Why don't Swedes do small talk?

5:33 min

Here are two pretty common questions many new arrivals ask after they've lived in Sweden for a while: Why don't Swedes make small talk and why don’t they say excuse me when they want to get by you in the supermarket or bump into you on the train? Are these just stereotypes or the reality?

At a mall in downtown Stockholm, Jan-Jakob Zbiniewicz is working at a kiosk that sells those round-bottomed shoes that you see everywhere nowadays. Do customers ever engage in small talk with him? “I would say never,” he says. “That’s not a Swedish custom.”

Micke Kytsydakis works at a computer store in the mall. He was born in Sweden. He has a Swedish mother and a Greek father. He says people do talk to him at the store. But when asked to recall the last time he experienced small talk with a stranger, the answer was different. “The last time that happened to me was like a year ago,” he says. “So it doesn’t happen often. Swedes are like that. We’re very closed in and mind our own business.”

Malin Hoas was sitting outside of the computer store, waiting for a friend. She says she'd like to see more small talk, but she's not surprised that most Swedes don't do it. “I figured that, but I try to be more open and not be the typical Swede,” she says.

How do expats interpret this so-called "typical Swede"?

Preeti is an American expat blogger in Sweden who wants to remain anonymous. She describes her popular website, Lost in Stockholm, as an expat blog about “life, work, love, and bantering about everything in Sweden”. “After a while you kind of just come to an acceptance and you just go with the flow which feels bad because you want to have a conversation with someone,” she says.

Preeti doesn’t think this behaviour is rude. “It has to do with the culture being reserved and non-communicative to others, mainly strangers,” she says.

This non-communication to others, to strangers, is a deep-rooted part of the Swedish mentality, according to Åke Daun, a professor emeritus of ethnology who has written a book called "The Swedish Mentality".

He says from birth, Swedes don't have the desire or need to talk. “It’s senseless to talk if you don’t see the meaning in it,” he says. “Why should I talk to a Swede in the grocery store? For a Swede, it’s very easy to say ‘he won’t give me anything’”.

Daun says Swedes are still very much living with a rural mindset, even after they move to the city. He says getting confirmation is important, and it becomes more difficult when you move to the city. “People don’t have the same ideas and values in cities, so the solution is to avoid conversation and talking to other people so you won’t take the risk of having a conversation that doesn’t lead to a feeling that we are similar,” he says.

To say excuse me or not?

In these cities, you have a much higher chance of bumping into someone. “When I moved here I realized that no one really says anything, you get pushed to the side or even pushed into a wall,” says Preeti, the American blogger. “No one says anything, it’s a little unnerving”

Is bumping into someone and not saying "excuse me" typical Swedish behaviour or just bad manners?

“It’s absolutely rude,” says Magdalena Ribbing, the godmother of Swedish etiquette and an author of 25 books on the subject. “It’s often a question about someone being either shy or having received no education from parents or school or just being ignorant and doesn’t mind whatever he or she does to other people.”