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20 things to know before moving to Sweden

As diverse as Sweden is, there are a few societal norms that are distinctly Swedish – some quite basic, others more subtle. Understanding a handful of them will hopefully prepare you culturally before you relocate. When you’re invited home to a Swede, you’d better be on time and take your shoes off…

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Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/
imagebank.sweden.se

#1 Swedes love their coffee

Few people drink more coffee than the Swedes. In Sweden, coffee drinking is fostered through a tradition called fika – in which friends, family or colleagues meet for coffee or tea, often with something sweet on the side. Most Swedes will enjoy at least one fika a day as an opportunity to bond.

Coffee consumption

In 2012, the average Swede consumed a staggering total of 7.32 kilos of coffee. The EU average was 4.83 kilos per capita, according to statistics by the International Coffee Organization.

Photo: Helena Wahlman/
imagebank.sweden.se

#2 Get in line

From the pharmacy and tax office to your local grocery store’s meat counter, you’ll be forced to exercise patience as you wait to be served in a numbered queue. Many businesses have a ticketing system – usually a small hard-to-find machine hung on a wall that dispenses number notes. Once you grab your ticket, you’ll have to wait until your number shows up on a screen before you can proceed to the counter.

#3 Speaking Swedish helps (no, really?)

Chances are you can live here for years without learning a lick of Swedish. Swedes are widely rated as world number two at English as a second language. Therefore it might take you longer to learn Swedish, and the Catch-22 is that fluency in the language is crucial to full integration. Signing up for SFI (Swedish for immigrants) could be a step in the right direction.

SFI courses are offered through each local municipality’s adult continuing education program (kommunal vuxenutbildning, or komvux) so you will need to contact your local municipality. You’ll find a contact list of Sweden’s 290 municipalities here.

#4 Get your shopping done before 17:00, if you can

Many stores close early, especially at weekends. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a store open past ten in the evening that isn’t a petrol station. It’s worth keeping in mind that since many Swedes are done with their regular jobs around five you’ll likely be battling crowds to get your shopping done between five and half past six.

#5 You will squeeze food out of toothpaste tubes

To prepare you for your first visit to the cold foods section of a grocery store, understand that in Sweden, tubes are also used to package foods such as caviar, mayonnaise, mustard, and other similar condiments. At some point, you’ll probably squeeze some caviar from a tube onto half a boiled egg for breakfast.

#6 You will see fathers pushing prams

When it comes to equality between the sexes, Sweden is one of the leaders, and the men definitely pull their own weight in staying home and raising infant children. In Sweden, couples are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave, and this time can be shared between parents.

#7 The Swedes are an outdoorsy bunch

Okay, maybe not all of them. But many. In Sweden, all year round there’s at least one activity that can be enjoyed, come rain, shine, or winter blizzard. And the government has made it easy to enjoy Sweden’s nature by giving people the Right of Public Access, Allemansrätten (see left).

The Right of Public Access

Allemansrätten – the Right of Public Access – gives everyone the right to enjoy Sweden’s outdoors. It allows the public to roam freely, even on private land, to camp overnight and to pick mushrooms and berries. The right also brings responsibilities – to treat flora and fauna and other people’s property with care. It can be summed up in the phrase ‘don’t disturb, don’t destroy’. The Right of Public Access is written into the Swedish constitution. But it is not a law as such, rather a custom or part of the cultural heritage that has evolved and become accepted over the years.

Photo: Måns Fornander/
imagebank.sweden.se

#8 Many businesses shut down in July

It’s not uncommon to find restaurants and stores shut down for an entire month, usually in July, while employees take their four to six weeks of holiday.

#9 Lagom

There is a societal code of conduct in Sweden which really has no direct translation. Loosely translated, the word lagom means ‘just enough’, ‘in moderation’, ‘appropriate’ and other synonyms you can pull out of the dictionary. When used in reference to societal behaviour, it means blending in appropriately without extreme displays of emotion.

#10 Melodifestivalen – not so lagom

Melodifestivalen – the national event through which Sweden’s representative at the Eurovision Song Contest is decided – unites large parts of the population. Held every February through March, it is a particularly welcome distraction on long dark winter nights. Come May, the Eurovision Song Contest is just as popular – though some Swedes prefer the ice hockey world championships, which usually coincide with the international music event.

#11 Locate your nearest IKEA

There are very few stores in Sweden where you can buy affordable furniture and food at the same time, so it’s definitely worthwhile locating your nearest IKEA. Many IKEA stores offer free bus services from central locations to the store and back.

#12 Take off your shoes!

You’ll quickly notice that shoes are taken off when entering private residences in Sweden. Some explain it with the simple fact that Swedes spend a lot of time outdoors during winter and are prone to dragging in dirt. Others say it’s a sign of respect for the home. Either way, you might want to think twice before wearing full lace-up boots when visiting folks.

#13 Winters are cold and dark

It’s no secret that Sweden’s geographical location makes it prone to cold, dark winters. At the depth of winter in some northern parts of the country above the Arctic Circle, you might get as little as three hours of sunlight per day. Winters can be rough, but you’ll be rewarded during summer. Long hours of daylight and moderately warm temperatures make Sweden one of the most beautiful places to be in during May to August.

#14 Be on time

It is common knowledge here that ‘time’ should be respected at all times – regardless of whether you’re going for an interview or a friendly fika. Meetings will start on time with or without you. The train leaves on time with or without you. Swedes value punctuality.

#15 The state-owned alcohol monopoly

While you can purchase alcoholic drinks in restaurants and bars, if you’d like to take a sip from the bottle in the privacy of your own home, you’ve got only one legal option of buying stronger alcohol, and that’s from one of the roughly 400 state-run liquor stores (Systembolaget).

#16 Keep that plastic bag

Think twice before you toss out that plastic bag. Most Swedish grocery stores charge you for plastic or paper bags in an effort to keep waste low and encourage recycling. Swedes like to keep it sustainable.

Recycling is second nature to most Swedes.

Photo: Sofia Sabel/
imagebank.sweden.se

#17 Special days celebrating food

Sure, Swedes celebrate Christmas, Easter, Midsummer and Walpurgis Eve. But almost as important are the days celebrating foods: Shrove Tuesday (Fettisdagen), which in Sweden calls for a semla; Waffle Day (Våffeldagen) on March 25; and Cinnamon Bun Day (October 4). Feel free to gorge on said food all day long without guilt.

#18 It is safe to drink the water

Drinking straight from the tap is the norm in Sweden. The water is clean and fresh, so you can save both money and the environment by not buying bottled water.

#19 Business casual means jeans

General everyday fashion in Sweden is simple, relaxed and casual. This same concept has seamlessly seeped its way into more formal business settings. Unless your colleague is meeting foreign clients or attending a high stakes board meeting, chances are they are wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.

#20 Not all education and healthcare is free

While the Swedish healthcare system is largely taxpayer-funded, it’s not entirely free. For routine doctor’s office visits, the maximum amount you may have to pay out of pocket for an entire year is SEK 1,100.

Universities in Sweden are free for citizens of the EU/EEA or Switzerland. Since 2011, students from other countries are charged for studying at Swedish universities. The universities set their own fees, which mostly vary between SEK 80,000 and 140,000 per academic year.


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Last updated: 11 April 2014

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Lola Akinmade-Åkerström is a Stockholm-based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, BBC and CNN among others. She's the editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm, contributes as a photojournalist to the Swedish Red Cross and has also been Sweden.se’s photoblogger.