Dos and Don’ts
Language: The Swedish language has three extra letters: å, ä, and ö, but these additions to the alphabet are unlikely to confuse. Besides, Swedes in general are often praised for their working knowledge of English, and their willingness to practice on foreigners. Many menus and signs are also written in English.
Personality: Socially, Swedes, especially the ones who inhabit the capital, are publicly reserved. If you enjoy talking to strangers on the bus or train, you’re likely to get a few cold shoulders. However, if you do manage to break through the ice, there is much pent-up and sincere warmth to enjoy.
Hugs: Young Swedes will most likely hug you if you meet them a second or third time. Everybody hugs women. Men will normally not hug each other unless they are unusually close.
Compromise: In interpersonal relations, Swedes put a premium on mutual compromise with the goal of coming to agreement. Heated arguments are few and far between.
Alcohol: Sweden is firmly placed in the Vodka Belt, so you are likely to witness more displays of public drunkenness than at home. While almost all of it is harmless, avoid the losing team’s supporters as they exit the pub or stadium after a soccer match.
Baby on Board: If you’re traveling with a child in a stroller, buses in Stockholm are free of charge. Just enter at the middle of the bus. You should never have to leave your child to go up front and pay, the thinking goes. Note: This does not apply to subways and trams.
Culinary Customs: When it comes to Swedish food, there are a few local oddities. In keeping with old medieval and military traditions, for example, pea soup and pancakes are served, in that order, on Thursdays in many Stockholm restaurants. By far the strangest culinary phenomenon, however, is the August semi-ritual eating of surströmming (sour herring). The stench of the fermented fish is nothing short of revolting. Luckily, you are unlikely to get a whiff unless you travel up the coast of Norrland, well north of Stockholm.
Hej: Hey, as in “Hey, you.” Pronounced hay.
Hej då: Goodbye. Pronounced hay door.
Fika: This crucial concept in Swedish social life is sometimes a synonym for coffee, but most commonly also involves some sort of pastry. If you hear the word in a sentence, just say yes. Pronounced fee-kah.
Lagom: Famously un-translatable Swedish word meaning ”in just the right amount.” It’s a place between ”too much” and ”not enough” that allows Swedes to appear to have an opinion without really having one. Pronounced lah-gum.
Smörgåsbord: Literally a “table of sandwiches,” this contribution to world language is rarely served, so don’t ask the waiter for one. Pronounced smur-goes-boord.
Tunnelbana: Subway. When you want to locate a station or stop, look for signs with a big blue “T” in a white circle. Pronounced two-knell-bahna.
Stor Stark: A ”stoor stahrk” translates into “big strong”—meaning a large beer of the strongest kind—and is what 8 out of 10 Swedes order at the bar.
Kaffekask: A popular local concoction, especially if you move outside of the main urban areas. To make one, put a coin in a coffee mug. Pour in coffee until you don’t see the coin anymore. Add your favorite clear liquor until the coin reappears. Pronounced cuff-eh-cussk.
Tjaba: The closest thing in Swedish to “Wazzup?” It will sound ridiculous when spoken by an American, but you’ll have a good laugh and the ice will be broken. Pronounced shabba.
Oj: Commonly used to express surprise over something, like “oops” or “wow.” Pronounced oy. This may be followed by a proper förlåt (pronounced fur-lawt) for ”I’m sorry."
Tack: Thanks. Pronounced tack.
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