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Greeting others in Sweden: Why is he talking to me?

In many places around the world, you try to establish eye contact with others when you enter a place: A coffee shop, a restaurant, a meeting, a conference, etc.

You acknowledge people that are already there; you nod, you smile and you may even say "hi" to people you do not know! People you probably won't see again.

You do this for many reasons: to indicated that you "see them", that you are welcoming and nice, and to create a nice atmosphere where further contact is easy to initiate.

In Sweden it works differently:

Saying "hej" in Sweden | Julien S Bourrelle ("The Swedes")

And for good reasons!

Greeting others is an important example of a culture "ritual" or "norm" which foreigners need to learn and adapt to when living in a foreign country.

In Sweden, like in Norway, Denmark and Finland, we need a reason to speak to others.

Politeness in the Nordics is a lot about not disturbing others, especially if you do not have a reason to do so.

If you greet Swedes for no apparent reason, they will try to figure out how they know you, wonder if you want to sell them something, or if you have bad intentions. They will wonder why you are talking to them, if you do not have an obvious reason.

Nordic people are not cold, rude or uneducated. They are simply polite, but politeness means something different here. It means to leave personal space and not disturb others. This often leads outsiders to perceive Nordic people as reserved or shy.

It is easy to misinterpret behaviours. We all have a tendency to interpret the behaviours and intentions of others based on what it they would mean and be in our own culture.

This is one of the reason why we created our books about the Swedish culture. They provides tools for Swedes to understand better how their own behaviours may be perceived, and be better prepared to identify cultural differences and misunderstandings. These books require a little of self-irony to be enjoyed. They are written from an outsiders perspective as I am Canadian.

These books are wonderful for foreigners to understand better Swedish behaviours, intentions and reactions.

Books "The Swedes" and "Working with Swedes"


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