We’ve all been there, right? That terribly awkward moment when…
… you look up from your plate and see that the whole table is staring at you, their once-friendly faces alternating between looks of disgust and disbelief.
… you suddenly realize that a hush has fallen upon the train, and the only sound that can be heard is your own voice, echoing throughout the cabin, and your friend is hiding her face against the window.
… you say, “Hello!” in a big, cheerful way to a passerby on your street, and she flinches, noticeably surprised, then picks up her pace as she walks by.
Oh, please! Say it’s just a dream! SAY IT’S JUST A DREAM!!
(It’s not a dream.)
All three of these things have happened to me during my time as an expat in Sweden, and this is one of the facts of expat life: you are going to make a few false steps here and there. There’s no avoiding it—the best you can do is just be ready to laugh at yourself (and possibly apologize).
Last Friday, the Local (Sweden’s news in English) published a list called “How to lose Swedish friends in just 10 days,” and it got me thinking. Swedes are pretty forgiving of foreigners and their faux pas in general, but a few do’s and don’ts might be appreciated for future expats in Sweden!
After all, I’ve done so many embarrassing and awkward things in my time here… it would probably do me good to stop repressing gigantic chunks of my social mishaps Sweden and at least put those memories to good use.
So here it is, courtesy of my own and my friends’ most awkward moments as foreigners in Sweden: the first ten ways to annoy a Swede.
1. Speak at an American volume (loudly) in public places, especially on public transportation.
I don’t know why this is, but we Americans are just louder than most Europeans. I’m willing to bet even that we are among the loudest people in the world. We don’t realize how loud we are in our own country because, well, we’re all speaking at the same volume.
In Sweden, however, we sound like gigantic, trumpeting elephants, recently escaped from the zoo and on our way to trample some villagers (just as soon as we pick up the cheeseburger and fries we’ve been longing for during our time in captivity). Seriously. And do you think an elephant can help that it’s just bigger and louder than all the other animals? No. It can’t.
When confronted with an unintentionally bellowing American, Swedes tend to make like a possum and play dead. They’ll shift their body to turn slightly away from you, as if to signal to others, “Oh this girl? Never seen her before. Probably a hobo. I’m just listening to her ramble on to humor her.”
Sometimes, when you’re sitting next to them on the train or bus, they’ll turn to the glass and put up their hand like they’re shielding their eyes from the sun. In reality, though, it’s not the sun they’re warding off… it’s you.
2. Walk inside with your shoes still on.
The dust! The dirt! The grime! My beautifully-preserved original wood floors! Oh, the humanity!
I just wrote a the blog post about it, so if you want to know the full story, follow the link. Otherwise, just take it from me. You’re probably going to want to take your shoes off at the door.
3. “I don’t like coffee.”
Saying “I don’t like coffee” in Sweden falls somewhere between “Puppies aren’t cute” and “Dolphins are tasty with noodles” on the offensiveness spectrum. You don’t like COFFEE? Are you even HUMAN?
Coffee might very well be the glue that holds Swedish society together. Fika dates (coffee + sweet things) play a critical role in finding and keeping friends and potential romantic partners, and if you’re marrying into a Swedish family, let me tell you: you will make or break your relationship with your future in-laws over coffee and cinnamon buns.
If you really hate coffee, I would suggest that you (a) change your mind and start loving it (b) concoct a very elaborate medical excuse for not drinking it or (c) get pregnant (only works for 9 months at a time, usually only works for women).
4. Tell Swedes who are not from Skåne that Skåne is the real Sweden.
Alternately, tell Swedes from Skåne that Skåne is Denmark with an identity crisis.
The rest of Sweden seems to think that we who live in Skåne (AHEM) are little more than country bumpkins, that we talk funny, and that WORST OF ALL we’re really Danish. (See point 6 below.) I OBJECT!
Yes, I’ve lived here for less than two years, but there’s something infectious about Southern pride regardless of what country you live in. So I like watching the effect when people turn the tables on non-Skåne dwellers and tell them that the South is the true heart of Sweden. It doesn’t sit well.
5. Criticize Midsummer.
Midsummer is like the Holy Grail of Swedish holidays. Longed for! Much talked about! And when the day finally comes, it starts raining the second you sit down to your beautifully-decorated picnic table to eat some pickled herring. Oh, Midsummer. Why must you be so fickle?
If you’ve ever pined after someone playing hard to get, you know exactly what effect this behavior has on the poor Swedes. The other’s person’s distance only makes you want them more. And that’s exactly how it is with Midsummer: an entire nation of sun-worshipping Swedes wanting nothing more than a day of eating, drinking, and dancing around a giant
phallus maypole without having the heavens open up and rain all over it.
All this pain, and then you go and criticize Midsummer.
I would start running now if I were you.
Alternative 1, say that it’s nice, but nothing special.
Alternative 2, spend the day muttering about godless heathens.
6. Compare them to Danes.
“You’re just like the Danes! Tall athletic blondes, biking around cobblestone streets with a fascinating if bewildering sense of style!”
7. Compare them to Norwegians.
“You’re just like the Norwegians! Tall athletic blondes with a fascinating if incomprehensible dependence on dairy products and herring!”
8. Compare them to Finns.
“You’re just like the Finns! Tall athletic blondes living in the forest with a fascinating if unusual level of reserve.”
9. Compare them to Germans.
“You’re just like the Germans! Tall athletic blondes with a burgeoning economy, a strong interest in environmentalism, and a fascinating if unnerving love of order.”
10. Complain about environmentalists.
I’m kind of cheap in certain areas, and one of the ways that my cheapness manifests itself is waiting until it actually looks like a mop is sprouting out of the top of my head before getting a haircut. When the hairstylist is confronted with this mass of hair, he or she inevitably asks when I last had it cut. And when they hear my answer, they suck their next breath through their teeth, raise their eyebrows, and shake their heads.
That’s the sort of reaction you would get in Sweden if you were to complain about environmentalists or environmentalism (a pretty common punching bag in the US at least). I think it’s partially because people in Sweden view environmentalism as more of a “you’re expected to maintain this Earth so that it lasts for our children” thing rather than a “you people are standing between me and my fossil fuels” thing.
Not sure how to make it real awkward by complaining about environmentalists? Here are a few I’ve seen work (from a bystander position) in the past: Say that recycling is too much effort, or talk about how public transportation isn’t worth it. Share your “global warming is a hoax” conspiracy theories for extra awkward party fun.
UPDATE: Part II of 20 Ways to Annoy a Swede is now up! The second ten are even more hardcore…