Swedish Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Sweden is a Nordic country located in the Scandinavian region of northern Europe. The country shares borders with Finland, Denmark and Norway. Sweden has been inhabited for nearly 5,000 years since it was first settled by several Germanic tribes. The country remained relatively ethnically homogeneous throughout its history until the recent waves of immigration transformed it into a multi- society. Contemporary Sweden prides itself on championing human rights and equality, as manifested in its social welfare system. Additionally, concepts such as ‘lagom’ (‘the middle way’) and modesty are cornerstones of Swedish culture. These ideas influence the country’s cuisine, architecture and even communication styles. 

Geography and the Environment

Sweden is traditionally divided into three distinct regions: Norrland (northern Sweden), Svealand (central Sweden) and Götaland (southern Sweden). The vast majority of people live in Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmö, three major cities that form a triangle of urban residence in Götaland.More than four-fifths of the population lives in urban centres. The largest city, Stockholm, is the capital as well as the political, economic and cultural hub of the country.

Geographically, Sweden has a diverse set of landscapes and climates. Access to nature is protected by a law known as ‘allenmansrätten’ (meaning ‘the right of common access to land’). This law applies to all fields, forests, lakes and beaches across the country. Allenmansrätten makes it permissible for anyone to camp and walk on almost all private property. The diversity of Sweden’s landscapes and allenmansrätten has helped foster a love and appreciation of nature among Swedes. One example of Sweden’s appreciation for the outdoors is the popular sport of orienteering, in which one explores nature while finding predetermined checkpoints.

The change of seasons and differences in daylight have a significant impact on people’s lifestyle and their ability to enjoy the outdoors. In the winter months, people experience little to no sunlight and the weather is often bitter and difficult to cope with for a long duration. During summer months, the sun is visible for most of the day and into the night. Thus, many people work long hours in the winter to be able to take a holiday during summer and enjoy the daylight and nature. Some Swedes can feel burnt out once they reach the summer months due to their tough experiences in winter. These seasonal extremes contribute to Swedes’ deep appreciation for nature and sunlight.

Ethnic Composition and Social Changes

The Swedish government does not collect statistics on in Sweden but rather categorises citizens by country of birth. Historically, the population was vastly homogeneous, mostly made up of Swedes, and people from other Scandinavian countries such as Finland and Denmark. Today, it is estimated that 5% of the population is Finnish, and a little less than 1% is Danish.1 There is also a small indigenous minority, known as the Sami, who typically live in northern Sweden. The Sami make up less than 0.3% of the population.

Sweden's composition has changed dramatically in recent decades. This is due to the large waves of international immigration that the country has received. Sweden has generally been welcoming towards refugees and committed to family reunification on a national level. Indeed, the country has accepted more refugees per capita than any other European nation. However, the government has shifted to stricter immigration restrictions as the mass influx of migrants has strained resources and altered public opinion.

The unprecedented number of newcomers has challenged Sweden economically and culturally. Rapid changes in the country have also caused some divides among the population regarding opinions about refugees and immigrants. Some citizens in Sweden strongly oppose allowing more immigrants and refugees into the country, while others are supportive. For example, one poll found that 41% of Swedes thought that the country should grant fewer residency permits to refugees.2 It is important to approach the topic about changes to Sweden's composition with sensitivity.

Swedish Identity

For many Swedes, the main defining features of contemporary Sweden are modesty, equality and respect for universal human rights. While this perception of the Swedish identity persists, rapid changes in the country’s composition are influencing some people’s attitudes. With the large increase in immigrants, the notion of what it means to be Swedish has shifted from an -based definition to a more nationality-based definition.

Some people express a distinction between ‘svenskar’ (Swedes) and ‘invandrare’ (immigrants). This distinction is usually linked to physical appearance, cultural affiliation and socioeconomic class. For example, the distinction between svenskar-invandrare is most visible in particular suburban and rural areas where large groups of immigrants and refugees inhabit older and lower-quality buildings. Such suburbs are sometimes characterised as being disorderly or unsafe with high levels of unemployment. However, by global standards, the most notorious of these suburbs have relatively low poverty and crime rates.

Socially conscientious citizens tend to avoid the svenskar-invandrare dichotomy, and the Swedish legal system makes no distinction. Indeed, most Swedes are sensitive to stereotyping and avoid making assumptions about people based on their . The phrase ‘åsikskorridor’ (literally ‘opinion corridor’) refers to the views or opinions that people are expected not to go against. For example, most people oppose discrimination on the basis of gender, , sexual orientation, age or ability. Indeed, most Swedes view putting any member of society down as unacceptable. In sum, many Swedes believe that the Swedish identity is based on shared core values and attitudes.

Social Structure and Egalitarianism

According to Hofstede Insights, Sweden is a ‘feminine society’ in which balance, inclusivity and consideration for others are core components of the social structure.3 The notion of ‘folkhemmet’ (‘the people's home') is a metaphor for the nation of Sweden as a family household. This idea symbolises social ideals of equality and mutual care, which form the foundation for a society mediated and supported by social welfare. The process of developing Sweden into a folkhemmet can be traced back to the end of the WWII period. During this time, there were major reforms adopted to supply the population with pensions, allowances, insurance and the expansion of tertiary education and research. In turn, an extensive social welfare system was established, which continues to provide for most of the population's health, education and retirement needs.

Today, distribution of resources in Sweden is among the most equal in the world. The welfare system in Sweden is sometimes described as ‘cradle to coffin', whereby support is available at each stage of one's life cycle. To sustain this welfare system, Sweden has a high tax rate. There is a general view that Swedes work hard to allow every citizen to be able to obtain the same welfare rights. Moreover, many Swedes are willing to pay high tax rates due to the returns they gain in strong public institutions (such as healthcare and education). Many gain a sense of pride from paying their taxes as it makes them feel that they are contributing to Sweden.

The welfare system in Sweden has paved the way for a more egalitarian society. Indeed, many of the traditional markers of socioeconomic class affiliation have faded over the last 50 years. The standard of living in Sweden is high. Although unemployment rates are beginning to rise with the increase in immigrants, unemployment is less pervasive in Sweden comparative to the rest of the world.

‘Lagom’ and Modesty

The concept of ‘lagom’ has no English equivalent. Nonetheless, it can generally be described as ‘the middle way' or ‘moderation'.  Lagom is reflected in the Swedish proverb “Lagom är bäst”, which translates as “Enough is as good as a feast” or “The right amount is best”. Lagom is underpinned by the idea of contentment or a sense that things are sufficient just as they are. It is reflected in all aspects of Swedish life through ideas such as equality and moderation. For example, the intention behind Sweden's welfare system is to ensure that everyone has enough, and nobody goes without. Lagom is also reflected in the functionality of Swedish architecture and design, respect for natural resources and the simplicity of Swedish cuisine.

Some describe lagom as a ‘risk-aversive logic'. Indeed, doing something in a ‘lagom way' means not taking many risks, not overindulging or not standing out from the crowd. Arguably, lagom is most visible in the preferences of Swedes and the way they present themselves. Excessive behaviour, flashiness or boasting are frowned upon. Indeed, bragging (skryta) is one of the biggest taboos in Sweden. Some Swedish youth do not necessarily uphold lagom, as it tends to be a more traditional element of Swedish culture.

A concept intertwined with lagom is ‘Jantelagen’ (‘the law of Jante’). Jantelagen can be thought of as a Nordic version of ‘’. Maintaining modesty and humility is at the core of Jantelagen. Typically, people will avoid skryta. However, the concept of Jantelagen extends further to say that no one is more special than anyone else. Thus, Swedes may frown upon those who want to be noticed or considered special, due to social regarding Jantelagen. Some Swedes dislike lagom owing to the Jantelagen aspect. Indeed, some may wish to speak highly of their accomplishments. One's intention for standing out is important, as Swedes are more likely to be displeased with boasting if it is purely for attention or to be seen as better than those around them.

Privacy and Demeanour

Swedes may come across as somewhat reserved or serious at times, as friendships often take time to develop. For foreigners, this demeanour can come across as aloof or distant. However, for many Swedes, personal distance is maintained out of respect and consideration for other people's personal space. Thus, an individual's privacy is highly respected. The reserved demeanour of Swedes is more common in large cities than in rural areas of the country.

Respect for privacy is important in public spaces; people will often keep their voices low, maintain an arm's length of distance and minimise physical contact. Swedes may avoid approaching people they do not know unless they have a specific reason to. For example, they may not begin a conversation with a service provider in a store, nor sit next to a stranger on a train unless it is crowded. However, the value of privacy is not limited to physical space. People tend not to divulge a lot of personal information about themselves when first meeting others. Swedes are also unlikely to wish to discuss their personal views with those they are not close to. This demeanour greatly relaxes once one begins to develop a relationship with a Swede.

Swedes also tend to be very considerate of those around them and will make an effort to do their part to help others remain comfortable. For example, Swedes tend to be quite neat and will rarely litter or create mess.


1 Kinney, 2017
2 Euractiv, 2015
3 Hofstede Insights, 2017

Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.

Guaranteed secure stripe badge

A unified, searchable interface answering your questions on the world's cultures and religions

Sign up for free