Learning Swedish, or any language really, also means learning a bit about the culture. Whether it is finding out more about the politics of a country or understanding the dinner habits, as you grow more comfortable with a language, it becomes more important to also grow comfortable with the culture. Or at least understand that culture. Not too long after I moved back to the US from Sweden, I wrote Swedish Cultural Exchange and discussed a few of the different cultural things I brought back with me. Taking my shoes off whenever I enter someone’s home is one of the things that is most obvious to me.
It became even more obvious the other day. I was back home to visit an old friend who is getting married to a lovely woman. We were a group of about 12 guys who played some golf, went to a baseball game, and went for dinner and drinks. All in all, a great way to spend time with old friends. In between golfing and baseball though, we went to a friend’s house. I immediately took my shoes off. Because that’s what I do. It wasn’t more than five minutes before someone pointed out that I was the only person, out of 12, who didn’t have shoes on. Even though we were only there for a little while, we still went in, so my shoes went off. My friends laughed at my Swedishness and I left my shoes off.
It was one of those moments that doesn’t matter when you’re with friends. But it was also one of those moments that demonstrates the little differences in culture. Had I been in Sweden with all of my friends though, expectations would have been different. Had we been in Sweden, shoes would have been removed before entering the home (be sure to have nice socks on. Or at least socks without holes in them). Had we been in Sweden, we probably would have been dressed just a bit better (my 10 year old baseball cap would have been left at home).
Sweden.se does a good job of presenting a lot of those differences and has a video about what to expect at a dinner party. The video below is a little hokey. That’s ok. It shows a couple of those little things that differ between cultures. A few of those little things that are expected in Sweden. Like taking your shoes off when you enter a home. But it also fails to explain all that toasting. Which is a shame, because it can get kind of confusing.
Just as above, had we been in Sweden, every time we toasted my soon-to-be-married friend, we would have held our glasses up, looked everyone in the eyes before drinking, taken a drink, then looked everyone in the eyes once more. Never once would our glasses touch. And of course, we would have said skål [cheers].
Depending on how fancy the dinner party is, you will actually make eye contact in a specific way. If you have a dinner partner you will first look at them with glass raised and nod. Then to the person sitting to your other side, and finally to the person sitting aross from you. That’s three nods. Then drink. Now, with glass still raised, look at all the same people, make eye contact, and give a quick nod. Good. You’re done. Now repeat every single time someone proposes a toast.
And a final word of warning. If you find yourself at a dinner party that may last a while with alcohol in front of you, exercise caution. There can be a surprising number of toasts. Do not feel it necessary to drink the entire shot of akvavit in front of you. Halves are fine. You’ll notice that the more seasoned Swedes will stretch one shot to two toasts. Follow their lead.