Suddenly, those judging eyes are not just on the Swede, but on their partner too. And the behaviour that may have seemed charmingly French, English, Dutch or Italian back in the partner's home country (or wherever it was the couple met), is now unimaginably embarrassing.
Your partner thought you were cool abroad. In Sweden, not so much. Photo: Ivan Aleksic/Unsplash
The Swede, who probably wasn't even aware of the unspoken rules that govern acceptable Swedish behaviour, now sees their partner breaking them on a daily basis. The partner, meanwhile, finds themselves under attack from the one they love for what seem, at most, minor transgressions.
The problems mostly stem from two closely related governing principles that Swedes probably take further than any other people on earth.
1. Thou shalt not impinge on the lives of others. This means not making unnecessary noise, or mess, taking up 'space' in public, not starting conversations with strangers.
2. Thou shalt follow common rules to make interaction with others frictionless. People from most cultures would get angry if they saw someone just chuck an empty packet of snacks on the ground. Swedes feel this rage at a much longer list of 'anti-social' behaviour.
With that in mind, here are 10 sure-fire (and tongue-in-cheek) ways to embarrass your Swedish partner.
1. Building a varuberg at the supermarket. A varuberg, literally 'a mountain of goods', is what you make if you pull everything out of your trolley and slam it thoughtlessly on the conveyor belt. You are instead supposed to arrange it neatly, turning the barcode of each item to face the right way to make it easier for the check-out person. Not to do this is the height of inconsiderateness, and very embarrassing for your partner.
This is bordering on inconsiderate. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT
2. Loud and demonstrative parenting. A Kenyan father I knew used to energetically cast babies and toddlers three or four metres high, before catching them in his hands. A similar transgression might be getting too much into your 'monster' role and bellowing loudly while chasing children around the playground. Both count as making a spectacle of yourself, and thereby impinging too much on others. Your partner will cringe.
3. Cycling on the wrong side of a cycle path. Even if there aren't any lines dividing up a cycle path, there's a strict rule that you should cycle on the right, whether or not there's any oncoming traffic. For a Swede, not doing so is pretty much on a level with littering. In general, any cycling behaviour that might cause another cyclist to slow down or swerve is frowned upon. Your partner will weep with frustration.
Those cyclists in the centre are worryingly close to forcing the one on the right to swerve. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT
4. Getting into an argument at a party. You think Elizabeth Warren spoiled Bernie's chances and that her supporters are idiots? Don't take this out on a Warren-supporter you meet at a party. Swedes tend to dislike arguments, even ones that people in other countries would not take personally. If it gets heated and you start banging the table (a risk with Bernie-related chat), your partner will die a little inside.
5. Jaywalking. No cars anywhere in sight? You should still only cross the road where there's a zebra crossing or lights. If not, your partner will feel the eyes of all nearby Swedes as they follow you complaining to the other side.
6. Interrupting people. The cut and thrust of conversation is a bit different in Sweden, with people generally waiting for each other to finish each chunk of conversation before making their own offering. There's much less interrupting, and if you start interrupting people, your partner will wince.
7. Wearing wild and extravagant clothing. Do you come from a country where people really dress up? Your partner may have found your high heels, designer, figure-hugging clothes, and bling jewellery alluring outside Sweden. But back home, they are likely to suddenly feel that it is a little, how can I say, de trop. Similarly, if you were living in Goa, and have wild dreads and brightly coloured Thai fishing trousers. In Sweden, too much. Before you know it, they'll have you in Nudie.
She thought you were cool in Brazil, but in Sweden…too much. Photo: Obi Onyeador/Unsplash
8. Talking to strangers all the time. For many Swedes, starting a conversation with a stranger sometimes almost seem to count as an act of aggression. It is certainly “impinging on the lives of others”. Perhaps the person is desperate to be alone? Maybe they are deep in important thoughts and interrupting them will mean they lose the thread forever? The more you insist on chatting with shopkeepers, people on buses, or people you meet in the street, the more embarrassed your partner will become.
9. Spreading bags and coats out over a large area. If you stop off in a café after a country walk, or are having a hamburger at the train station, the best way to embarrass your partner is to thoughtlessly cover chairs and the floor with bags and coats. This certainly counts as impinging on the lives of others (even if there are loads of empty tables and it really isn't).
Be careful where you leave your bags. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
10. Making too many jokes. Wisecracks and humorous banter are a central part of the culture for Brits, Irish, Aussies, Americans, and to a lesser extent also for the Dutch and the Danes, and it can be painful watching a relatively new arrival in Sweden crack jokes only to see them fall unexpectedly flat. Swedes often don't know how to respond, leaving the joke to hang uncomfortably while the Swedish partner wishes they could just disappear.