A life abroad: 7 culture shocks when moving to Sweden

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My dear Richful Thinkers,

Living abroad means that sometimes you encounter a culture shock, it usually lasts the first couple of months. However, it begins to fade and it is only every once in a while that you notice these differences, 

I have lived over half my life outside my country of birth, so I am not shocked easily. I have even experienced a reverse culture shock when I returned to the U.S. in 2015. 

After returning to the U.S. in late 2015, I set my sights abroad once again, unsure of where I’d go. In 2017 I was notified that I would be moving to Sweden. So, I began to search for the culture shocks so I could prepare myself. Despite that, some things you have to experience yourself. So without further ado.

1. The sheer amount of dairy products

If you read my Ultimate Dairy Guide then you know it can be a shocking to see 3 walls of dairy products of varying consistencies, fats, and processes.

2. The state-owned liquor store.

Yes, you read that right, there is a state-owned liquor store. It is also a monopoly, so it is the only place in the country where you can buy alcohol that has more than 3.5% alcohol by volume. However, you can find it in a grocery store if it is has less than 3.5%.

The hours are strict. During the weekdays they are only open 10- 7 pm and on Saturday 10-3 pm. So, if you need to buy something for Saturday evening then you need to be there by 3 pm. Which is why I have to put a reminder in my phone because I will forget until I see the time is too late to go. 

However, the uniqueness does not end there. The monopoly was created as a way to deter drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and to ensure that people were not making their own alcohol at home. Effectively, it was a response to the Prohibition movement, the government realized that the Prohibition movement was not working. So, they devised a way to get around it. The solution was putting a high tax on alcohol, which deters people from buying a lot. 

Nowadays, it is one of the highest taxed products in Sweden.

Systembolaget. Credit: C Wathen

2.1 The booze-cruises

As an additional note to the sale of alcohol in Sweden is the existence of booze-cruises. In Stockholm, if you head to Vartahamnen, you can go to a Baltic European country by boat. These are marketed a day-cruises but you spend the night on the boat and make landfall in another country for a few hours before returning to the original country (Sweden, in this case). Once you get out of Swedish waters, the liquor store opens and you can buy alcohol without the Swedish tax on it. Thus, making it bargain shopping. Many Swedes takes advantage of this and enter the ship with an empty suitcase to pack with alcohol. 

3. Taking a number

In many countries you form a line or a queue when you are waiting for some sort of service. Not in Sweden, if you are at a service desk and you see no line, do not think you are the next person. Nearby, there should be a place to take  a number, grab one and wait until your number is called. 

This happens everywhere, even if you are at the store trying to return an item. 

4. Swedish pizza

I have seen some interesting toppings  in the various countries I have lived in. My favorite is still banana pepper and bbq chicken pizza that I used to get at Dominoes as a kid in the Bahamas. Every time I go back I have to make a stop or several at the nearby Dominoes. 

However, nothing could have prepared me for the pizza here, some if it is good, some of it is questionable enough that I am skeptical to try it. Perhaps, one day I will try all of them! In Sweden, there is the kebab pizza which is essentially a cheese pizza with kebab toppings, and then there is banana curry pizza. 


You read that right. Banana curry pizza. 

That is all I will say on that topic. I also think that no matter which side you stand on the pineapple on pizza argument, we can all agree… bananas should not be on a pizza. Full stop.

Banana Pizza. Credit: Tumblr

5. Spontaneity is nearly nonexistent

If you want to plan a get together with your Swedish friends, make sure it is at least planned a week ahead. So, the hour notice of heading to the pub will not work with many Swedes, it will with many of your expat friends but Swedes need a little more time. This is really one of the larger culture clashes when making friends. 

Now, not all Swedes are like this, I know a few spontaneous ones that can do something with a 10 minute notice but for the most part, there needs to be some pre-planning

6. Bank ID

It is a form of electronic identification that is a necessity in Sweden. Gone are the days of needing to remember several passwords to log in to all of your websites. Once you get a personnummer (PN) and a bank account, you can verify yourself EVERYWHERE using it. A PN is a social identity number and when you are using the BankID you verify yourself with a code and you can get on with what you are doing. 

You can log into your bank account, pay your taxes, verify your identity with a customer service agent, the possibilities are endless. 

The issue is when you arrive in Sweden and you do cannot get a PN right away. Not having it will make your life difficult.

7. Cash is not King, card is.

I spoke about this before, but in Sweden, you should not use cash. Not because it is bad or anything but because most places do not accept it. When you are in Stockholm and in many parts of Sweden, you will see  ‘cashless’ signs and that the only payment accepted is card or Swish. Swish is a direct payment method that is similar to Venmo or PayPal, except it is connected directly to your phone number and bank account. So, you give someone your phone number and they can pay directly into your account. The one good thing about having your personnummer attached to everything is that if you change accounts, phone number, or address, it is automatically updated. In many cases, you only need to update it one place and it will then update the rest of your accounts.

What are the culture shocks in your country that newcomers have told you?

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