“Blending in” is one of the top things on my to-do list since moving to Sweden. It involves learning the language but also mastering the local habits. At first sight, Swedish culture looks very similar to Belgian and especially Flemish culture, but there’s more than meets the eye. When it comes to expanding your social network and meeting new people, for instance, you might easily find yourself a bit confused when trying to greet them.
An introduction to the Swedish hug
Rewind to early 2015 and my first trip to Sweden: My airbnb-host invited me to join her to a birthday party of a friend. I had just found out that Swedish people give each other a hug instead of the Belgian kiss on the cheek I was used to, and I really thought I had it covered. “I can do hugging!”, I thought. I was wrong. By the time we left the party I was very confused and even almost offended. Not only because of the Swedish greeting habits, but let’s keep the other cultural tensions for later. I’ll guide you through the basics to avoid the same confusion:
Yes, Swedish people hug. A lot.
And yes, you get used to it. I now even prefer hugging over cheek-kissing. So if we ever meet and you’re not Swedish: consider this a friendly warning. But there’s an exception…
You don’t hug strangers
If you haven’t met someone before, you don’t hug. Even if you’re in a group of people where everyone is hugging each other and you’re the only one they haven’t met yet, you won’t get a hug. You get kind a polite & friendly handshake.
Meeting a new person = handshake
Once you accept this rule and put it into practice, you’ll get used to it. Even though it might seem awkward at first, especially in a non-formal situation like a pop concert where you meet a friend of a friend. Just smile, shake hands, say your name and allow the other person to say their name too. Done. And remember, you’re (most likely) the only one feeling awkward.
One handshake is your ticket to future hugs
It’s that easy. If you’ve ever met someone before, shook hands and preferably exchanged a few words too, you’re officially hugging friends. Just make sure you both remember meeting before, or it can still turn out to be really awkward. For both of you.
No greeting, no goodbye
Back to my first Swedish party. I was sitting with a group of friends of my airbnb-host and other people started saying goodbye. They gave the people around me hugs and ignored me. At first I felt offended, because in Belgium we often give strangers a polite kiss on the cheek too, if we don’t want them to feel left out (but there’s no real rule so it’s often confusing). But then my host explained the social rules in Sweden. If you didn’t greet someone “officially”, they can just skip you on their round of goodbyes, even if you’re in the middle of a group of people they do say goodbye to. So no confusion over politeness towards strangers in Sweden.
There you go. If you follow these rules, you will most likely make it through your next Swedish social event without awkwardness. (But there will always be exceptions, sorry!) And remember: it’s never personal, just Swedish. So don’t feel offended.