The first rule is: you do not talk to Swedes you don’t know.
The second rule is: you do not talk to Swedes you don’t know.
Swedes are friendly, but we don’t like small talk. And not just with strangers, we can even have a hard time speaking with people we know under the wrong circumstances. But it is not that we want to appear superior or that we are suspicious of you, in fact we are generally very trusting towards strangers. It isn’t impossible to talk to Swedes, but you should know a few things before you give it a go.
Don’t talk without a reason.
Swedes like to mind their own business. That is why we stand far apart at the bus stop, look away when we pass you by, and don’t talk to you when we’re seated next to each other. Do we need to mention that Sweden is a lonely country?
But if you want to try to talk to a Swede, we will give you some tips. First, we like framed conversations, when the topic of the conversation is set beforehand it is easier for us to talk. Second, one of the absolute best conversational starters with Swedes is to make a comment about the weather. Few things get a Swede to talk like that constantly current topic. (Hint: The weather is either never or always great.)
Always affirm and know when to stop.
When you're talking with a Swede, they probably make a regular sharp inhaling sound, or say “ja…”, “ah…” or “mm…”. But don’t worry, they are not trying to interrupt you! It is a way for us to affirm what you are saying, and show you that we are still listening. So when the Swede is talking, make sure you are giving them these affirmations as well. Otherwise, the Swede will believe that you are not interested in what they’re saying, they'll think they are boring, and they will end the conversation. Nodding also works as affirmation.
It could therefore be a cultural crash with the rest of the world that has created the perception of the Swede as disliking small talk. We just think that we’re boring you.
Swedes will always be polite to you, though. When you ask them something, they will answer in the politest way they know. We’re not known for seeking out conflicts, even in conversations. If you see that the Swede takes a long glance at their phone, say “jaha”, or say “nähä” it is time to quickly end the conversation, because the Swede wants to leave.
The country of “du”.
In Sweden we are on first name basis with almost everybody, and we use the Swedish word for “you” (“du”, pronounced “du”) for almost everyone. There are a few exceptions, the royal family for example are always referred to with their title. And in the parliament “Herr” (“Mr.") and “Fru” (“Mrs.”) is usually used when addressing the speaker. Other than that, you can use the first name with pretty much anybody.
The “you”-approach made Swedes more equal. It removed the hierarchy in the language between positions in the society. Also, it closed the distance between people by talking in the same way to a friend as to a stranger. Though some call this development a reform, it was more of an evolution of the language culture which took place in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Kan ve pra-tah sven-ska?”
How do you get a Swede to speak Swedish?
If you take the very brave step of speaking Swedish with a Swede, you might meet some resistance at first. Other than the fact that we don’t like to talk to strangers, we are quick to change to English so you don’t have to bother speaking Swedish. We simply aren’t used to internationals speaking our language. We also know that it can be hard to speak in a language you aren’t fluent in, so we find it easier to just speak English with you. We do this with everyone, even Danes and Norwegians whose languages are very similar to Swedish.
As we stated before, Swedes do not like to talk that much. So, speaking in a language that both parts know saves a lot of time and effort. If you really want to speak Swedish, you can always tell the person that you are learning Swedish and ask if you can have the conversation in Swedish. In Swedish you say: “Kan vi prata svenska?” (“Kan ve pra-tah sven-ska?”). The risk is that you will end up speaking Swedish and the Swede will speak English to make sure you understand. But, if you’re lucky, the Swede might help you out with words and pronunciations as well, because suddenly the conversation is framed.
Another reason to why we prefer talking with English is that some of us would like to work on our English when we get the chance. Also, the awkwardness of us not understanding each other is unbearable.
We sincerely hope you’ll dare to approach a Swede. If the first one looks away and ignores you, there are about 10 million others to go. Now go out and make talking with Swedes into conver-sensations!
Note: these articles are supposed to be entertaining and give you a sense of the Swedish culture through our language. If you are serious about learning Swedish you should turn to educational institutions which provide classes in Swedish.