselves as being humble. Swedes usually make reasonable economic choices that involve decisions against lyxköp (buying unnecessary luxury goods). This is because in Sweden no one wants to sticka ut, stick out, be extraordinary, show off.
If you're really great at something, don't tell! It's almost like, all Swedes Swedes compete in “Who's the best in showing that they're not”.

Humbleness in expressing national self-identity

Many Swedes are convinced Sweden is the best country in the world. But a Swede wouldn't boast about how great Sweden is. They would say “it's probably not the worst country to live in”, while thinking “it's actually pretty amazing”.

Modesty – through lagom and jantelagen

In order to understand Swedish behaviour one has to be aware of lagom and jantelagen.

Lagom

The meaning of lagom: “just right – not too much, not too little”. Swedes try to follow the lagom-ideal. More about lagom, here.

Jantelagen

One law that is not given by the state but is yet followed by the majority of Swedes is the Jantelagen, “law of Jante”. A law that is carved into stone in the public Swedish awareness. 
It basically says “don't think you are better than anyone else”. It is one of the reasons why Swedes appear calm and humble.
More about Jantelagen, here.

Progressiveness

Swedes are striving for development and improvement, moving society forward, technologically and ideologically. Many are very fashion aware, follow the latest trends in home decoration or fiddle with the latest gadgets and other technological equipment.

Equality

Swedes are convinced that everyone should get their fair share and opportunity.

Neutrality

Swedes have strong trust in the neutrality and unbiasedness of their institutions.
Politically, Sweden remained neutral during both World Wars and didn't join NATO.
More about the history of Sweden (quick facts).

Calmness, self-control and restraint

People who act in an aggressive or brash way are viewed as troublesome and difficult in the eyes of Swedes.

Harmony striving and conflict avoidance

To make a compromise is considered something positive in Sweden.
Swedes are harmony seeking which leads to conflict avoidance.
Another expression to describe this Swedish mentality could be balance seeking, which is connected to the previously mentioned Swedish modesty or lagom mentality.

Honesty and trust

Swedes have trust in the honesty of other citizens and truthfulness of the systems that others have put in place.

As mentioned before, Swedes trust their public authorities. A high level of transparency in public authorities leads to controlling opportunities for everyone. This leads to a society with less injustice and illegal activity (for example corruption). On the other hand, some people might find their integrity or privacy being harmed. 
Most Swedes have understood, that if they act in a trustworthy way, trusting each other, not tricking the system, fewer controlling mechanisms have to be installed – which is cheaper, more convenient and pleasant for everyone.

Consideration (hänsyn) – being friendly

This includes environmental awareness and support for those people who are in need for support.

A few examples of “nice” Swedish behaviour in daily life

  • Shop assistants have told me that the product I was asking for was cheaper in a store a few hundred meters down the street. This has happened to me numerous times.
  • If you drop a glove or scarf in winter, go back the path you walked. Some Swede has probably put the scarf around a lamp post or the glove on the branch of a tree, so you can easily find it. 
  • Or, if you forgot your wallet in a café, there is a big chance that you can pick it up at the cashier later on, because some honourable Swede handed it in there for you.

Individualism, independence and secularity

Swedes tend to strive to become an independent individual, in order to not be a burden to others. Swedes believe in the freedom of the individual. While family is important, it plays a lesser role compared to other countries.

Striving for independence: To be financially independent from a spouse or any other person is a valued highly by Swedes.
Strong independent women” is a phrase often heard when Swedish women describe themselves or other women.

Achieving personal goals is important for many Swedes.

Sweden is a secular society. Only about 20% of Swedes believe in God.

Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world

Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map: Traditional values versus Secular-rational values and
Survival values versus Self-expression values (Source: worldvaluessurvey.org)

Religious beliefs

More Swedes believe in ghosts and supernatural phenomenas than in god.

Sweden is one of the least religious nations in the world, ranking number four, after China, Japan and Estonia.

  • 19% of Swedes claim to be religious
  • 20% believe in ghosts
  • 58% are members of the Lutheran Church of Sweden (Svenska kyrkan)
    • Under 50% of children are christened in Church
    • Around 30% of weddings take place in Church

Although fewer Swedes are religious these days, swear words with a religious connotation are still amongst the most popular in Sweden. For example jävla (devilish), helvete (hell), and fan (devil, again).
More about how to swear in Swedish – common cuss words in Sweden

What Swedes fear

The fear of a Russian invasion is called rysskräcken in Swedish, and very noticeable when following Swedish news outlets, regularly reporting about Russian submarines or fighter jets shortly intruding Swedish territories.

More about things that Swedes fear, here.

Business & workplace culture in Sweden

  • For Swedes strong work ethic is important. Swedes are conscientious and earnest – influenced by Lutheran work ethic.
  • Refer to your boss by their first name, just like you do with any other Swede (except the royal family of Sweden.)
  • Swedes are inflexible with the timing of fika. So don't disturb their coffee routines. It's not just drinking coffee, it's an integral part of Swedish lifestyle. (More about Swedish fika rules.)
  • Casual Friday all week long: Smart casual, with dark jeans, a pullover or shirt, and even dark sneakers.
  • Short small talk in the beginning of a meeting. Only a few sentences forward and back, about the weather, commute to the location or positive comments about the office.
  • Swedes are on vacation during the month of July. Don't expect to have key personell available during that time. Although some might even answer politely via SMS letting you know that they are on vacation.
    Personal experience: One business partner answered the phone while being at the beach, giving me a quick answer to my question before politely naming that he is on vacation at the moment.
  • Don't criticise in front of others.
  • Swedes treat the members of their organisation with the same amount of respect no matter what position in the hierarchy they occupy.

More about Swedish working and business culture.

Swedish food culture

Typically Swedish dishes

  • Pickled herring (strömming) served with potatoes and lingonberries
  • Fried herring with mashed potatoes and lingonberries
  • Meat balls (köttbullar) with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce (Swedish meatballs recipe)
  • Falukorv – a sausage, not eaten with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. Oh wait, Swedes actually do eat them with mashed potatoes, or macaroni … and ketchup.
  • Surströmming – fermented herring (Check out Surströmming – stinky fish from Sweden)
  • Boiled Crayfish – eaten at crayfish parties (in August)
  • Marinated salmongravlax, often eaten with potatoes (surprise!) and dill
  • Kroppkaka (“Body cake”) aka palt (in the North of Sweden) – sounds disgusting, is delicious (unless you don't like meat in a po-ta-to dumpling.
  • Jansson's temptation (janssons frestelse) – a casserole with anchovies and potatoes :/
    (Here's a Swedish Jansson's temptation recipe.)
  • Toast Skagen – slice of bread with prawns, fish roe, mayonnaise, dill and a slice of lime for decoration
  • Shrimp Sandwichräksmörgås (Swedish shrimp sandwich recipe, here.)
  • And, of course, crisp breadknäckebröd
  • Oh, did I mention that Swedes eat a lot of potatoes?!

And dishes that Swedes love, although maybe not exactly being typically Swedish

  • Kebabpizza – Pizza with kebab meat, served with cabbage sallad (pizzasallad)
  • Spaghetti with meat sauce (spaghetti med köttfärssås)
  • Hamburgers – particularly from the Swedish fastfood chain “Max”, or from a kiosk, usually after a long night of excessive partying

Typically Swedish cakes, pastries and desserts

Swedish drinks

More original Swedish recipes and traditional food in Sweden

Swedish clothing

Modern Swedish fashion – How Swedes dress

Mostly black.
In spring and summer maybe a little more colorful.
But since Swedish summers are short, mostly black.

All in all, Swedish fashion can be described as “uniform“. Everyone looks modern and stylish, but somehow the same.

Traditional Swedish cloths

You can spot traditional Swedish dresses at traditional midsummer celebrations, or in the Museum Skansen (in Stockholm).

Swedish music

ABBA
And Roxette
Oh, and Sweden won the Eurovision Song Contest many times. One of them, of course, ABBA.

Swedish art

There is a painter called, Anders Zorn. He painted two things Swedes are very fond of: nature and nudity.

Swedish design

Swedish design is rather minimalist, essentialist, with heavy use of natural materials. And toned down colors.
Swedes are great at designing furniture. And then packing it into flat-packs for easy shipping.

Swedish traditions

Traditional celebrations in Sweden in a year:

Swedes enjoy celebrating birthdays, singing a deafening Swedish “Happy birthday” song. Learn more about Swedish birthday celebrations, here.

You find the complete list with a more detailed description of all Swedish traditions, here.


Alrighty then. There is of course more to say about Swedish music, art and design and other aspects of Swedish culture. But, honestly, I think, in this post, I have written enough to give you an overview of Swedish culture.

To learn more, about Sweden and the Swedes, click on one of the links on this page, or read my book, How to be Swedish: A Quick Guide to Swedishness – in 55 Steps, which contains further useful information for your time in Sweden.

More about Sweden