15 Things Not to Do When You Travel to Sweden

Sunset over Riddarholmen church in old town Stockholm city, Sweden
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Whenever you travel to a new country, you should take some time to familiarize yourself with the common cultural mistakes that are often made by foreigners. If you overstep a boundary, ignorance will only get you so far.

In Sweden, the locals are pretty forgiving of social faux pas, but a general understanding of the dos and don’ts in Sweden comes in handy for avoiding them in the first place.

Don't Assume All Swedes Speak English

People having a conversation

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English might be one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, but don't expect to hear Swedes speaking English to each other. Although more than 80 percent of people in Sweden do speak English, you might still come across people who don't, so it's best to learn some basic Swedish phrases for common niceties.

Don't Use Highly Animated Body Language

Stockholm, Sweden

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If you're not from Scandinavia, you might not be aware of how animated and loud you can be in a conversation. Being loud and flamboyant is the quickest way to irritate the locals in Sweden and you might even be gently reprimanded if your voice carries over to the next table. If you see Swedes turning their body away from you and shading their eyes, take this as a sign to lower your voice and tone it down.

Don't Feel Pressured by Silence

Rear view of tourist standing by lake at sunset

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What you may perceive as an awkward silence, a Swede will perceive as a comfortable pause. Swedes are direct communicators, so every word is calculated to carry meaning across. You will hardly ever overhear conversations that are filled with social pleasantries and small talk, so don’t rush to fill the gap. Instead, try to embrace the silence and enjoy the moment.

Don't Educate the Swedes

Aerial view of Gamla Stan, Stockholm.
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Don’t assume that because Sweden is a neutral entity, Swedes are uninformed about the political complexities that go on in other countries. You will actually find the Swedes read a lot and take their education seriously from a young age. You shouldn't be afraid to share interesting snippets from your homeland, but don't be confrontational or act like a know-it-all. Whether you mean it or not, this kind of behavior can come off as extremely arrogant.

Don't Talk Down the Vasa Ship

Vasa Warship in Museum Display

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In Stockholm, the Vasa is a matter of national pride. This warship was built in the 17th century and is regarded by the Swedes as one of the greatest engineering feats of its era. After sinking on its maiden voyage, it was salvaged three centuries later and has been meticulously restored to its original and artful glory. It may not have made it very far, but as far as the Swedes are concerned, the restoration of the ship is worthy of your admiration and respect.

Don't Ignore Personal Space

Stockholm subway
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Swedes value their personal space. Unless you're in a crowd, you should never stand too close to people, even the cashier in a shop. And you definitely shouldn't sit next to somebody on a bus if there is an open seat for you elsewhere. This custom is pretty similar to culture in the U.S. and many other countries, so just be mindful of personal space.

Don't Get Decaf (But Drink Coffee)

Sweden, Stockholm, Gamla Stan, Man walking by cafe
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Fika is a favorite daily tradition in Sweden, where Swedes get together for a social break of coffee, sweets, and friends. Most people try to do this once a day, so be ready to participate if you make some new friends. However, you will want to avoid ordering decaf, which is usually not available, and often isn't very good anyway.

Don't Disrespect Swedish Beer

Man sniffing beer

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No matter where you are, it's rude and obnoxious to talk about how anything is much better in your country, and in Sweden, definitely don't insult the beer. Swedish beer tends to be much lighter, but avoid calling it watered-down. Swedish people happen to like it and if you don't, order something else.

Don't Mention the Finnish Ice Hockey Team

Sebastian Wannstrom #20 of Team Sweden
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If you have an interest in hockey, you might want to engage a Swede in a conversation about it. This is a fun way to connect, but know that Swedes are very passionate about their national hockey team and if you are watching a game in Sweden, you should be passionate about them too. Sweden and Finland have a long and complex history that often gets played out on the ice, so try not to get too involved and just enjoy watching the game.

Don't Be Flashy

Swedish people in bar

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If you'd like to make friends in Sweden, don't be gaudy or flashy. Big shows of wealth won't do much to impress the Swedes and if you arrive with this attitude, people will probably try to avoid you. In Sweden, everything is done in moderation, from everyday clothing to late-night ​clubbing in Stockholm. People have fun, but just enough without making a nuisance of themselves.

Don't Litter

Recycling bins at a park in Sweden
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Sweden is an extremely environmentally conscious country, so littering and failing to recycle properly is extremely frowned upon. If you can't find a garbage can the moment you need one, just hold on to your trash until you can dispose of it properly.

Don't Drink Bottled Water

Water fountain in Sweden

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Because the Swedes are so aware of the environment and cautious of pollution, you won't find many people drinking bottled water. Plastic water bottles make a lot of trash, so the Swedes prefer to drink water straight from the tap, which is safe to do and said to be delicious.

Don't Forget to Buy Liquor Early

Systembolaget store in Hagfors

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Restaurants and bars all serve wine, beer, and liquor, but if you want to take some back to your hotel room, you can buy it at only one place: a Systembolaget outlet, which is a government-operated liquor store. These stores often close early, so plan to get there before 6 p.m. on weekdays and before 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Don't Take a Pass on Island Hopping

Styrso Island Gothenburg, Sweden
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A trip to Sweden isn't complete until you visit one of the thousands of islands that surround the country on all of its coasts. Make sure to get out of the main cities to do some island-hopping and learn how the locals live. You can be charmed by Swedish culture and revel in the natural beauty. A ferry is available to some of the largest islands and makes for a nice one or two-day trip.

Don't Shove to the Front of the Line

Swedish people waiting in line

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Whenever you have to stand in line, never shove to the front. Although it's considered rude in most places, in Sweden it is especially shocking. The Swedes value patience, politeness, and waiting your turn, so take a number or your place at the back of the line.