Culture Shock in Sweden

Expats moving to Sweden are likely to enter with some degree of comfort. Sweden is, after all, very Western and similar to its modern counterparts worldwide. It's fairly easy to find most products, but if not, there will be an equivalent to get by with. However, there will inevitably be bumps in the road that any non-native will encounter. The country definitely has its quirks but expats who make the most of them get by just fine without suffering too much culture shock in Sweden.

Getting started in Sweden

Immediately upon arriving in Sweden, new expats should head to the local Skatteverket (tax office) and apply for a personnummer (personal identity number). Without this number, a person essentially doesn’t exist in Sweden, making applying for any type of service, job or account impossible. After doing that, getting a National ID card is suggested, as carrying around a passport as one’s main form of identity is risky and tiresome, whereas the Swedish ID card is easily accepted and much less stressful to carry around.

Meeting and greeting in Sweden

Expats must remember to take their shoes off. The first faux pas people often make is entering a Swedish home without removing their shoes. Shoe removal is key to making a good impression in Sweden. Once that becomes a habit, expats will only have to get on board with the Swedish facade of being anti-social. 

This is one of the biggest adjustments new expats will have to make. Swedes are often described as reserved, introverted, serious, reticent and unfriendly. Small talk is rare, as is spontaneous laughter. There is a perceived coldness to social relations in Sweden that can be alienating and even upsetting to some.

To a Swede, however, this emotional detachment is simply an accepted way of minding one’s own business, out of respect and consideration for the other person’s personal space. If this can be understood going in and is taken without offence, getting by will be easy. In fact, after being exposed to it for a while, one may find visiting other less-reserved countries startling.

In the business context, Swedes tend to be formal, egalitarian and have little concern for status. They tend to maintain strict boundaries between work and private life, so being invited to the home of a business colleague is very rare. Small talk is not really done, and gift giving is not an acceptable practice. Compromise, negotiated solutions and total honesty are considered to be important values in all business dealings.

Family life and raising children in Sweden

A good family life and healthy living are very important to Swedes. With some of the most generous maternity and paternity leave in the world (typically a year at full pay for the mother and a few months for the father), Swedes take great pride in raising their children properly. Even after the maternity/paternity leave is finished, Swedish daycare is ready to step in at an incredibly low price to take care of kids full-time.

Swedish children, at ages considered far too young in places like the USA, are permitted much more freedom than may be considered normal in other countries. With a low crime rate and having been taught how to be independent from a young age, Swedish kids learn to take public transport, walk or bicycle where they'd like to go early on. It may be surprising at first, but young pre-teens can be seen travelling alone throughout town. Sweden's public schools are also among the best in the world and the country is home to several of the world's top 100 universities.

In addition to this, vacation time in Sweden is off the charts compared to its North American counterpart. Swedes have an average of over a month of vacation time each year (legally provided with 25 paid vacation days and 16 paid holidays), with some companies providing as much as 50 days per year. With such a focus on personal time, relaxation by vacationing and family life, taking days off is actively encouraged by all – even bosses.

Dress code in Sweden

Swedes are very informal by most standards. Normal workplace dress typically includes blue jeans, unless specified otherwise. Converse sneakers are incredibly popular – although they should be purchased before arriving, as they're more than double the price in Sweden than, for instance, in the USA. Swedes love their All Stars and wear them with everything from a suit to a summer sundress. Along with the Converse, Sweden's favourite colour seems to be black. At the same time, Swedish men also love colourful trousers. It's an interesting combination and can make for some fun people-watching.

Language barrier in Sweden

Swedish is a fascinating language that, upon arrival, will sound incredibly strange. After a while, the cadence and fluctuations in noises will become much more lyrical-sounding and over a longer time, easier to understand. Expats should investigate their local Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) course, which is free for all foreigners and offered at varying levels, including specific programmes for academics and various careers.

In most cases, English is perfectly reasonable to get by with, especially in bigger cities and tourist-friendly areas. An exception to this rule would be in smaller immigrant-owned businesses where Swedish is the second language of the owners, who may not speak English at all.

Being able to speak Swedish is typically essential for getting a job in Sweden. Of course, jobs with international firms or in specific fields may bypass this. It is important for prospective expats to consider the market they want to enter before jumping in, to make sure it will be feasible.

Bureaucracy and doing business in Sweden

Sweden is serious about privacy and, often times, this feels like unnecessary red tape. Things take a bit longer in Sweden, as a high level of identity documentation is often required. In all likelihood, expats will need their passport to deposit a cheque at the bank (that is, if the bank is even willing to accept the cheque as electronic transfers are very much the norm in Sweden).

Customer service in Sweden is notoriously poor and only worsened by the language barrier. Staff can be abrupt and seemingly rude, and there is no effort to enhance the customer experience so valued in more enthusiastic consumer cultures. Only being able to communicate with the company in English will unfortunately further complicate things. Even long-term expats tend to remark on this aspect of life in Sweden.

Time in Sweden

Swedes are punctual to a fault. Many jokes are made about Swedes standing outside the entrance to a party, checking their watches for the moment that the clock strikes the hour to enter. If a party is from 7pm to 10pm, arrive promptly at 7pm. Showing up late, even though quite normal in other cultures, is considered rude in Sweden.

Everything in Sweden is punctual and efficient and it is expected that this rule will be followed. Buses and trains tend to be very on schedule as well, so expats shouldn’t necessarily count on a 5- to 10-minute buffer when viewing a schedule.

Religion in Sweden

Christianity is the dominant religion in Sweden; however, few Swedes appear to practice these days. Many have baptisms and church marriages for tradition's sake, but view themselves as agnostic or atheist. Swedes are tolerant of other religions, generally following the system of keeping such topics to themselves.

Cultural dos and don’ts in Sweden

Swedes are serious about recycling. Expats should take care to always sort through their rubbish accordingly and dispose of it properly.

  • Everyone should be considered an equal. Look up "lagom" and the "Law of Jante" online and learn them well. Swedes live by the theory that everyone is equal – especially men and women – and that all should strive for mid-level normalcy. 

  • Try not to show too much outward emotion. Swedes are private people and rarely express emotion outwardly.

  • Take a number. People rarely queue in Sweden and Swedes have a special affinity for the "take a number" system, from banks to hardware stores.

  • Groceries should be lined with the barcode facing up and towards you on the checkout conveyer belt – and should never, under any circumstances, be stacked in towers.