Something Swedish

Meeting and Greeting in Sweden: Handshake, Hug, or Kiss(es)?


I started writing this post almost a year ago, when it was more relevant to my newness here in Sweden and attending SFI:

When I first started visiting Sweden I wasn’t familiar with the small details of Swedish culture, like what you do when you meet someone new, or when you say hi to a friend.  I was always a little annoyed with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, because he never introduced me to people that he was talking to in front of me that I hadn’t met yet. I thought it was rude, but it was simply a difference in culture.  In NYC, It’s more common to be introduced by the mutual friend, “Meg, this is Randomname, Randomname this is Meg” handshake greetingwith pointing and gestures to indicate who is who – usually received with a wave and a smile or a handshake. It’s a lot less common to introduce yourself in NYC and comes off to be a little too forward.

In Sweden, however, you have to take it upon yourself to step up and reach out your hand and announce your name with a solid handshake and eye contact. Naturally, I never did this the first few times I visited and it got to be pretty awkward as I didn’t officially “meet” a lot of people.  Finally, I confronted my then-boyfriend-now-husband who explained it all to me. After that, I started doing it Swedish Style; introducing myself right away instead of awkwardly standing around waiting for him to do it.

Once I got over the hurdle of MEETING people in Sweden, I realized that I’ve been GREETING people all wrong. When researching how to greet people around the world, Sweden is usually not on any of the lists, because there is nothing too specific about a Swedish greeting – except maybe moderation. There is no special way to hug or shake hands that could be rude, offensive, or embarrassing. It is good to know that they generally don’t kiss on the cheek though, singlekissgreetinglike many other countries do. It wasn’t until our wedding in Sweden that my mother-in-law pointed out (in a friendly, shy and giggling way) that my family kisses on the check, which was a little strange to her and she failed to reciprocate since it’s not something normal for her. Meanwhile, this is something I have always done since being in Sweden, but it’s never been pointed out to me. Thankfully, I’m a ‘light contact’ cheek-to-cheek air-kisser which might have gone undetected or else I might have been making a lot more people a lot more uncomfortable. Towards the bottom of this interview HERE I mention it as one of the most embarrassing mistakes I’ve made in Sweden, going around kissing stand offish Swedes who generally like their personal space; at least until you are good friends.

So, I’ve braced myself and committed to being a little gentler with my hello’s and goodbye’s, reserving hugs till I’ve built up a friendship instead of freely handing them out to people I’ve only just met – and then I started making other expat friends and had to start all over again. I never thought any of my anxiety would be over how to say hello or good bye to friends and classmates, but there it was.

The thing with being an expat is you generally tend to hang out with a lot of people from different countries, we go to school together, learn the language together, and socialize together more than I’ve ever hung out with any Swede aside from my husband. This is especially true in Sweden, as anyone new to the country is given the opportunity of free language courses (SFI) everyday. Expecting SFI to be all Swedish and Swedes, I wasn’t prepared to find so many people from around the world. I thought I was well diversified coming from NYC, but it is a whole different thing when everyone has just moved to Sweden straight from from their home countries – Iran, Thailand, Africa, Iraq, Turkey, Spain, Serbia, Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Lithuania, Korea, Croatia, Egypt, Romania with a light sprinkle of New Zealand, Australian, UK, Canada, and the U.S. All trying to adjust to living in Sweden, while bringing in their own traditions and cultures, such as how to greet one another.

Every country naturally has their own way of greeting friends, so I was thrown back into the whirlwind of what to do with who; not just “stop kissing Swedes”. I always try to take the other persons lead, but sometimes slip and turn a hatriple kiss greetingndshake into a panicked cheek kiss because there was a moment hesitation from both of us and I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes it is a light hug, a wave, a smile, or a strong embrace depending on where someone comes from. A handshake varies from a light gentle graze or a very firm grip. In some cultures it is offensive to kiss on the cheek, and in others it is offensive not to, and then you never know how many times to do it, once twice or thrice. Throw in everyone’s effort to integrate into Sweden and no one seems to know what to do outside of their own culture groups. Greetings become a little blurry and shaky, unless you have the same traditions and already know how to handle greeting each other. For my birthday I was given  triple or double cheek kisses by some cultures, hugs from others, handshakes from the rest as they congratulated me.

Upon saying good bye to new found friends from England, Canada, and USA (Places with the same customs as myself, so this should be easy) I froze and automatically (read: awkwardly) stepped back and offered a hand shake instead of what would be a friendly wave or a hug. We stumbled through it, laughed it off and ended up hugging instead.

All in all, it’s just a funny observation of a sometimes awkward situation that maybe you’ve also experienced while learning the Swedish language along side other people learning the same thing, all from different places around the world, speaking different languages inbetween classes and bringing in all sorts of delicious food that I’ve never seen or heard of before for class parties. SFI is a unique place; a smörgåsbord of cultures all brought together to learn about one thing we all have in common: Sweden.

List of THINGS TO SAY to Greet People in Sweden

Hej! or Hej Hej! = Hey/Hi – Most common, appropriate for both formal and informal.

Hallå = Hello

Hejsan = Hey

Tjena = Hey – Less formal, between friends

God Morgon/Dag = Good Morning/Day

Trevligt att träffas!  = Nice to meet you!

Hur är det? = How is it? (Whats up?)

Hur går det? = How goes it? (How’s it going?)

Hur läget? = How are things?

Vad hittar du på? = What are you finding? (What’s are you doing/up to?)

Hur mår du? = How do you feel?

Hej då! = Good bye!

Adjö! = Bye!

Ha det så bra! = Have it so good! (Have a good day)

Vi ses snart! = See you soon!

17 thoughts on “Meeting and Greeting in Sweden: Handshake, Hug, or Kiss(es)?

  1. Interesting to hear this from the ‘other side’! I always panic a bit when someone I’ve just met kisses me cheek or hugs me. Panic, then laugh awkwardly, then look at them weirdly when they’ve turned their back.

    It took me ages to get used to even being called ‘love’ by random people when I moved to England.

    Also, just to nit-pick: Hålla should be Hallå, and traffas should be träffas 🙂

    • Fixed! Thanks – I’m not the best speller in English, throw in three “different” letters and I never use them correctly!

      Haha, good to know that my observations weren’t completely off then. I’ve gotta remember to watch the faces for weird reactions next time.

      Yea, Love is pretty common in England (I have English friends, but never been there) I guess that would be pretty strange as well – but not so bad overall!

  2. I have never encountered a Swedish “kisser” – always been the strong handshake!

  3. I still go in for the good old big hug and squeeze! Cannot help it!

  4. For the most part it has been handshakes from everyone, though I met a Swedish woman at a soccer match a few days ago who greeted me with a nice little hug. The handshake is most common where I come from in Kansas, so for me the hug was a little unexpected, but appreciated nonetheless. I have found people in my little village to be warm and open, which has made settling in much easier!

    • Have you met her before? I’ve only been hugged by Swedes I’m already friends with, not as a “nice to meet you.” People are certainly warm and open and friendly, without a doubt, hug or no hug. I guess the hug vs handshake thing is very different in diff parts of America/ages/relationships/circles. Handshakes are always a safe bet anywhere you are I think. I was more partial to the awkward “smile & wave” before I moved here.

  5. You can kiss me any time. 🙂

  6. I have been an expat i Washington DC now for a whole month and sorry to say haven’t maid any us-friends (yet) so I don’t know how to greet them. Is cheek-kissing typical NY or is it common all over US?

    • Hi Pasajen! Well, these things can change from place to place, or person to person. A handshake and a smile is always a safe way to go. Once you’ve met the person more than once it is common (in new york, anyway) to kiss on the cheek once (if girl & girl or girl & guy – men don’t greet this way, usually a nod of recognition is enough) I would say to follow their lead, everyone is different. Good luck making friends in DC! A welcoming smile is all you need 🙂

  7. O goodness the non introducing thing drove me crazy for ages! I finally told my husband that he just has to introduce me in an American way because it would make life so much easier!

  8. If meeting is such a ordeal to Swedes they might as well just be like a Klingon and skip greetings altogether. Go straight to business.

  9. This post is two year old it seems, so my comment is a little late…
    I like this blog, both entertaining and informative.
    However, about your boyfriend not introducing you to people you meet that he actually know when you are with him; that is not a Swedish custom, that is poor manners of the boyfriend. But if you meet people that none of you know, then it’s not the “man’s job” to introduce his girlfriend in Sweden – women stand on their own legs and are also expected to do so.

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