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10 Things to Know Before Studying in Sweden

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By Amanda Burlin

Swedes seem rude at the beginning...

Personal space is essential to a Swede. I started work as an intern on the same day as someone from the UK and when our manager first met us both, the UK girl immediately initiated a conversation. “Hello, nice to meet you! How are you?” etc. She was smiling, making eye contact and small-talking like a pro.

I found myself dumbfounded and suddenly very self-aware. I didn’t know how to make small talk, and I hadn’t even thought about saying it was nice to meet them or ask them how they were, because Swedes generally don’t do that. At home, people are more reserved and don’t really see value in asking “how are you?” unless you want the ​real ​answer.

We don’t talk to people on the bus, we don’t make eye contact and in the bigger cities we barely acknowledge each other if we pass each other on the street. Swedes are cold as the local weather, some might say.

But if you’re going to Sweden, feel free to try to strike up conversations with Swedes. They might be shocked at first, because talking to strangers is not something we usually do, but after some warming up...

...but they will be super nice to you when they know you (or if they’re drunk)

Why would you want to study in a country where people ignore you and your attempts to socialize? Because, once you get to know each other, Swedes will be super nice to you. They will ask “how are you?” and actually mean it and that makes them great friends to have (I promise I’m not biased).

Also, after a couple of beers, every Swede will be your best friend. They stop avoiding small talk and eye contact and will instead buy you drinks, even though it’s super expensive here compared to other countries, and sing drinking songs with you until you get tired of them. A drunk Swede is a non-reserved Swede.

How to say hello

There are some unwritten rules about how to say hello in Sweden that are great to know if you want to avoid awkward interactions.

If you’re meeting someone for the first time and you’ve never talked to them before, you shake their hand. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a business meeting or at a party, that is the general way of introduction. Then if you meet them later in an informal setting, you can hug them.

When I first moved to the Netherlands, I tried to shake my German roommate's hand the first time I met her. She just laughed at me, hugged me, and told me to not be so Swedish.

However, don’t be scared of hugging Swedes when you know them, because most of us love hugs and being close to one another. Maybe it’s an old survival tactic because of the cold climate? Who knows.

'Fika' is essential

Fika is the act of grabbing a coffee and something sweet to eat to take a break from whatever else you’re doing. This is a really important (and nice) part of Swedish culture.

For example, if you’re working together with Swedes, you’ll realise no one is ever too stressed to have a fika break. This allows people to socialize and get to know each other in almost every situation.

If you’re studying in Sweden, don’t hesitate to suggest taking a fika break to your study mates to get to know each other better. Just pop to the closest café and order a coffee and a cinnamon bun, and you’re one step closer to becoming a local.

Call people by their first name

In Sweden you can skip the formal titles. This contradicts almost all Swedish behaviour I’ve already written about. Why would you shake hands with someone that you would then just call by their first name? We don’t use Mr, Mrs, or Miss and don’t even have Swedish equivalents that are still used.

Instead, you can just call people by their first name, even if it’s your professor or landlord. The only Swede I can think of where we actually use the title is our king, so if you ever meet him, prepare an “Ers Majestät” I guess…

Sweden is so much more than Stockholm and Gothenburg

As they're our two biggest cities, I understand  that most people only really know about Stockholm and Gothenburg before coming to Sweden. But if you’re going to study in Sweden, make sure you plan some weekend trips to explore more of Sweden.

Don’t miss the fantastic nature of the north or the beaches in the south. If you can, see if you can tag along with a Swedish friend when they’re going home from school to visit their family.

In the best-case scenario, you’ll experience some real Swedish culture in a red house in the countryside.  

You don’t need cash

Don’t spend a lot of money on withdrawal fees. In Sweden, we almost never use cash, and a lot of stores don’t actually accept cash as payment anymore. Just bring your card and shop away!

Pack for a cold winter (and a hot summer)

Depending on how long you’re staying, make sure you bring clothes that fit the shifting climate. There's a Swedish saying: - Det finns inget dåligt väder, det finns bara dåliga kläder - which means there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.

Our winters get really cold, and our summers get really hot, so make sure you bundle up in the cold. You don’t need to worry about how you look, I promise that is the last worry for a Swede in the winter. Practicality always comes first!

You can’t buy alcohol in regular stores

In Sweden, you can’t just waltz into a supermarket and buy alcohol for your pre-drinks. We have a state regulated store chain called Systembolaget where you’ll have to go to find what you’re looking for. There you have to be 20 years old to buy alcohol, even though the legal drinking age in Sweden is 18.

You’ll also need to do a bit more planning and check the opening hours for your local Systembolaget store, as there are no 24-hour shops for spontaneous impulse buys.

On the plus side, they can magically supply you with whatever obscure alcohol you might ask for. Do you have a favorite beer at home that you can’t find anywhere? Tell them to stock it for you and it’ll be in your hand in the blink of an eye. Or a couple of weeks depending on your request.

The Swedish smoking ban

On July 1 2019, a new law banning smoking in public places was introduced. This means you can’t smoke cigarettes when sitting outside of a bar or a restaurant, at stops for public transportation or close to entrances of other smoke-free institutions such as hotels or restaurants.

This is important to keep in mind when going to Sweden, to make sure you don’t break any laws by accident ;)

Are you interested in going to Sweden or maybe you’re already there? Then check out the StudentJob website for thousands of ​job offers​! The best way to get to know the locals is actually to work with them. And don’t worry about not knowing the language straight away, almost all Swedes speak English fluently!

This article was written by Amanda Burlin. In between reading novels, weightlifting and drinking beers, I also write articles at StudentJob SE.

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