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Common cultural misconceptions about Sweden

Our breakdown of common cultural misconceptions, differences and myths about Sweden


Full of crystalline, snow-capped fields and beautiful blond skiers, stereotypes about Sweden are only too easy to identify. Ignore the jibes about ABBA, Ikea and social (and literal) coldness, Sweden is an incredibly modern country with a culture and character more complex than such two-dimensional façades. Let our guide to common cultural misconceptions about Sweden help set the record straight. 

‘Dour Swede’

Considered cold, socially distant and downright rude, the ‘dour Swede’ is probably the most damaging stereotype attached to Sweden. Swedes are often accused of being emotionally detached from those around them, and perpetually disinterested in other’s social needs. This idea stems from foreign perceptions of Swedish values of politeness and codes of acceptable social conduct. But just because Swedes express politeness differently, it doesn’t colour them more or less rude than anyone else.

In Sweden, negative politeness reigns supreme. Swedes abide by a social code of conduct called ‘lagom’ that has no direct translation, but can be loosely taken as ‘just enough,’ ‘in moderation,’ or ‘appropriate’. This means that in Sweden, it’s considered proper to blend in ‘appropriately’, without displaying emotion in a way that might cause conflict. Cultures that enjoy overt friendliness on a basic social level may find this apparent lack of regard for others affronting; but in Sweden, giving people their space is considered a mark of politeness and respect, especially in public.

In the same vein, the concept of ‘small talk’ or talking to bridge an awkward silence is strange to Swedes. The direct, ‘if you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all’ mentality is key in Sweden, and is taken as a mark of respect towards not wasting the other person’s time.

Here comes the sun

It’s no secret that winters in Sweden are cold, long and dark. In February, temperatures can get to as low as below -22 °C, and below -30 °C in the north. The harsh conditions and infamous polar nights in Sweden’s North do, in fact, have real consequences upon the Swedish psyche, but they are nowhere near as severe as a nationwide, season-long depression.

What most are thinking of when they imagine Sweden’s winter depression is a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD): a form of depression experienced during a particular season. It is not experienced by all Swedes, just as all Brits do not perpetually have a cold because it often rains. Nor is SAD exclusive to Sweden: people in countries near the equator, where daylight hours are long year-round are just as susceptible as those in Scandinavian nations.   

In fact, Sweden consistently performs well in international quality of life and happiness surveys, coming in at 5th place in the 2013 World Happiness Report. Other Scandinavian countries Denmark and Norway took out 1st and 2nd places respectively. It seems life in Sweden is nowhere near as bleak as on popular Scandinavian television shows The Bridge or The Killing.

Leggy blond

When we think of Sweden, many conjure images of tall, leggy blonds not unlike Agnetha from ABBA. Whilst this may have been the case in Viking times, modern Sweden has one of the highest percentages of immigrants in Europe. Blond hair and blue eyes are both recessive genetic traits, and so before immigration was a historical possibility, Swedes would generally marry Swedes. As this colouring is so visually striking, it’s understandable that it became an easy mark of identification for Scandinavian countries.

Today however, Swedish cities are international business and educational centres that host residents and guests from around the world. Since the 1970s, Sweden has seen increasing rates of immigration, with 1.33 million foreign-born residents counted in 2010 to make up 14.3% of the nation’s total population. In fact, the highest percentage of fair-haired people is around the Baltic Sea, in nations such as Denmark, the Polish coast and the Baltic States. Whilst Sweden does have an above average percentage of blond people, it is comparatively unremarkable, and so this stereotype can be disregarded.


So whether you prefer brunettes over blondes, start discovering Sweden as a possible study destination now.


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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.