Why do Swedes take off their shoes at the front door? Well, let’s look into that. Our surroundings influence our culture and what’s normal to some, is odd to others. Places, people, objects, and relationships, all contribute to who we are and what we are used to. We are all born and raised in a certain way. Not all ways are the same, so when we move abroad, we are confronted with habits and traditions that we find odd. Oddities to those who haven’t seen them before, but regular to those who grew up with them.
Asking the locals why they do things the way they do, is not always helpful, as most oddities are so deeply rooted in the culture, that no one knows why they are done anymore. It’s like this because it has always been like this. Some of them, however, do have a reason and history behind them. Here are some Swedish oddities that you might find when moving to Sweden.
Leaving the shoes by the door
Swedes take off their the shoes at the entrance in many places: at home, their own or someone else’s, in their children’s school, in the gym, and even in some doctors offices, beauty parlors, and other similar public spaces. Even at work, many Swedes have a different pair of shoes that they can change to during office hours.
A cleaner floor and improved hygiene help prevent diseases. Think of how much dirtiness there is on city sidewalks and other walkways: dust, garbage, animal droppings, food leftovers, snow and so much more. All of that can be collected in the shoes and spreads bacteria and dirt wherever we walk with them. Including our homes if we don’t take off the shoes at the entrance.
At the same time, having our feet inside a pair of winter boots the whole day might not make for very happy feet either. That’s also why you might see some Swedes changing to indoor shoes at work. Higher hygiene and more comfort.
At the end of the 1800s, governments of different countries started a campaign throughout Europe to improve people’s hygiene habits in order to get cleaner houses and better health in the population. In 1936, Sweden created a housing inspection under the health care boards whose responsibility it was to make sure that Swedes moved away from unhealthy living habits, such as over crowdedness, dirty living spaces and shoes indoors and got better habits around airing, cleanliness and bathrooms. This lead to a wide spread change in the 1930s, where Swedes started taking off their shoes and leaving them at the entrance of their homes. This helped prevent diseases and made them literally stay outside the door.
Swedes are big consumers of candy, with their tradition of lördagsgodis (Saturday candy), filling a paper bag with diverse loose candy, bought in any corner shop, supermarket, or larger candy store. What as a kid I could only dream of, in Sweden is a reality, for both adults and children.
This alone is an oddity, but we can dig deeper in the subject. One of the most popular candy types in Sweden is Salmiak or salty licorice (the black candy). Licorice is a candy flavored and colored with a vegetable extract found in the roots of Glycyrrhizin glabra. Glycyrrhizin is very very sweet, more than sugar, and to balance that sweetness almost all Swedish licorice candy contains ammonium chloride, giving it a salty flavor. This combination of flavors makes Swedish licorice quite special with many people describing its taste as a “love it or hate it” situation.
It is hard to know exactly why Swedes (and other Nordic countries) enjoy licorice so much, but there are some guesses, as described by the bloggers at Scandi Baking. In general, Scandinavians like strong flavors and the combination of sweet and salty exists even in other traditional foods, such as pickled herring and fermented fish. Another possibility is that salty foods might keep the blood flowing, which helps stand the cold winters. At the same time, strong flavors entertain the brain and keep dark evenings more interesting. A more obvious reason might be that Swedes love licorice, because they grow up eating it! Who doesn’t like to go back to the flavors of their childhood?
The history of the licorice root goes way back to the Egyptians. Pieces of licorice root were even found in Tutankhamun’s tomb! However, it is not known if it was there for decoration or as food. Historically, licorice was used for medicine, both by the Egyptians and the Chinese. The licorice candy, however, appeared much later, in the 1760s by George Dunhill, an English pharmacist. He wanted to make cough tablets tastier and started adding licorice root and sugar, creating this odd black-colored candy. Don’t be fooled though! Licorice might have been used to cure diseases in the past, but its excessive consumption leads to some serious side effects. Read more about it and other weird Swedish foods here.
Family is a wide and many coloured concept
Sweden is known throughout Europe (if not the world) for being well ahead of the times in many ways. One of them is the concept of family, which can be many different things. When living in Sweden you will meet many divorced people, as separating is normal, whether the couple has children together or not. It is also normal for the parents to keep having other partners and healthy relationships.
In this way, a family might not be composed of two parents and a few children. Instead, you might find a parent, his/her new partner, and some siblings from the previous marriage. The siblings might also be a lot older and have their own boyfriends/girlfriends, making a family dinner table a big fun mix of ages and generations.
Same-sex families are also a fairly common occurrence and it is therefore not too unusual that a child may have two mums/one dad, two dads/one mum, two mums, two dads or two mums and two dads – or any other variation for that matter.
Swedes are practical beings and have a big respect for people’s rights and freedom. Everyone is free to love and to build a family with whomever they want. If someone is not happy in a relationship, they should end it. Two adults might grow in different directions over the years and decide to part ways when being together no longer makes sense. Believe it or not, many adults find new partners for the sake of their children and their happiness.
In 1915, Sweden passed the Act on Celebration and Dissolution of Marriage. Under this act, married couples could get a divorce but both partners had to agree on it. In 1975 the law was reformed and since then it is enough that one spouse wants a divorce. The current Marriage Act is from 1987 when modifications were made to include clauses on child custody and maintenance.
More recently in 2009, Sweden adopted a gender-neutral marriage law, giving same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples. Later that same year the Church of Sweden joined and allowed its priests to wed same-sex couples. These rights include members of the Royal Swedish Family. Same-sex couples can adopt children since 2003 (both joint adoption and stepchild adoption). Since 2005, lesbian couples can also access IVF treatments with both spouses becoming automatically parents after birth.
Swedes fear badgers
Have you ever seen a Swede walking in the forest with crackers inside their socks? Swedes found this solution long ago to survive an unfortunate encounter with a badger. Badgers do live in Swedish forests, but they are shy animals and prefer to run away from humans than to fight them. They only bite in rare cases if surprised or feeling very threatened.
Nowadays, all Swedes probably know that all of this is a myth, but they still have a big respect for these animals. The truth is that badgers seek quiet places to build their nests, and underneath a wooden cabin out in the woods might just be one of their favorite places. Moreover, they can destroy gardens and veggie pods, which doesn’t help their popularity among humans.
Why & History
There’s a popular belief in Sweden that badgers will bite onto your leg and not let go until they hear the bone crack. Swedes, being the smart inventive creatures they are, found a solution to this. They started using other crackling things inside their socks. This way, if facing an unfortunate encounter with a badger, the cracking sound would come from something else instead of a human bone. Smart!
Swedish students scream at night
Every evening around 10pm, university students in the neighborhood of Flogsta, in Uppsala, throw the windows of their student houses wide open and let out a primal scream. This started as a local Swedish oddity that is now spreading to other Swedish cities.
Studying can be stressful and sometimes you need to let off steam. While some might have a night out with their friends, or go to the gym, Swedish college students like to scream. It’s called an exam scream or anxiety scream, and it’s supposed to release stress before an exam.
The tradition of the “Flogsta scream” dates back to the 1970s, but no one really knows how it started. Rumors say it was originally a tribute to a student who committed suicide, but no one really knows. The tradition, however, is popular and it has slowly spread to other cities, such as Lund, Linköping, and the Lappkärrsberget student residence area in Stockholm.
If you find yourself in Uppsala go and listen to this odd tradition. Until then, you can watch it on diverse videos on youtube.
The list of Swedish oddities does not end here, and there are certainly other things you might find odd in Sweden. Some of these oddities are easier to adopt than others, while we might never embrace some of them at all.
How about you? What are your favorite Swedish oddities? Have you spotted other ones? Let us know in the comments!