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The Ultimate Guide to Swedish Culture


Evelina Hjortskog


∼ 8 min. read

Image by Agnieszka Boeske

Image by Agnieszka Boeske / Unsplash

Sweden is not only a country with breathtaking natural beauty but also a long and eventful history that has shaped our modern-day society. The Swedish roots stretch all the way back to the Viking Age and the Medieval Age, the remnants of which can still be found in our artefacts, folklore and village names. The medieval heritage is also shown in our castles and historical sites. Although Sweden today has a majority of atheists, our roots originate from Christianity, and many of our traditions emerged from religion. 
Today, Sweden is known for a wide variety of things. Whether you connect Sweden with IKEA, progressive social policies, commitments to sustainability, innovation, social welfare, or music exports such as ABBA, AVIICI or Zara Larsson, a few intricacies of Sweden are lesser known internationally. This article will explore the different values, norms and behaviours that shape our Swedish society today. 

Core Values and Social Norms

Swedish people live by various social norms and constructs passed down from generation to generation. These norms shape how we speak, think and feel towards ourselves and our surroundings. 

Jantelagen: The Law of Jante

Jantelagen is a set of unwritten social rules and norms. The “law” originates from the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose and has become a foundation of Swedish modesty. Jantelagen discourages individualism, self-promotion and big displays of success. The law reads as follows: 

•    You shall not think that you are anything.
•    You must not think that you are as good as us.
•    You shall not think that you are wiser than us.
•    You must not imagine that you are better than us.
•    You shall not think that you know more than we do.
•    You shall not think that you are more than us.
•    You must not think that you are good for anything.
•    You shall not laugh at us.
•    You should not think that anyone cares about you.
•    You shall not think that you can teach us anything.

Despite their negative connotations, the writings are supposed to promote humility, solidarity and a sense of community. As a Swede, the implications of this concept can be seen in all aspects of life. Although it can and probably has boosted our humility, it can also make it harder to be ambitious and innovative. From Jantelagen, another word emerges: lagom.  

Lagom: The Art of Moderation 

The word lagom has no direct translation to any other language. It is a word that has become so deeply connected to our morals that it has affected our culture. “Lagom” can be roughly translated as “just the right amount” or “not too much, not too little”. The word is often used to explain something that is enough or doesn’t go to extremes. This word is used in all aspects of our lives: relationships, work and consumption alike. You rarely see a Swede being very openly extreme in their viewpoints, opinions or actions and that’s because we all strive to be lagom. 

Image by Jen P.

Image by Jen P. / Unsplash

Swedish Society

Social welfare and equality are the fundaments of modern-day Sweden. The Swedish society is based on a high level of welfare. This gives us free or cheap healthcare, education, childcare, and social services. For example, university tuition is free for Swedish citizens; you even get an allowance if you go down that route. Most university students still take out student loans to pay for rent and living costs, but the interest rates on the loans are close to zero anyway. Gender equality is also an important part of our society, and it is shown in parental leave for both genders, flexible work arrangements and women’s representation in leadership roles. In most industries, work-life balance is valued more than immense success in the workplace. 

Personal Space and Privacy 

If you’ve ever seen Swedish people wait for the bus, you will understand this section perfectly well. For those of you who haven’t, let me break it down. Personal space is highly respected and valued in Swedish culture. We often keep a comfortable distance from other people in public. We tend to appreciate clear boundaries and non-intrusive communication. In other words, we gladly stay to ourselves in a public setting where we don’t know the people around us. This might be seen as hostile and unwelcoming to outsiders, but I have also rarely met a Swedish person who is not welcoming, accommodating and helpful if you ask them for help or advice. However, we are not big on small talk; most prefer meaningful conversations and genuine connections. This is why many people from abroad sometimes find it hard to find friends in Sweden. 

Swedish people also tend to live alone. Having roommates is not very common, and most people can afford and have access to their own apartments. Although we do value family and connections, we are highly individual and need our personal space, too. Our homes tend to be highly influenced by Scandinavian design, and minimalism is a popular practice. 

Swedish Food

Although not known for its culinary excellence, Swedish culture is highly influenced by food. In Swedish households, many of us grow up with something called “Husmanskost”, which is a word for simpler food that, back in the day, used to be served to servants. The food is basic yet yummy (at least as a Swede who grew up with it), and the famous Swedish meatballs originate from this subset of food. 

Image by Kina

Image by Kina / Unsplash

The Importance of Fika

Another ingrained custom and food habit in Sweden is a get-together called “Fika”. As Swedes, we live, breathe and love fika. Fika is basically a coffee break, but it involves much more than that. It’s a time when we sit down and relax with friends, coworkers, or family to drink coffee, and eat pastry on the side. Fika is so ingrained in our society, and most workplaces have at least one fika session a week, while some workplaces do it every day. Sweden is also one of the top 10 coffee consumers in the world, and anyone who hasn’t learned to drink coffee yet is jokingly perceived as not having grown up yet. 

Image by Mikael Stenberg

Image by Mikael Stenberg / Unsplash

The Great Outdoors

Sweden is covered in forest, in fact 69% of the country is forest-covered, and there are long distances between the cities in the North. The nature in Sweden is well preserved and respected, and we value it highly. Forest walks are a popular activity, especially during the brighter seasons. Even in the biggest cities, your nearest forest, park, lake or ocean is usually not far away, and we live in accordance with our nature. 

Sweden is a very long country; it takes about 20 hours to drive through Sweden from south to north. This also means that nature can vary depending on where you are in the country. The north is known for its snow, mountains and vast forests. Not to mention the natural phenomenon of Northern lights and midnight sun. Once you go south, the landscape will be flatter, and you will see more cities. Rare animals can also be found in Sweden; we have massive moose roaming around our forests, and in the North, there are bears. 

We want our nature to be explored, but we need it to be explored respectfully. That’s why we have something called “Allemansrätten” which translates to “All mans right”. We will go into this concept more in this article (link), but what it means is that we collectively take responsibility for keeping the forest clean. Due to Allemansrätten, you are free to move around nature, pick berries and mushrooms and sleep in a tent almost anywhere. 

Image by Jon Flobrant

Image by Jon Flobrant / Unsplash

National Holidays and Traditions

Our Swedish holidays originate from Christianity, and many of us celebrate Easter, Christmas and Lucia (Saint Lucy’s Day), considered a day of light in the otherwise dark winter days. Our most significant and probably proudest tradition is Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a celebration of the longest day of sunlight of the year, and it’s a good time for Swedes to gather with loved ones to celebrate the upcoming summer that we have been craving during the dark winter months. It’s celebrated with lots of food, flower wreaths on our heads and different dances and games.

Image by Sofia Holmberg

Image by Sofia Holmberg / Unsplash

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