Top Secrets You’ll Learn When You Move to Sweden

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Top Secrets You’ll Learn When You Move to Sweden

Sweden is among the most popular expat destinations in Europe — despite its cold, dark winters. The relaxed people, the beautiful summers, and the fantastic landscape are just some of the reasons for that. However, there are a few secrets you should know about Sweden.

1. It’s Hard to Speak Swedish Sometimes

This is probably less of a secret, but like all the Scandinavian countries, Swedes are seriously good at English. Around 84% of Swedes speak English, and they’re not afraid of practicing either. So do not be surprised that your feeble attempt at Swedish (let’s face it, this language isn’t easy) is met with a confident English reply. This does not mean you do not need to learn the language though, as it is the key to understanding the culture and nuances of society. Luckily for you, InterNations has several language exchange groups across Sweden’s major cities, where you can meet with other expats and natives and practice your Swedish in exchange for another language you speak. You’ll be understanding those IKEA names in no time.

2. Learn to Love Systembolaget

The state-owned alcohol shop Systembolaget has a total monopoly on the sector. It really is the only place to buy alcohol over 3.5% in the country. They are (predictably) quite expensive, and close early on Saturdays, which requires some planning if you are invited to a dinner party or just want to enjoy a drink on the weekend! You’ll know that you’ve properly assimilated to life in Sweden when you call  Systembolaget “cheap” and make your alcohol purchases early.

3. Learn to Love Eurovision

When Swedes are not buying expensive state-sold alcohol they’re undoubtedly watching Eurovision. Before you start screaming at the computer, we know that the actual grand final is only one for one night, but in Sweden the competition lasts for the entire year. It should come as no surprise that the second most successful country in Eurovision takes the selection of its representation seriously (you may recall a certain ABBA whose career was kickstarted by Eurovision). The SVT (Swedish Television) runs a sort of talent show format where the public can vote for their favorite acts by phone. It’s a national event, with an average of four million viewers tuning in for the semifinals — that’s half of the population.

4. Be on Time!

Social etiquette dictates that if your host states a starting time of 20:00, you should be getting there from 20:15 or so (or later, depending on where you’re from). Not in Sweden! 20:05 is late, and not acceptable. Scandinavia (like much of northern Europe) takes appointments seriously: being late to a friend’s party may be greeted with funny looks, but being late for a business meeting is just not tolerated in the same way that it might be in Spain or Italy. Be organized and be on time!

5. London Rules Apply

Londoners are frequently voted among the friendliest people in the world, but anyone who’s been there knows they don’t show it. You’ll find this is similar in Sweden, and the ban on eye contact on public transport applies here too. Swedes are quite a reserved bunch and will not take kindly to conversation with strangers. This doesn’t mean they’re rude, it’s just a different way of life to other parts of the world. In fact, once you get to know Swedish people they are often the most welcoming of friends.

6. Fika Is Compulsory

Coffee is a big deal in Sweden, but unlike in other cultures, grabbing a Starbucks on the way to the office and sitting at your desk looking depressed is not acceptable. Instead, your boss and colleagues will probably invite you for a Fika, a kind of meeting/coffee break. Usually, cinnamon rolls or cake accompany good quality coffee and plenty of small talk about summer houses or last night’s Eurovision qualifier.. It’s also fine to sit in silence, which in Sweden is not awkward but sometimes considered enjoyable. Politics or any sort of controversy should be avoided though, as Swedes are less keen to share their opinions. Finally, do not skip the Fika break. Drinking from a cardboard cup alone will lead to social isolation at the workplace.

7. Beware the Tvättstugelapp

Social responsibility is a big deal in Sweden. Thinking of your fellow citizens is very important, and you will be told in no uncertain terms if you have slipped up. Perhaps the best example of this is the laundry room. Owning a washing machine in Sweden means you’ve made it, so the majority of people (who live in blocks of flats) use communal laundry rooms. It’s not good to use these after 22:00, but by far the biggest crime you can commit is leaving fluff in the drum. You run the risk of being struck with a tvättstugelapp. Literally meaning ‘Laundry patch’, it is the ultimate act of passive aggression. A small note bemoaning the state of the laundry room might be discovered in the morning if you misbehave, so make sure you clean that drum.

8. Forget about Doing Anything in July or August

Remember we pointed out the nice small-talk topic of summer houses earlier? Well that’s where every Swede goes in the (very) short summer. Any one of Sweden’s 200,000 islands will do, but there are some real beauties in there (like Fårö, a gorgeous island off the Baltic coast). Cities lie deserted and even some public offices shut. After all, Swedes get a minimum of 34 days of paid vacation per year, putting them among the most rested in Europe.

9. Queuing Is Winning

Depending on where you come from, queuing will either seem like a pillar of civilized society, or a quaint little habit of the British. Well, add the Swedes to that because they have truly mastered the art of queuing. Watch anyone in Stockholm walk into the Post Office or a public office, and they’ll instinctively reach for the machine that prints out your number in the queue. It’s civilized, it’s dignified, it’s essential Swedish culture! Get used to standing in line, and begin to appreciate the serenity of it all — no pushing, no jostling, no arguments.  

10. Join InterNations

Don’t be shocked, you knew the shameless plug was coming! Moving abroad is tricky for anyone, so seeing a few familiar faces who speak your language can be both comforting and useful. We have no doubt that you’ll fly through life in Sweden in no time, but why not join us and attend some of our fantastic events to smooth the process? Here you can meet expats from all over the world who will have that little bit more experience and might give you that crucial bit of advice. You can also explore more of your new hometown too, as we have plenty of groups which go about seeing the best sites in Stockholm and Malmö, as well as other major cities. Make life easier for yourself, and join InterNations to get settled in Sweden.

Nathan Reed

"With InterNations I quickly connected with other Canadian members who became close friends over time."

Barbara Melington

"The best thing about InterNations? Definitely the offline get-together. Meeting other expats in real life helps a lot."

Global Expat Guide