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When can you talk to a stranger in Sweden without annoying them?

In Sweden, it is normally seen as rude and intrusive to start a conversation with a total stranger. Except, that is, in certain well-defined circumstances. Here's our best stab at what they are.

When can you talk to a stranger in Sweden without annoying them?
Don't worry, there are times when it's seen as perfectly OK to strike up a conversation with a stranger in Sweden. Photo: Simon Paulin/

Every time I return to the UK from Sweden, I’m astonished by the amount of chit-chat.  After ten years living in Sweden, it seems like every interaction with strangers, however small, is punctuated by a short conversation, a joke, a grumble.

This starts from the moment you have your passport checked (“You’ve got your hands full”), to the person sitting opposite you on the train home: (“So, where are you headed?”), to shopkeepers, your taxi driver, and, of course, the semi-intoxicated middle-aged man at the public bar in any pub in the country (any topic you can imagine). 

In Sweden, this sort of chat is much, much less common.

Swedes are generally uncomfortable with small talk, which is sometimes even referred to as kallprat, (“cold talk”), or even dödprat (“dead talk”).

In many situations, they will experience someone starting a conversation as simply jobbigt (a hassle). More often Swedes avoid small talk out of consideration. If there’s one thing Swedes guard more zealously than their own privacy, it’s the privacy of others. So what feels to foreigners like being cold and unfriendly behaviour, is actually a form of thoughtfulness. 

But just because small talk is unusual does not mean it doesn’t happen. It is just restricted by a set of informal rules. 

In general, speaking to strangers is acceptable under one or more of three conditions: that there are external circumstances that limit how long the interaction can take, that you have something in common with them, that you are both focused on some sort of third element, which dilutes the intensity of face-to-face contact. 

READ ALSO: Eight unwritten rules that explain how Swedishness works

Here are the situations when it is permissible to talk to a stranger in Sweden without annoying them: 

When they are out walking their dogs 

Owning a dog opens up a whole new world of communication in Sweden, so long as you don’t mind all of your conversations revolving around canine husbandry. There’s even a film called Hundtricket (“The Dog Trick”), featuring a young Alexander Skarsgård, in which a man tries to get a girlfriend by buying a dog. 

Walking dogs fits all three of the conditions: it is a limited time activity; you are all dog owners, so have something in common; and you have an external thing to focus on (the dogs), that you can engage with if the conversation drops off and becomes awkward. 

In a rastplats, or dog park, in a Swedish city, people will go into extraordinary depths about their pets’ breeds, origins, habits, and health problems. 

The focus, though, generally stays on the animals. It’s quite common for a dog owner (like this one) to know the names of all the local dogs, but none of the names of their owners.

In time, you might start to ask relatively innocuous questions like whether the other owners left the city on the weekend, or else talk about the weather, but you’re unlikely to ask other dog owners (if they’re Swedish anyway) about their job, or where they come from.

You don’t even need to own a dog to take advantage of Hundtricket. It is quite acceptable to ask strangers about their dogs, even if you don’t have one yourself. Ask about their breed, their age, and perhaps whether you can stroke them. 

At the playground with their children 

This follows more or less the same rules as the dog park. Parents hovering at the edge of a town or city playground can strike up conversations with one another. This fits two, or perhaps three, of the rules: they have something in common (children), and they have an external thing to focus on (children, again).

The externally set time limit is also there to some extent, as children (in Sweden, as elsewhere) tend to wander off, start crying, or need parental attention, providing the Swede with the required escape route should the conversation become awkward. 

When they are having a cigarette break outside

This is the consolation smokers in Sweden receive for their shortened lives.

If a Swedish smoker finds themselves having a cigarette break next to another smoker, they can spark up a short conversation.

The situation meets at least two of the three necessary conditions: the cigarette limits the interaction to about five minutes, and the two Swedes have their unfortunate habit in common.

If the chat becomes uncomfortable one minute in, they can even pretend to be focusing their attention on an external factor: the joy of their cigarette, savouring every drag.

On an organised tour or activity of some kind 

If you have signed up for a guided tour of an art gallery, or any sort of time-limited group activity, it’s OK to start a conversation with those on the same tour. This is because the time of the interaction is controlled by the length of the tour, and, perhaps more importantly, you have a third external event to focus on if the conversation gets awkward.  

At a concert or football match  

This is a bit of a grey zone. But at standing, or occasionally even seated, events where you are there to watch something, it’s more acceptable in Sweden to start a conversation with a stranger. This is partly because you have something external to focus on, but also, I feel, because you are not trapped in the interaction. It is quite possible to move away, ostensibly to find a better angle to watch the performance or game. 

When there is a common disaster or disruption 

Sparking up a conversation on a long train journey is one of the worst things you can do to a Swede. Even a half an hour journey is too long to count as a real time limit, you have nothing obviously in common, and the circumstances often more or less force you to be aware of one another. Doing this is to condemn the Swede to a painful period of mild awkwardness. 

The moment the train is delayed or breaks down, however, everything changes. Suddenly you have something in common, and a lot to talk about. What has gone wrong? Is there anything on SJ’s website? Are you going to make your connecting trains? 

Swedes love problem-solving, so the more the disruption involves expertise, the more they are likely to pool knowledge and help each other out. 

Swedes don’t tend to complain to the same extent as people in the UK, but if the disruption is long-lasting they might also start to grumble, expressing their dissatisfaction at how they’re been treated. Once the problem is solved, it might then be acceptable to ask a few other questions of the people you’ve been talking to, such as, “where are you off to?”, or “where have you been?”

It’s not just trains.

If a water main bursts on your street and there is terrible flooding, or the power goes off in your apartment building, or the entire street gets parking tickets because of some change in zoning, you might also find strangers in the neighbourhood talking together, sometimes for the first time in years. 

In The Local’s offices, a burst water pipe, which has flooded the corridor outside the kitchen with foul-smelling water, has led to the first social interactions between us and the Swedes in the surrounding rooms. 

“Were you affected?” they asked. “Have you seen the damage on the first floor?”

As The Local’s reporter was obviously in the middle of making a cup of tea, the interaction also had the benefit of being a time-limited event. 

When there is unusually bad weather 

In a sense, this is an extension of the situation above. Swedes do not discuss the weather with strangers in the same way that people in the UK are renowned for doing. But if there is a sudden rainstorm that leaves everyone caught in it soaked, or an enormous snow dump that blocks traffic, then you can talk to strangers about the weather and how it has affected you.  

Outside of Sweden 

Swedes, like people from most other countries, are much more likely to befriend their compatriots when abroad than when at home. When travelling by train from Malmö to Brussels, Swedish families making similar journeys seemed quite happy to strike up a conversation in a way they never would have been on a train from, say, Malmö to Stockholm. 

Simply being Swedish, which means nothing at home, qualifies as “something in common” once Swedes are abroad. 

At a club or music festival

In bars, pubs and restaurants, Swedes tend to arrive with their friends and limit their conversations to those they already know.

This changes, however, if you’re somewhere where people stand or dance, such as a club or music festival. These places function somewhat closer to the way a concert or a football match does.

Even though there is not always an external factor to focus on, you are at least not trapped at the same table, and it’s always possible to drift on to someone else.

Moreover, clubs in Sweden, as elsewhere, are more or less designed as places for meeting like-minded strangers, meaning the barrier for social interaction is lower. 

Everyone is also often drunk, so of course, anything goes. 

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The Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian: who’s the butt of Nordic jokes?

The Swedes joke about the Norwegians, the Norwegians about the Swedes, and the Danes about both, or perhaps neither. But the mostly friendly joshing between Scandinavian countries is more recent than you might think.

The Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian: who's the butt of Nordic jokes?

In Sweden, they’re Norgehistorier (“Norway stories”), in Norway Svenskevitser (“Swede jokes”). The Danes tend to reserve their Aarhus-vittigheder for people from the country’s second biggest city.

These jokes are the equivalent of Irishman jokes in England or Polish jokes in the US. Indeed, they’re very often the exact same jokes with just the nationality changed. 

According to the Swedish folklorist Bengt af Klintberg, rather than having roots deep in history, these particular jokes are of a surprisingly recent vintage, the relic of a trend that swept the world in the 1970s. 

“This was an international joke fad that started actually in America,” he told The Local. “The American ‘Polack jokes’ spread to Europe, and in England, they were talking about Irishmen, in France, Belgians, and in Germany, about people from Austria. Very often the neighbouring country is accused of being stupid, and both the jokers and the the victims know that this is not true. You should not take them seriously.”

The joke war 

When these jokes started becoming popular in the early 1970s, tabloid newspapers picked up on the fad, with the Expressen newspaper reporting at the start of 1975 that “all the jokes now are about crazy Norwegians”, and printing a number of examples.

Norway’s Verdens Gang (VG) tabloid responded by asking readers to send in jokes about Sweden, and Expressen hit back by declaring a so-called Vitsekriget. 

“They called it a ‘joke war’ between Sweden and Norway,” af Klintberg remembers. “Everybody felt it was quite all right to tell jokes about stupid Swedes and stupid Norwegians, because we all knew that we are neighbours and we like each other, and that this was just some sort of teasing.” 

It was a high-profile, if short-lived, cultural phenomenon. 

VG collaborated with Expressen to have its readers’ Svenskevitser published in Sweden. Expressen collected a list of 1,000 Norgehistorier which it sent to be archived by the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, while the equivalent museum in Norway archived 300 Svenskevitser. 

On May 30th, 1975,  Arve Opsahl, the Norwegian actor and comedian appointed as “general” to lead the Norwegian side, signed a peace agreement with the comedian Jan “Moltas” Erikson, who represented the Swedes, officially ending the hostilities.

The jokes, however, lived on. While perhaps not as common as they were in their heyday, schoolchildren in both countries still learn them, and you can find online lists of Norgehistorier and Svenskevitser, and children’s books full of favourites (see here and here).

The Swedish folklorist and artist Bengt af Klintberg. Photo: Atlantis Bokförlag

Examples of Svenskevitser

Here are some examples of (typically quite unfunny) Svenskevitser and Norgehistorier, with an English translation.

Hvorfor har svenskene med seg en bildør i ørkenen?

slik at de kan åpne vindue viss det blir varmt.

Why do Swedes always take a car door into the desert?

So that they can wind down the window if it gets too hot.

Det var en gang en svenske som var ute og kjørte bil da en nyhetssending kom på radioen.

Reporteren: Vi melder om at en bil kjører mot kjøreretningen på E6 i nord-gående retning.

Svensken: ÉN?! Det er jo flere hundre av dem!

There was once a Swede out driving a car when there was a warning sent out on the radio: We are warning that there is a car driving in the wrong direction on the E6 in a northbound direction. 

One? exclaimed the Swede. “There are bloody hundreds of them!”

Examples of Norgehistorier

Vad kallas smarta personer i Norge? Turister 

What are clever people called in Norway? Tourists.

Två norska poliser hittade en död man framför en Peugeot 

Hur stavar man till Peugeot? 

Jag har ingen aning. Vi lägger honom framför en Fiat i stället!

Two Norwegian policeman found a dead man in front of a Peugeot.

“How do you spell Peugeot?” says one. 

“No idea,” says the other. “Let’s leave him in front of a Fiat instead.”

The Swede, the Dane, and the Norwegian

There’s a variety which combines all three Scandinavian nationalities, a little like the “Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman” jokes popular in the UK, with the Norwegian the butt of the joke in Sweden and the Swede in Norway. 

Sometimes these, like other Norgehistorier or Svenskevitser, settle with characterising the neighbouring country as stupid, like this one: 

Det var en gang at en svenske, danske og en nordmann var ute i skogen og gikk tur. Nordmannen var døv, dansken var blind og svensken var lam fra livet og ned og satt i rullestol. Etter en stund kom de til en magisk grotte i skogen, der hver og en av dem kunne få oppfylt ett ønske. Først gikk nordmannen inn. Etter en stund kom han ut og utbrøt lykkelig: “Gutter, jeg kan høre!” Etter ham gikk dansken inn og kom ut like fornøyd: “Gutter, jeg kan se!” Sist men ikke minst trillet svensken inn. Etter en stund kom han ut og ropte: “Kolla grabbar, nya hjul!”

A Swede, a Dane and Norwegian were out hiking in the woods. The Norwegian was deaf, the Dane blind and the Swede disabled and in a wheelchair. They came to a magical cave where each of them could make one wish. First the Norwegian went in. “Lads, I can hear!” he exclaimed. Then the Dane. “Lads, I can see!” Then finally, in went the Swede. After a while he came out and shouted. “Look guys, new wheels!”

But they can also sometimes refer to national stereotypes, such as this one, which is used in the introduction of Joking Relationships and National Identity in Scandinavia, an article on Scandinavian jokes published by Copenhagen University sociologist Peter Grundelach.

“Two Danes, two Finns, two Norwegians, and two Swedes are shipwrecked and cast upon a deserted island. By the time they are rescued the Danes have formed a co-operative, the Finns have chopped down all the trees, the Norwegians have built a fishing boat, and the Swedes are waiting to be introduced.”

Grundelach took the joke from The Scandinavians, a book by Time Magazine correspondent Donald S Connery, who explains the joke (which shows signs of Danish origin) as follows:

“Among the Scandinavians themselves…it is popularly held that the Danes are fun-loving, easygoing, shallow, shrewd, not altogether sincere and not inclined to too much exertion; the Norwegians are sturdy, brave, but a little too simple and unsophisticated…the Swedes are clever, capable, reliable, but much too formal, success-ridden and neurotic.”

Jokes on real national stereotypes 

The Scandinavians was published in 1966, so that joke predates the Joke War by nearly ten years, and according to af Klintberg, the relatively few jokes Scandinavians made about each other before this time tended to build on stereotypes, such as that Norwegians are ridiculously nationalistic (which annoyed the Swedes and Danes, who had both controlled Norway in the past), Danes are workshy and pleasure-seeking, and Swedes are uptight and moralistic.

“They dislike the Swedish for being the big brother in the Scandinavian context and also that always try to be a moral example,” af Klintberg says about the Danes. Swedes on the other hand, he adds, tend to slightly envy the Danes for being more fun-loving. 

“We talk about ‘the Danish smile’, det danske smil,” he said. “And this shows that the Swedes sometimes would like to be a little more like the Danes, who do not take alcohol as seriously as we do.” 

On the other hand, Danes, with their more continental habits of alcohol consumption, once laughed at Swedes for rolling about drunkenly after coming off the boat from Malmö or Helsingborg. 

“What’s the difference between Swedes and mosquitoes?” goes a Danish joke Grundelach cites in his article. “Mosquitoes are only annoying in the summertime.”

Danes and Swedes’ jokes about the Norwegians tend to revolve around their excessive national pride, and also around their simplistic, literalistic use of language.

“A joke that was told already at the turn of the last century is about a Norwegian who comes to Copenhagen and looks at the Rundetårn [a famous round tower in the city], and he walks around it and then says: ‘In Norway, we have towers that are much rounder’,” af Klintberg reports.

Literalistic language 

Finally, both Danes and Swedes joke about what they see as the overly literalistic compound words which they imagine exist in Norwegian, with a collection of words in skämtnorska, or joke Norwegian, sometimes expressed in joke form, such as this Danish example, which literally translates the lim in Limfjord, the fjord in northern Jutland as “glue”: 

Hvad kalder nordmændende Limfjorden? Klisterkanalen.

“What do the Norwegians call the Limfjord? The glue canal.” 

Danes and Swedes both like to claim tongue-in-cheek that the Norwegian word for shark is kjempetorsk, which means “giant cod”, or that the word for “popcorn” is eksploderende majs, literally “exploding maize”

For af Klintberg, this is a way to hit back at the efforts writers such as Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson made at the end of the 19th century to establish Norwegian as a literary language separate from Danish. 

“There has been a language war in Norway. The goal was to have a real Norwegian language, not a language that was a kind of dialect of Danish.” 

So, finally, why does no one joke about the Danes?

In his article, Grundelach, points out the strange asymmetry in Scandinavian humour, that while the Norwegians and Swedes joke about each other, and the Danes a little about both Swedes and Norwegians, no one seems to joke much about the Danes. 

As a Dane, he could have argued that his own people were more respected or liked. But he instead comes to the opposite conclusion, citing a survey from 1990 showing that Norwegians and Swedes tended to prefer one another to the Danes.  

“These data indicate that Norwegians and Swedes feel mutually closer than they do to the Danes, and this may at least partially explain the reciprocal (symmetrical) nature of the joke-telling between the two countries,” he explains. “Denmark seems to be a less significant country for the other two nations, which may explain why there are few jokes about the Danes.”