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Etiquette in Scandinavia

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 19 Oct 2010 | comments*Discuss
Etiquette Scandinavia Denmark Sweden

Scandinavia is the name used to describe a geographical region and the collective and somewhat homogeneous countries of Norway Sweden and Denmark. These countries share many similar customs and practices of etiquette, whilst retaining strong independent national identities. You should actually try to avoid referring to Scandinavians as Scandinavian – it is better to refer to them by their country rather than the whole region, as each nation is patriotic and proud.

Also, remember that although Finland and Iceland may sometimes fall under this region, they do tend to refer to themselves as being culturally and geographically Nordic rather than Scandinavian.


The main cultural similarities between Norway, Sweden and Denmark are that the people tend to be very egalitarian, tolerant, fairly reserved yet casual, practical, progressive and modest. It is then fair to say that they consider these characteristics to be virtuous in others. Scandinavian society places a strong emphasis on equality between the sexes, particularly in the workplace and with regard to dividing responsibility between both parents in actively rearing a family.

Therefore it goes that it is proper etiquette to treat men and women the same in social situations, although slightly traditional customs such as pulling a chair out or holding a door open for a lady may still prevail.

Introductions and Greetings

Continuing with the theme of equality, when meeting in more formal circumstances, or for the first time, it is proper etiquette to shake the hands of all men, women and children introduced. Although Scandinavian older children don’t usually shake hands with their peers, it is thought polite to shake hands of older acquaintances, especially on first introductions.

Maintaining eye contact during introductions and any conversation is polite, as it denotes interest and alertness. However you should be aware that particularly in Denmark and Norway, polite salutations such as “how are you?” or “how do you do?” are usually avoided. Scandinavians tend to be more direct and succinct in their conversations and see such pleasantries as superfluous and without substance.

Be mindful of the fact that Scandinavians like to give each other personal space, and so backslapping, hugging, kissing and touching the arms are only more common between close friends and family. Respect for older generations is inherent in Scandinavia, and so using honorific titles is used for elders, whereas most will introduce themselves by their given name, just their surname, or both. You should take your cue from your host as to how they wish to be addressed.

In more formal circumstances it is also good manners to once again shake each person’s hand when leaving. In casual situations it is more appropriate to either say your goodbyes individually or address the whole group.

Although English is widely and well spoken in Scandinavia, never just assume that everyone will immediately begin conversing with you in English.

Socialising and Dining

If you find that you are lucky enough to have been given an invitation to a Scandinavian party or dinner, you should be aware of a few rudimentary rules of etiquette. Scandinavians are very punctual people, and so you are expected to arrive at the time stated on your invitation. If staying for a meal, it is expected that you can stay up to an hour or so after the dinner has finished, or perhaps even later in casual circumstances.

If invited into the home of a Scandinavian, it is proper etiquette to bring a small gift for the hostess and any children. Chocolates, sweets or pastries (particularly for children) are always popular gifts, especially if they are indicative of your home country. Wine and any alcohol tend to be very expensive in Norway and Sweden, so good quality liquor is always well received. Flowers are also a popular gift, although you should be aware that within each Scandinavian country, certain flowers will carry a symbolism with them, so it is best to check what is most appropriate with your florist first.

Also, since Scandinavian weather dictates snow, ice, mud, and slush on the ground quite frequently, it may be best to remove your shoes at the door when visiting a private home.

Topics of conversation at dinner can touch on a variety of subjects – Scandinavians are great conversationalists and will earnestly undertake discussions with much sincerity. Making sincere positive comments about a particular town or regions landscapes or landmarks is a great topic of conservation, as Scandinavians have a very strong attachment and with their hometown or region.

When you have finished eating, it is not necessary to leave anything on your plate. Likewise, if you are full and cannot manage any more, don’t feel obliged to try and clear your plate completely. At more formal dinners, you should expect your host to give a toast, usually at the end of the meal. However, in Sweden the host may give a toast at the beginning of the meal, before which it is rude to take a sip from your glass.

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Very interesting.Hopefully, one day soon, I'll be able to visit Scandinavia.
Ariane - 12-Jul-11 @ 6:47 PM
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