After one month in Sweden, I’ve aggregated a list of seven tips to ease your way into local life and kultur. Don’t make the same mistakes I did!
1. Break for fika
Most people who are familiar with Sweden know about fika – a coffee break taken during the day. But it’s so much more than just drinking coffee. As an American college student who is usually on the go, I wouldn’t dare take a break on a daily basis to enjoy my afternoon coffee, socialize with friends, and treat myself to something sweet. My occasional afternoon double espresso was more a reminder not to fall asleep while chipping away at homework in the library.
I now know that you’re never too busy to fika. In fact, as part of the labor law, Swedish workers are entitled to two coffee breaks throughout the day. Fika, as those who come to Sweden will see, is a state of mind – choosing to be present, savor company, and indulge in life’s small pleasures. While there are plenty of cafés throughout Stockholm to take part in this afternoon ritual, you can’t go wrong with making your own coffee (Swedes make it very strong!) and kannelbullar (cinnamon buns) at home. Lesson learned: don’t fika on the go or you’ll surely be spotted as a foreigner who has yet to settle in.
2. Embrace lagom
Lagom is another one of those Swedish words, like fika, that doesn’t have a direct English translation. Loosely translated, it means “just right.” Lagom can describe anything from how you’re feeling, to the weather, to the amount of milk in coffee. It’s also an important aspect of culture that relates to the Swedish value of equality. No one gets too much, no one gets too little – lagom, just enough. It can also mean not bringing attention to yourself by expressing extreme views, being too loud, or dressing in a flashy way. Lagom is a fascinating concept to me coming from a culture where distinguishing your individuality and uniqueness is highly valued.
3. Take off your shoes when entering a house
While this is also a common practice in America, back home I tend to ask my hosts if they would prefer if I take off my shoes when walking into the house. However, in Sweden, taking off your shoes in someone’s home is not just respectful, it’s common practice. Fun fact: in some Swedish elementary schools, kids are required to take off their shoes.
4. Use the correct tools
A thin cheese slicer and wooden butter knife are essential tools for those of us trying to sneak under the radar as foreigners in Sweden. From mellanmjölk (literally translated as medium milk), to filmjölk (fermented, sour milk), to yoghurt (just what you think it is), to smör (butter), to all different kinds of ost (cheese), there is no shortage of dairy products in Sweden. So do yourself a favor and spread your butter with a wooden knife and cut your cheese into perfectly thin slices. In no time you’ll be on your way to passing as a typical Swede.
5. Cut the small talk
As an American, this was hard to get used to at first. It feels rude not to acknowledge the people you pass with a smile, a nod, eye contact, or a “Hey, how are you?” But travelling around Stockholm, you realize this isn’t the norm, and that engaging in this kind of chit-chat will result in some confused stares. Digging deeper into this cultural difference, I’ve realized that skipping small talk doesn’t make Swedes cold or unfriendly. It just means that they place a greater value on deeper relationships and conversations – not those that occur in passing, with strangers you’ll likely never see again. When you ask the person serving you coffee how their day is going, do you do this out of habit or because you truly want to know? This is something I’ll continue to reflect on when I return to the States.
6. Forget cash – use your card
Despite having objectively awesome money, I rarely see Swedes taking out cash for purchases. According to Sweden’s official site, 80% of transactions are done with a card. So instead of counting out 17 kroners to pay for your chokladboll as the line builds behind you, just hand over your card. This has certainly rescued me from some flustered moments at the cash register!
7. Queue up
Swedes tend to avoid disorder at all costs. So in places where crowds might congregate like at a grocery store cheese counter or certain shops, you’re supposed to take a ticket from a machine and wait for your number to be called or show up on a screen. While this is a very formal way to queue, you can see that this habit is deeply ingrained in Swedes in informal settings as well. For example, after a day in the archipelago, a perfectly orderly line formed outside the boat (nearly 30 minutes before it started boarding) for those waiting to get on. I thought back on my flight from Newark to Stockholm and imagined how horrified some Swedes must have been when the flight was called and a hoard of impatient people congregated outside the gate in no particular order. Yikes!