Often, we think of stereotypes as negative. They involve a certain degree of prejudice and generalization. But sometimes, stereotypes do have some basis of fact at their core. At least, some Swedish stereotypes do.
Whether you’ve heard rumors of polar bears wreaking havoc on Sweden’s streets or you’re convinced Swedes never do a full day’s work, you’ve probably got some idea about Swedish stereotypes. But is it all blondes, social welfare and taxes? Let’s find out!
Swedes take stereotypes of themselves, mostly, in a self-deprecating joke-y sort of way. “Typically Swedish” (typiskt svenskt) is a common utterance in Sweden, usually in the context of pride or dismay. Fika is “typiskt svenskt” and proudly so. But hiding behind your apartment door because you heard your neighbor fumbling with keys nearby is also, *sigh*, typiskt svenskt.
There’s even a Swedish card game called Lingon, Lagom och Långkalsonger (Lingonberries, “Just right” and thermal leggings) where the object is to crown one of the players “most Swedish” based on stereotypes. And from my own experience, the winner is always disappointed.
Each card has three questions on it, and everyone in the group answers either yes or no. And the questions range from things that only Swedes understand to obvious, well-known stereotypes.
Here are some example questions. We’ll start with an obvious one first: “Do you know what Volvo means in Latin?” (Answer yes, you get points. Answer no, points deducted.)
And here’s one that will only mean something to someone who’s had a fancy dinner with Swedes: “Do you own Iittala glassware with the stickers still on?” (Answer yes, points. Answer no, points deducted.)
Being called “typically Swedish” is an oxymoron. On the one hand, Swedes can’t help but brag about celebrities with Swedish heritage or links. Just look at Zlatan, ABBA or Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. On the other, Swedes find it almost insulting to be “typically Swedish”.
The most common Swedish stereotypes
But what does it mean to be “typically Swedish”? Well, the answer is of course that everyone’s unique and can’t be categorized so easily. That hasn’t stopped these well-known stereotypes cropping up, though:
- “All Swedes are blonde and blue-eyed”
I’m sure you don’t need telling that this is not true, but a staggering 46% of Swedes in one study had been asked this by a non-Swede. Sure, there are quite a few blondes in Sweden, but not everyone.
- “There are polar bears on the streets”
Polar bears? No. They aren’t native to Sweden so this is a bit of a mystery. We have brown bears in Norrbotten and in Lapland people rub shoulders with the increasing bear population daily. But in the large cities? No, no bears.
- “Swedes are shy and introverted”
It all comes down to perspective. For Americans and most English speakers, this is true. You probably won’t befriend that guy you take the bus with to work every morning, even after five years. He might stare at you as a way of saying hello after ten, though.
- “All Swedes listen to and love ABBA”
ABBA is a national treasure and Swedes embrace their songs quite regularly. Even people who claim to hate pop music. But Swedes tend to be proud of all Swedish musicians, whether they like them or not.
- “Swedes only buy furniture from IKEA”
I don’t know anyone (Swedish or otherwise) who doesn’t have at least something from IKEA in their home. But no, Swedes don’t buy all their furniture from IKEA. Unless they’re students. Students definitely have all-IKEA furnishings.
Stereotypes about Swedish personality traits
By this point, you might be wondering: what are Swedish people like? What are the characteristics of Swedish people? Here’s what’s true and what’s definitely not!
- “Swedes are very clean and tidy people”
In the main, this is true. Swedes always take their shoes off before entering their own or someone else’s home. Swedish people generally take a lot of care to keep their home interiors tidy and looking catalog-ready.
- “Swedish people are rude”
If you were brought up to mind your p’s and q’s, you might find the Swedish way of communicating to be blunt. Swedes are good at thank you’s – learn how to say thank you in Swedish here – but there is no one word for “please”. They’re just more direct than English speakers generally are, and manners are different the world over.
- “Swedes are tight with money and terrible at tipping”
In Sweden, wages are typically higher than in other places. It’s up to employers to pay workers a decent living wage, so these workers don’t have to rely on fluctuating amounts of tips to keep a roof over their heads.
- “Swedes are depressed and suicidal”
False. Sweden ranks 44th out of 110 countries on Wikipedia’s suicide rankings per capita. Suicide has actually decreased dramatically since the 1980s even though the population has grown considerably.
- “Swedes only spend 6 hours a day at work”
Swedes do, on average, work fewer hours than other nations. Sweden trialed shortening the working day to just six hours a day and, unsurprisingly, people loved it. More time with family and friends, outdoors or just chilling out. Productivity also increased. However, most Swedes still work 40 hours a week.
Stereotypes about Sweden
- “Sweden is expensive”
For people not earning Swedish wages, Sweden can seem expensive. Taxes are high and most people are happy about it. The average Swede earns around US$4000 a month, and as they only pay minor sums for healthcare and education is free, this tends to be enough for rent and necessities.
- “It’s always winter in Sweden”
False. Sweden isn’t Narnia, even though it looks like it during the winter months. Winter is much longer than summer and some years it even snows in May! Most of the time though, Sweden enjoys lukewarm summers with the temperature around 23°C (73°F).
- “Sweden is a welfare-state where nobody needs to work”
False. If nobody worked, the welfare state would cease to exist. The idea is that people who need help should be able to get it regardless of whether their income is high or low. The more people who contribute, the better the system works.
- “Sweden has terrible problems with immigration”
This is a hot debate both inside and outside of Sweden. In 2015, during the Syrian crisis, Sweden accepted the second-largest amount of asylum seekers in Europe (after Germany). Swedish politics has reflected the conflict of opinions surrounding the issue.
- “Swedish people are from Switzerland“
Look, mistakes happen. But this stereotype is unforgivable in Swedish eyes. The only thing we have in common is neutrality. And both names begin with “sw”. That’s where the commonalities end.
- “Sweden is an eco-friendly country”
Greta Thunberg, one of the most famous Swedes, disagrees (at least in the context of big businesses). But on a personal level, nearly all Swedes organize their garbage into different recycling containers. They’ve been recycling bottles and plastics with a return and earn scheme since the 1970s.
More Swedish stereotypes
- “Swedes are tall and slim”
“The Nordic Diet” has recently featured in many medical journals and in the mainstream media. But how healthy are Swedes really? Well, Sweden is the 59th most obese nation on earth with just over 20% of the population diagnosed with obesity. As for height, the average male Swede is 181cm (5ft9”) tall and women come in at 167cm (5ft4”).
- “Swedes are very attractive”
This is often a stereotype of Swedish women in particular. I don’t need to tell you that beauty is entirely subjective. However, most Swedes do like to take care of their appearance and they may appear to be better looking as a result (that’s just a guess!).
- “All Swedes are nudists”
Nudists? No. Some people are. But we don’t think nudity is as big a deal as Americans do. It’s a little complicated to jot down all the details – find out more about Swedes and nudity here.
- “Swedes are descended from Vikings”
Sure, many are. But Sweden experienced mass immigration from other parts of Europe in particular after the Viking era. A considerable percentage of Swedes have roots in Belgium (Walloons). The (current) King of Sweden has French blood, too!
- “Swedes are open-minded about sexuality”
Sex isn’t as taboo in Sweden as it is in other places. In general, sexuality is viewed as a positive thing. Homosexuality was legalized in 1944 but was also “treated” as an illness until 1979.
- “Swedes all dress the same”
I have to admit that this is somewhat true. In the winter, you’d be forgiven for thinking Swedes dress like they’re experiencing a season-long funeral because of all the dark outfits. On the flip side, during the summer months, many people wear white. Trends come and go among young people, but colorful outfits don’t tend to feature among them.
- “Swedes are disruptive drunks on vacation”
Yes, this is (unfortunately) also kinda true. Two things to consider here: We don’t get a lot of sun in Sweden and alcohol is expensive and not as readily available as it is elsewhere in the world.
Neighborly jokes about Swedish stereotypes
Up until now, we’ve mostly discussed Swedish stereotypes from a global viewpoint. But what do Sweden’s neighbors think of them?
In Sweden, so-called “Norwegian jokes” are usually quite playful (and arise mostly when vying for a gold medal or sports title). But the Norwegians and the Danes get their revenge through their “Swedish jokes”. They usually point out how “inept” Swedes are at social interaction. Here are some examples:
“Why do Swedes have empty bottles in their refrigerators?” “In case someone comes over and isn’t thirsty.”
“Two Swedes are walking along a street when one of them says to the other, “look, a dead bird!” The other looks up into the sky and says, “where?”
But what about “Norwegian jokes”? Well, Swedes aren’t much kinder.
“Why don’t Norwegians write anything on their cakes?” “Because the cake doesn’t fit in the printer.”
“Why do Norwegians dress up when there’s lightning in the sky?” “They think they’re being photographed.”
As you can see, the jokes are usually centered around the other nation’s supposed stupidity or lack of common sense. In reality though, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians co-exist quite harmoniously these days. Scandinavian expats often band together in unions or go to meet-ups to take part in culturally significant days such as midsummer.
Hopefully you’ve learned a bit about Swedish stereotypes and now you’ll know not to be afraid of polar bears on your next visit! Want to know more about Sweden? Check out our article: 30 Fun Facts About Sweden That Will Surprise You