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Are Swedes funny? Explaining the many types of Swedish jokes

Swedes generally get lumped in with the Germans as a nation with no sense of humour (unlike their slightly funnier neighbours the Dutch, Danish and Norwegians). But it's not true! Or not entirely, anyway. Swedes do have a sense of humour, it's just a bit different. Here's The Local's contributor Richard Orange's guide to help you recognise when a Swede is trying to be funny.

Are Swedes funny? Explaining the many types of Swedish jokes
Hasse Alfredson and Tage Danielsson, the much-loved Swedish comedy duo active from the 1950s to the 1980s. Photo: Jan Collsiöö/TT

In a way, talking about having a “national sense of humour” is outdated, given that so much of the comedy we consume on TV or through podcasts is international, or, in the case of podcasts, aimed at a small niche. The days when you claim comedy shows on TV, such as Benny Hill, Monty Python, or in Sweden Hasse och Tage, as somehow representative of the nation are long gone. 

But if you go beyond comedy and look at the jokes people themselves make in person or on social media, you can still make out national differences. 

Every time I return to the UK, for instance, the person who checks my passport always seems to make some kind of light-hearted comment or joke, like, “You’ve got your hands full,” if I’m travelling alone with my children. Humour isn’t used as much to lighten interactions between strangers in that way in Sweden. 

Instead, Sweden is a consensus culture, a culture of rule-following, and a culture where having overblown artistic or intellectual pretensions is frowned upon. Very often this is reflected in the humour.  

Doing inexplicably lame things in very large numbers or to a strict routine

Is the insistence on watching the otherwise justly forgotten 80s jousting movie Ivanhoe on New Year’s Day a sort of national joke? I’d argue it is, as is Disney on Christmas Eve, the Melodifestivalen-watching parties where highly educated PhD students take manufactured pop extremely seriously, or the groups of friends who meet every single Friday to watch the crushingly dull geography quiz På Spåret.

“We do it because we do it,” a Swede is likely to smile with satisfaction when challenged. 

At root, this is a sort of celebration of consensus. Swedes find it very funny to follow a rule or tradition that is self-evidently not worth being followed. 

Absurd, grotesque, silly, or just shockingly boring things 

If you look at hit humorous Facebook groups in Sweden in recent years, there’s a definite amusement at the absurd, grotesque, and simply silly (at least in the ones followed by my Swedish wife). The success of groups like the now-defunct Svåra Föremål (Troublesome Objects), Fullständigt ointressant information (Totally uninteresting information), or Lokaltidningsbesvikelser (Local newspaper disappointments), shows Swedes’ revelling in the bad taste or tediousness of their compatriots.  

One meme on Svåra Föremål concerned failed craft projects using seashells. The group’s admins even sold a wall calendar featuring seashell animals and figurines. 

The humour here lies somewhere in the disconnect between the effort made and the pointless result, between artistic aspirations and irredeemable ugliness. As such it reinforces Sweden’s take on Jante’s Law, that sentiment of “you’re not to think you’re someone special”, in much the same way that the British use humour “to knock someone down a peg”. 

One recent post on Fullständigt ointressant information, where users compete to share the dullest possible anecdotes or insights, sums up a certain brand of Swedish humour.

“Last night I dreamed that they had taken away VAT from dill. I was in total bliss.”

Here there’s the admission, even pride, in a dull internal life, a subconscious concerned with VAT and that most Swedish and swamp-tasting of herbs. This is very Swedish.

Norgehistorier and Bellman jokes 

These are the Swedish equivalent of “Irishman” jokes in England, or of the short set-up and punchline jokes beloved of schoolchildren in the UK, and perhaps everywhere.

They’re generally not very funny (but then again, nor are their British equivalents). Bellman jokes were originally supposed to be about the 18th century song-writer Carl Michael Bellman, but the Bellman figure has come to stand for a sort of every-Swede.

Here’s a collection of Bellman jokes, and here’s an example of a Bellman joke (courtesy of Wikipedia).

A Dane, a Norwegian and Bellman made a wager on who could remain inside a goat pen the longest. First out was the Dane, who came out after just 10 minutes yelling “Damn! The goat stinks!” After him the Norwegian went in, and after half an hour he came out yelling, “Damn! The goat stinks!” Finally Bellman went in. After two hours the goat came rushing out yelling “Damn! Bellman stinks!”

Norgehistorier are very similar, but more like England’s ‘Irish’ jokes, as they rather unfairly tend to focus on the country ways and perceived low intelligence of Norwegians (Swedes should be aware that while Norwegians may be the butt of Swedes’ jokes, Swedes are the butt of jokes in Norway, Denmark AND Finland). Here’s a collection

Here’s an example: 

Two Norwegian policemen found a dead body in front of a Peugeot. “How do you spell Peugeot,” one asks the other. “No idea, let’s move him in front of a Fiat instead.”

Gothenburg puns 

Gothenburg is the city most renowned in Sweden for its sense of humour, with the city’s humour heavily based around puns and wordplay. The term Göteborgsvits, or Gothenburg pun, dates back to the second half of the 19th century, so it has pedigree.

What’s prized among people from Gothenburg is mental quickness, spotting a potential pun or play on words and turning it immediately into a joke, so examples of Gothenburg puns on the internet cannot really capture it. What would be brilliant in the heat of the moment comes across more like a Christmas cracker joke when written down. 

But here’s an example nonetheless:

How many Gothenburgers live in Canada? 

Åtta-va? (‘eight, no?’) (Ottawa… geddit?)

Scanian teasing 

The sense of humour in Scania (or Skåne in Swedish), Sweden’s southernmost county, seems more similar to that of Denmark, with its culture of mickey-taking and teasing, than to that of much of the rest of Sweden.

We are currently trying to build a summer house in the countryside an hour outside Malmö, and more or less every time our very neighbour comes to survey our progress, he says deadpan, “so, when are you moving in?”, the joke being, of course, that we aren’t, and won’t be for a year, or (God forbid) many years. It strikes me that this is very close to the sort of dig someone might make back home in England. 

Do Swedes have ‘banter’? 

In Britain, there’s a great love of ribaldry, humorous repartee in the pub, or more recently on the Whatsapp groups that groups of friends have set up to replace it. 

The back-and-forth flow of British conversation, with its frequent interruptions and interjections, works well with this. In Sweden, people tend to talk in longer chunks, and interrupt each other less, making Swedish pub chat more likely to be based around funny anecdotes. 

Swedish TV comedy and the new shock standups 

Swedish comedy on TV has tended historically to be based around unsubtle skits and slapstick in the vein of the UK show Little Britain (just less good). It’s generally rather unfunny in my opinion, although it should be pointed out that the Swedish comedian Petra Mede went down surprisingly well among UK audiences when she presented Eurovision in 2013 and 2016. 

The rise of podcasts has given a new generation of standup comics a way of reaching their audience, leading to a new brand of very dark, taboo-breaking humour, with comics like Sandra Ilar, Johannes Finnlaugsson and Kristoffer K Svensson, or the rapper Mr Cool, who caused a scandal with a comedy rap about paedophilia. 

Some of the new generation of Swedish stand-ups, such as Fredrik Andersson, Tobias Persson and Evelyn Mok, have even managed to cross the North Sea and make a living out of their comedy in the UK. 

So who said Swedes can’t be funny? 

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‘Everything is on hold’: The ups and downs of working in Sweden in summer

Office fruit disappears, trains and restaurants shut down, and it is impossible to get anything done if it involves a Swedish colleague. The Local's readers report from Sweden's deserted summer offices.

'Everything is on hold': The ups and downs of working in Sweden in summer

Many foreigners in Sweden end up deciding it’s best to do as the Swedes do and take at least three weeks off in July, as it’s almost impossible to get normal work done. But this doesn’t work for everyone.

Some would rather take time off when the climate is best for a trip back home. Others haven’t been working long enough to earn the holiday. Others are simply too new to understand what July in Swedish offices can be like. 

We asked readers who have worked through most of July to tell us about their experiences. 

READ ALSO: Why do Swedes take such long summer holidays? 

What’s it actually like in the office? 

“Life kind of stops, everything is on hold. You have no one to sign off, approve, help, assign or complete tasks,” reported Sebastian Perreira, an IT worker based in Stockholm. 

“The office is empty, chat is silent, the business is completely on pause,” agreed Sara, a marketing manager from Italy. Elie, a railway engineer from France, estimated that only a quarter of those who normally work in her office are present. 

It’s not just the human contact and the chitchat that disappears. Many workplaces put office cleaning and other basic services on pause. 

“There is a lack of sanitation in office spaces as everyone is out on vacation and also all maintenance work, such as building ventilation etc, is done during this time which makes it difficult to sit in the office space sometimes,” said one respondent, who preferred not to be identified. 

“They stopped the supply of bananas…” groaned Hongru, a statistician from China working at Linköping University. 

An engineer working in construction. Photo: Sara Winsnes/Imagebank Sweden

What about getting to the office and time off after work? 

It’s not just reduced services in offices themselves, but in the entire city. 

“Many restaurants I usually go for lunch are closed for five or more weeks during the summer,” reported José, a software engineer from Mexico, something Perreira agreed was “absolutely ridiculous”. 

Santhan, a PhD student at Umeå University, said that he had struggled with “being alone at the end of the day instead of doing evening sports or activities”. 

“Rail maintenance works are planned when the majority of Swedish people take time off,” said an electrical engineer from Ireland. 

Karan, a cyber security consultant from India, said he had been struggling with the “reduced frequency of public transport”, but Shubham, a mobile app developer, said that he actually liked the fact that public transport was “not too crowded”. 

So could anyone get anyone work done?

“It’s definitely challenging,” reported Mia from the UK, saying she felt “totally uncomfortable” with all the decisions and deadlines that “no one will really remember after their five to six weeks off”.

“Honestly, getting anything done is a struggle, so I focus on individual projects and self-development that I can do by myself. Also, even Swedes who are working aren’t really doing anything.”

“At our company, all of the developers or engineers are Swedish, so they naturally tend to go on vacation all at the same time, sometimes for up to eight weeks,” said Danny, a software developer, also from the UK. “When something goes wrong and a fix is needed urgently, we either have to hack something together without them or use the on-call engineer, which costs a lot of money.” 

One foreigner spending her first summer in Sweden working for a German multinational said she had found the main task assigned her impossible to complete.

“I am supposed to organise a board visit for the end of September. I was only able to book the hotel rooms, but not able to discuss the catering as the responsible person was on holiday. I also need to book restaurants for two evenings. But the restaurants which could fit the requirements of this important meeting are closed, I was not able to visit them, discuss the menu or complete the booking. Next time, I will start the process in March!” 

Foreigners dealing with colleagues in other countries often faced the biggest problems, as few of the their overseas colleagues understood the situation they were in. 

“Foreign clients don’t understand Swedish culture. Or worse, think the Swedes should change their culture,” said James, a construction industry manager from Scotland, who said he was struggling because “the support we need is not there and the team is struggling” and “nobody cares.”

Another foreigner who worked in software development said the big issues came when changes needed to made to another team’s software, as there were “usually no people to go to”. He expected more problems come after the summer. 

“Most of the work done during summers, or even a few weeks before summer, needs to be reexplained again and again after vacationing colleagues return back with vacation brain fog.”

Perreira said that foreigners stuck alone in offices were often left with “boredom and a feeling of guilt”. 

“You either have nothing to do, because things are very slow, or you need to feel peer pressure but there is none, since everyone is off. So you end up accomplishing very little and feel guilty afterwards.”

Some work better

Some respondents, however, said they found summer an unusually productive time. 

“I can get a lot done without the usual meetings being necessary,” said Danny. “Swedes tend to get upset if they are not invited to a meeting, but I’ve found that they don’t mind at all if you take a decision yourself over the summer.” 

Nayane, a Brazilian business intelligence manager, agreed that the best thing about the summer was “no meetings”.

“I’m working with some very specific things that require no interaction with other people, so it has been great!”  

One software tester from eastern Europe said she had benefited from “a lot of focus, way less distractions with meetings and interactions and the possibility of dedicating most of the time to technical tasks not involving communication”.

“Without being bothered, you can actually accomplish a lot of things from the backlog,” Perreira added. 

Alice, who works in delivery and analytics, agreed that summer offered an opportunity to tick items off the to-do list that she never usually had a chance of getting to.

“You get the time to do things you’re not getting to in usual circumstances, like time-consuming projects that are not top priority,” she said. 

Some find it hard to work but don’t care

Several respondents agreed that it was hard to get much done, but didn’t seem too concerned.

Charan, a data manager from India, said that despite a “slightly higher workload”, the long days meant he could both work and feel like he was on holiday. 

“It is very much possible to enjoy the Swedish summer and work simultaneously,” he said. “The long, sunny days and relatively warm weather makes it easy to work and during times of less work to do, it is also possible to connect from a holiday destination and keep working.”

Steve, a UX designer based in Stockholm, who is not using his real name took this to approach to an even greater extreme.

“It’s the best country to work during summer, especially in a corporate environment,” he said. “Since everyone else was gone and workload amounted to almost nothing, I ‘worked’, but really was just taking vacation.” 

He didn’t even stay in Stockholm during his working weeks, he said, instead enjoying “a normal travel-filled vacation”. 

A summer cottage. Photo: Fotograferna Holmberg/TT

How many will take the summer off next time like a Swede? 

Nearly two thirds of our 42 respondents had worked throughout the summer, with most of the rest taking only two weeks off. 

Several said their experiences of working this summer had convinced then to take a Swedish approach next summer. 

“I will take four weeks off next year and not feel any guilt,” said James, the Scottish construction manager. “I will take time off during the summer at the same time as the Swedish people in my office,” agreed the Irish electrical engineer. 

But others, particularly those from India, felt that as summer was the best time to be in Sweden, they wanted to save their travel months for January and February, and the post-Monsoon months in October and November, when the weather is cooler in India.

“It is the best time to be in Sweden, and the worst to be almost anywhere else in Europe,” explained Perreira. “So why waste vacation days now when you can go to Southern Europe in autumn or spring, and to Southeast Asia during the winter?” 

He said he didn’t plan to take the summer off Swedish-style unless absolutely forced to by future family circumstances. 

“Unless I start dating a Swede and end up being forced to spend half of my summer in a cottage in Skåne, nothing will change.”