Bob from the Nature Travels team draws on his 20 years of experience with Swedish culture to give some tips on how to blend in if you’re travelling to Sweden or have some Swedish friends!
1. Build up your coffee tolerance and take time out for “fika”
For such a relaxed bunch, the Swedes drink an obscene amount of coffee – Sweden has one of the highest coffee consumption levels in the world.
And it doesn’t seem to affect them at all.
Amazingly, their neighbours the Finns consistently top the world coffee-drinking charts by a considerable margin and yet are even more chilled!
Along with other Scandinavian ideas such as Danish “hygge” and Norwegian wood-stacking, Swedish fika culture has been much talked about in recent years.
And for good reason – the Swedes have elevated the humble coffee-and-cake break to an almost spiritual level.
Like “fredagsmys” (see below), fika is all about taking time: time out from your work, time to connect with your family or friends, time to get to know your colleagues.
Swedes listen with horror to tales of British office workers taking “breaks” at their desks in front of their computers. After all, how can you possibly cultivate and value the social connections so important to working life with a coffee mug in one hand and a telephone in the other?
It’s a simple idea, but a very important one:
Coffee and cake (and the time spent with the people you share them with) are sacrosanct. The inbox can wait.
2. Take off your shoes
On the whole, Swedes don’t stand on politeness and ceremony nearly as much as the Brits, but one area of etiquette you mustn’t ignore is the “no shoes in the house” rule.
Walk around a Swede’s house with your outdoor shoes on and you’ll be committing a social sin of almost unimaginable magnitude.
Fortunately, Swedish houses are warm (often too warm), and many have underfloor heating, so walking around in your socks is likely to feel just fine.
If it’s a more formal occasion such as a dinner or a party, bring your inside shoes in a little bag and change at the door. For more relaxed occasions, there may well be a selection of guest slippers to borrow waiting for you in the hallway!
3. Stare intently at everyone before drinking
Brits tend to mutter a perfunctory “Cheers!” before throwing back their drink without paying much attention to what anyone else at the table is doing.
Not so in Sweden.
Raise your glass, say (or wait for someone else to say) “Skål” and then – this is the important bit – look EVERYONE else at the table straight in the eye for a second or two, one at a time. If possible, try to look friendly rather than deranged as you do this.
When, and only when, everyone has looked at everyone else, take a drink and set your glass back on the table.
Fortunately, once you’ve got through this, you can then continue drinking as normal.
NB: If it’s schnapps you’re drinking (and often even if it isn’t), the above must be preceeded by a song, usually this one:
4. Learn to love salty fish eggs squeezed out of a tube
Ah, “Kalles Kaviar”, the Swedish cultural equivalent of Marmite. Like the Brits with their infamous sticky, brown yeasty spread, Swedes divide sharply along love it/hate it lines, though the “love it” camp is much, much larger!
And what’s not to like? An affordably-priced metal tube dispenses a dollop of pink cod roe like fishy toothpaste. Delicious! And for the adventurous, they even make “Kalles Randiga”, mixing the roe with stripes of cheese! Kaviar purists regard this an appalling adulteration, however.
Apart from the iconic Kalles Kaviar, other kaviars are available, but a connoisseur will go for the original every time. My wife, Sofia’s, claim to fame is that she was taught to sail by Kalle himself, whose ageless, boyish face adorns every tube.
And if this gives you a taste for other things squeezed out of a tube, your average Swedish supermarket offers a world of new squeezy experiences to try, including “ädelost” (squeezy blue cheese – exquisite!), “räkost” (squeezy shrimp cheese – even better!) and “kräftost” (squeezy crayfish cheese – the jury’s still out on that one).
If meat is your thing, I’m reliably informed that “skinkost” (squeezy ham cheese) and “rökt renost” (squeezy smoked reindeer cheese) also take your palette into hitherto uncharted territory.
5. Set aside Friday evening for “fredagsmys”
Whether this is an important reflection of the Swedes’ commitment to family values and to spending quality time with loved ones or a cynical marketing ploy to sell more crisps is open to debate.
But there’s no denying that “fredagsmys”, or Cosy Friday, is now central to Swedish culture, a time when families get together to eat and spend time.
The phrase was coined by an advertising campaign from crisp (or “chip”, I should say) manufacturer OLW and has since caught on in a BIG way.
The song translates as:
“There’s a day when you can exhale, escape the boss’ nagging and finally come home. Since I moved here all I do is cosy cosy (yes we do). It’s time for Cosy Friday and it’s the last thing I do. Soon it’s Cosy Friday, I hope my parents don’t disturb us. Now it’s the end of the week and it’s time for Cosy Friday. A sofa and a candle and a table with lots of nice things. We relax together and eat something yummy. From office to romance, draw the girl you should close to you. From Director to charmer, from weekly stress to good mood. Now it’s the end of the week and it’s time for Cosy Friday!”
“Chips and dip” (crisps plus bowls of dip made from sour cream and flavoured with packets of spice) are the essential core – no fredagsmys is complete without them.
But you can also add Cheez Doodles – utterly wonderful things, like Wotsits but better – and tacos, and if you’re feeling healthy you can even dip a few carrots and cucumbers. Just as long as you definitely dip some chips.
If you’ve still got space after all that, you can indulge in some “godis” (pick ‘n’ mix sweets), but you should really wait for the second cultural event of the weekend – “lördagsgodis” or “Saturday Sweeties”!!!
6. Discover the delights of a cheese plane
Incredibly, I managed to survive on this earth almost 30 years without ever owning a cheese plane. Looking back, I find that astonishing.
I mean, they’re invaluable! Not only do they allow you to serve up your cheese in beautifully-proportioned pop-in-the-mouth pieces (prior to living in Sweden, I thought cheese could only be eaten in inch-thick. cloying slabs) but they’re also great for slicing cucumbers.
Plus it’s one of my favourite Swedish words – “osthyvel”.
Some words of caution, though:
- Planing in appropriately is a heinous cultural faux-pas which may lead you to being immediately expelled from the house and/or shunned forever. Check with your host that you are intending to plane in a suitable direction and at an approved angle before plane and cheese make contact.
- Choose your cheese. Attempting to plane a hunk of Wensleydale will end badly.
7. Embrace the silence
Swedes are considerably more comfortable with a lull in conversation than the Brits, who are terrified of silence and so get fidgety after just a few seconds and succumb to an irresistible urge to fill even the shortest gap by saying anything at all.
This is especially noticeable in the north of Sweden, where the wordless void can go on for so long that most Brits will be digging their nails into their thighs in quiet panic and breaking out in a sweat.
Eventually, even a Swede will decide it’s probably time to shake things up a bit, at which time, if nothing worth saying comes to mind, they’ll make a little “Orrrrrr” noise with rising intonation.
This is quite endearing and translates as something like, “Well, here we are then, isn’t this nice?” and will then set the group up nicely for another few minutes of pleasant, companionable non-conversation.
This is excruciatingly uncomfortable at first, but stick with it and you’ll discover that it’s wonderfully liberating not to have to fill every moment in the company of others with nonsensical prattle.
There you have it – after careful study and practice of the above, you will now fit seamlessly into Swedish society. All you need now of course is a few Basic Swedish Phrases! (oh, and to book a trip to Sweden of course!)