Monday, October 24, 2011

Can you save me from a new form of Swedish social awkwardness?

OK, I know I usually try to point out silly and strange small cultural differences between Americans and Swedes, but now I need your help.

I could take the time to figure this one out on my own, but this has happened to me 3 times in the last 2 months and is a bit socially awkward. So I thought maybe I would rush through the social adaptation phase and ask you guys, mostly to save myself from more embarrassment.

My question is:

What are these Swedes thinking when they open the door?

It happens like this. I ring the doorbell. A young Swede (this has mostly happened with Swedes in their mid to late twenties) answers the door. I say 'Hi' and as they open the door to let me in, they reach out and lean towards me.

Instinct tells me 'handshake!' (Two of these occurrences were in business situations and one with a new aquaintance) So I reach out my hand.

The Swede reaches out, too high for a hand shake and a little too close for my comfort.

But then my brain tells me 'hug?' and I reach out for a casual and super awkward hug.

I will admit, I am not a hugger even in the most congenial bunch of Americans. I drink a lot of coffee and I am self conscious about my breath. (although I chew a lot of gum). And really, if I want to get that close to you, you would know it.

But seriously, everything I can read from these situations tells me the Swedes are not reaching for a hug either.

I tried to watch this acquaintance greet other people at the door. It was followed by a strange pat on the shoulder. Is this a thing? I don't want to awkward hug any more business contacts. I'm fine with a handshake.

Myself when I open the door I tend to lean back and make a welcoming gesture with my free hand.

I am grateful that in most business interactions I get to meet my clients at the reception, where no doors are opened and I can initiate a handshake without all of the awkwardness.

Maybe these are just weird Swedes?


  1. Usually you shake hands with people in a business situation or if it is a person you just met. You hug friends and people you have met at least once before. Was the Swede perhaps reaching out to get the door and close it once you stepped in? I totally understand your confusion. I really don´t know. It could be that the Swede does not know himself weather he should hug you or shake your hand. Maybe the person opening the door is unsure. You might very well ask them about this. As a non-Swede you are totally fine asking what kind of greeting they expect or prefer.
    Here is a cyber space hug for you anyway :-)

  2. I'm Swedish and I've never heard of this...So sorry for being no help at all!
    I would definitely sjake hands with a business contact or someone I'd never met before.

  3. Shake hands, of course!

  4. Hmm, interesting, there goes my theory that it is some new weird shoulder pat greeting.... I agree @sparkles, handshaking has always been the norm in my universe, so that's why I was so confused. I def. prefer the good old fashioned hand shake. Or just a 'Hi, come on in' gesture as they get out of the way so I can indeed enter.

    Maybe they were in a rush to close the door? I was still in the doorway, and they were leaning around? I don't know. I will let you know if it happens again and we can analyze further.

  5. Hmmm...I don't know...Strange.
    I agree that it is very awkward. I would not like it, either.
    I would go for a handshake.
    Thanks for the comment on my blog recently. I am so glad that I've found yours!
    Annika in Northern Virginia.

  6. Oh, I know this gesture, it's mainly men who do it. I suppose it's when a handshake seems too formal and a hug too intimate so they go for a slap on the shoulder and proceed to kind of motion you in through the door by holding or lightly pushing your shoulder while smiling and talking.

    I have lived in Australia for 20 years and almost forgot about this unusual form of greeting people at the door. They also do this when approaching a friend from behind: that hand resting on the shoulder and the hello.

    I'm suprised none of the other commenters has experienced this, as unlikely as it seems, could it possibly be regional? I lived in the suburbs south of Stockholm.

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  8. By the way, it was Annika (above) who pointed me to your blog. Very interesting to read about a life in reverse, to immigrate to Sweden than the other way around.
    (couldn't help wanting to correct a spelling mistake, that's why I reposted the comment)

  9. @Matilda -ooh that could be it. It was mostly len, or 2/3 anyways.

    That would make sense, but man it is just weird someone getting all up in your space like that in those situations. I think if I were French or South American they would have probably ended up getting kissed, too. But alas, no.

    And please don't worry about spelling mistakes, I make a trillion and often don't discover them until long after the fact :)

  10. I'm a bit OCD when it comes to at least my own spelling, probably sadly. Get a life and all that, ha ha.

    What I found visiting Sweden after a decade and half was that women hug and hug and hug, it was starting to drive me crazy after a while, I didn't want any more hugs! People don't physically get that close to each other in Australia. Perhaps in the city some women like to air kiss to feel sophisticated, but never hugging, or very rarely.

  11. Interesting blog! I'm in the opposite situation, a Swede married to an American and living in the US - and loving California :-)

  12. I'm a bit late to comment. Also a Swede, fully. Mid-twenties too, should it help.

    The greeting ritual when meeting with a new business contact is definately that of the handshake. On any occasion and in every context. I would definately consider deviations from that to be noteworthy. If hugged, it would affect my future communication with that person and I would be thinking hard on how to counter that during the upcoming farewell :)

    The right time for a hug is when you are meeting a person that has a strong relationship to your friend base. As an example, you often hang out with your partner and his/her friend, the three of you. This friend has a close friend, that you get to meet after some time. You and the friend's friend obviously have heard about each other already and it is very likely that you will meet again. So a hug is in place.

    For business, I can only think of hugs to have ground when working with feelings in some sense. No offices that I know of, meet this requirement. But working with children and/or exposed people (burial, social services etc.) certainly do.

    That's my take on the handshake/hug issue. On how you got into hugging, I can think of two alternatives:

    One, is that he or she is preparing for you to hand over your coat/Fjällräven-jacka.

    Two, is that the person you are meeting with wants to close the door quickly, not to let the cold in.

    I'm from Northern Sweden, where -37 C° is not unheard of, where there probably exist a great temperature difference between in- and outside. When that temperature is combined with some wind, we learn fast that opening doors for a long time is not a good idea. This could have been the instinct you were experiencing.

    A very long comment... I wish you the best! The only way of fully understanding is to ask :)

  13. Old blog post but I read them all with great interest! And so I must ask what happend to this, did you later find our what their intent was/is?

    I've never seen that, a handshake is normal but this seems odd!

    Best regards from a fan of your blog

  14. It's a hug. It's a floppy Swedish hug. I don't understand it.