Avoiding confrontation

Looking at Swedish social interaction from a Dutch standpoint, Swedes sometimes seem somewhat more closed then I’m used to. After a while here, I noticed that Swedes often try to avoid confrontation. It’s not only avoiding confrontation with strangers, but it happens at work or even at home or with family and friends. I have many examples, but one situation I think, is a true gem that captures much of Swedish confrontation avoidance.

Imagine you’re in a supermarket, down in aisle 5 and you’re looking for lingonsylt, but you happen to be at the wrong side and half-way is another person standing, bent over inspecting different sorts of knäckebröd, blocking your safe passage to the other side. What do you do? If you’re Dutch, you will probably continue straight and kindly ask the person if you could pass. If you’re Swedish, it’s very likely that you turn back and use the next aisle that is not blocked, circling around the obstacle and approaching the lingonsylt from the other side.

I’ve seen this quite a few times and when asking people why they didn’t just go straight though, they didn’t even realize that they took a detour just to avoid having to ask someone to step aside. Very polite I would say. On the other hand, I don’t think that people actually mind being confronted and asked to step aside (or at least, I’ve never gotten any annoyed or frustrated reactions when I was being very Dutch and came dashing through the aisle).

Another interesting example is jumping queues. If I would jump the queue in a Dutch supermarket, most people behind me would complain to me and would kindly point out that the queue starts behind them. I don’t think you’ll get in a fight if you then ignore the comments, but some hard words might follow. In Sweden, this works differently. If you jump the queue, you’ll probably hear some people coughing a little louder then normally, but it usually ends there. No words, nothing. I’ve asked people why they wouldn’t confront the perpetrator with the fact that they jumped the queue and some answered something like “well, maybe that person is really in a hurry, has a sick child at home to take care of, or at least must have a good reason to do so, so I guess it’s ok“. Which in itself says something about how social and empathic a lot of Swedes are.

I must honestly confess that I sometimes take advantage of this and jump the queue, without feeling too guilty.



A difference between Dutch and Swedish is the way you use numbers. Swedish is similar to English, where the groups of ten come before single digits, like 23 is “twenty-three” (Swedish: tjugotre). However, in Dutch we switch things around: “twenty-three” becomes “drieëntwintig“, which means “three and twenty“. This is similar to the German dreiundzwanzig. 

Strange? It can be stranger.. Like the Danish number system.

The time, the clock..

An interesting detail in Swedish I bumped into last week is the fact that the word for clock is used for describing time. In English you would ask “what time is it?“, while in Swedish you would ask “vad är klockan?” (what is the clock?). “The clock” is also used when telling time: “klockan är 7” (the clock is 7 / it’s 7 o’clock). Interestingly enough, English uses the clock as a substitute for “hour” here as well, but that’s only used for whole hours; in Swedish you would say “klockan är kvart i 7” (the clock is quarter to 7), while in English you would say “it’s a quarter to 7“.

This is different in Dutch, where we use the word for hour when talking about whole hours; “het is 7 uur” (it’s 7 hour) and “het is kwart voor 7” (it’s a quarter to 7). Half hours in Swedish are similar to Dutch: “half 7” or “halv 7” means “half past 6” (although I’ve heard native English speakers using “half 7” as well). Where it gets complicated for me as a Dutch native is when using the minutes between a quarter past the hour and a quarter to the hour, where in Dutch, we use a somewhat strange construction. Twenty minutes past the hour (say twenty past 4) would be “tien voor half 5” (ten before half past 4) and “twenty to 5” would be “tien over half 5” (ten past half past 4), while Swedish follows the more English variant of “tjugo över 4” and “tjugo i 5“.

Using the clock for time looks like Swedish efficiency to me; when the clock is something abstract, we talk about time, otherwise, it’s an actual clock (“var är klockan?” / “where is the clock?“, “hur stor är klockan” / “how big is the clock“), but we just use one word.