- I’m an American who lived in Sweden for five years.
- During my time there, I noticed several cultural differences between the US and Sweden when it comes to work culture, family dynamics, and other areas.
- Here are 10 of the biggest cultural differences I observed between the US and Sweden.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In 2013, I packed my bags and moved from New York City to Gothenburg, Sweden.
After spending two years going back and forth to visit my now-husband, I was ready to take the plunge and move there long-term.
Five years later, I moved back to the United States, and my time abroad has really made some differences between the two countries more apparent. The US and Sweden are similar in many ways, but they differ in key ways that can be hard to recognise if you have not experienced them by yourself.
Read on to see 10 of the biggest cultural differences between the US and Sweden, from someone who’s lived in both countries.
There is less hierarchy in Sweden than there is in the US
I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the lack of hierarchy in the Swedish work culture compared to previous experiences in the US.
In many companies, you can find the CEO and other management sitting in a communal area with the rest of the staff. In some companies, the work culture can be seen as a bit less formal than the US but extremely polite. You can easily directly contact top executives and see them out with their colleagues for happy hour.
In the US, this is certainly not as common. Unless you’re in the startup world, it’s rare to see top-level management socialising with junior executives.
Taking a gap year or more is very normal after high school
Unlike in the US, if you plan to attend college in Sweden, it’s extremely common to take some time off post-graduation.
Many Swedes will take a minimum-wage job for a year or so to save up money to travel before they head off to college. Many of my friends worked in retail, hospitality, and grocery stores prior to travelling to popular destinations for backpackers such as Asia, Australia, and South America. They all had many great stories to share and actually felt ready to return to school after taking some time off.
In the US, taking a gap year is a lot less common. The traditional path is for students to enter college right after graduating from high school. As a result, many teenagers are unsure of what they want to study prior to enrolling in college, and many students end up changing their major partway through their college careers.
In Sweden, the sun is to be worshipped
Having cold, long, and dark winters sparks a special relationship with Swedes and the sun.
As soon as the first sign of spring hits, you will be sure to see hibernation come to an end. It’s not uncommon to see people standing against building walls soaking in the sun or at the beach taking a dip in the sea even when it’s 60 degrees.
As a person who grew up on the East Coast of the US, I can say that this was not a common sight when the weather switched over. Although we still experience harsh winters in the US, my relationship with the sun did not feel the same as it did in Sweden. Even after moving back to the US, I can still say I spend as much time outdoors as possible when the weather is nice.
In the US, people leave their shoes on inside the home
I have yet to enter a Swedish home where taking off your shoes is not the norm.
If you walk into someones home with your shoes on without asking, it will definitely be frowned upon and understandably so. After all, the weather conditions are not ideal for keeping a clean home. Regardless if you’re at a house party rocking your favourite pair of shoes, you will likely be expected to take them off.
Most Americans do not have the same expectation. Many Americans like to keep their shoes on inside the home and do not expect their guest to remove their shoes either.
Alcohol isn’t available 24/7 like in the US
Depending on the state, most Americans are used to being able to pick up alcohol 24/7 at a variety of stores.
In Sweden, there is only one option, the government-run company Systembolaget. Don’t wait until the last minute to pick up a bottle of wine for the dinner you planned. Best case scenario, the store will be open between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays. The lines at Systembolaget on a Friday after work can be comically long, as everyone is rushing to make their purchase before closing time.
My fellow American expat friends and I would get a big kick out of this. After living in New York City, this certainly took some getting used to.
Swedish people are very literal
Americans often use superlatives and hyperbole when describing something, while Swedes tend to use language very literally.
In my experience, Swedes typically only describe something as “the best,” “excellent,” or “outstanding” if they actually mean it.
My husband’s family often pokes fun at me when I say things like “this is amazing” or “this is so good.” I never noticed how often Americans use superlatives until I moved to Sweden. When a Swede says something is “unbelievable,” you know they truly mean it and – they wouldn’t use the word to describe something that’s less than superior.
In Sweden, it’s never too cold to go outside.
Think it’s too cold to go for a walk? Guess again.
I have been out on several treks in the forest while it’s been 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and let me tell you, coming from someone who absolutely hates being cold, this seemed like torture.
But as the Swedes say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. So don’t complain, bundle up and get out there.
I must admit, the contrast when you return to a warm home makes it all worth it. I can’t speak for all Americans, but growing up in a place with harsh winters typically meant most people in my community stayed indoors. You won’t see Swedes gallivanting around in the cold, but the weather certainly won’t be a deterrent for partaking in outside activities.
They take coffee breaks seriously in Sweden
Who doesn’t love a good pastry in the middle of the day? Swedes don’t just meet for coffee, they meet for fika – a time to meet up to enjoy some coffee or tea with a side of something sweet.
Many companies even have specific days of the week dedicated to bringing in fika for the entire office. On those days, it’s tradition for workers to bring home-baked goods that are made from scratch. If everyone else in the office puts in the effort, you are expected to do the same.
I don’t know of a similar type of designated coffee break in American work culture. And if people are bringing in food, they’re more likely to buy snacks from the store – home-baked goods are seen as a bonus.
New parents in Sweden get way more parental leave
This reinforces the Swedish value of spending time with one’s family. Those living and working legally in Sweden generally get 80% of their pay while on parental leave.
In the US, some companies are beginning to give more generous parental leave benefits, but as of now, the US does not mandate a standard length. In fact, the US is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate employers offer paid leave for new mothers, let alone new fathers.
Workers in the US have nowhere near the work-life balance they have in Sweden
After reading about Sweden’s generous parental leave policy, you may not be shocked to learn that work-life balance is extremely important to Swedish people.
Over there, you will even get paid to stay home with your sick child if needed. This is called VAB, or “Vård av barn,” which is directly translated to “care of a child.” If you need to take your child to school or pick them up, your employer likely won’t bat an eye.
On top of that, Swedes are given a minimum of 25 days of paid vacation every year. In the US, it is not mandatory for employers to provide any paid vacation, making it one of the only countries in the world – developed or otherwise – without a policy.
All that is to say, that when it comes to encouraging a work-life balance, the US has a lot of catching up to do.
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