An Amateur’s English-Speaking Guide to Swedish Conversation

Somewhere around 90% of Swedes can speak English. In the capital city of Stockholm, while taking public transportation and/or studying with other university-aged students, the percentage is closer to 100%. Still, it’s good to keep in mind that Swedes’ default will be Swedish. Until you come along.

So, here are a few introvert-tailored tips:

1. Smile and nod. If you’re up for it, here are some words you can throw in the mix.

  • “Jaha” (pronounced “yah-hah” and best spoken with a posh tone with raised eyebrows): used to express agreement or amazement; should be your go-to noise if you don’t know what else to say and not saying anything would be rude
  • “Nej” (pronounced “nay” and drawn out with an extended exhale for emphasis along with lightly creased brows): used to express disagreement or disbelief; also means “no”
  • “Eh” (spoken with a minimal amount of breath and a small look of disinterest): used to acknowledge an attempt at communication or in cases when you have no opinion; a good conversation killer; eye contact is not necessary in this case

2. Make eye contact with a bilingual Swedish-English speaker and look confused. Hopefully they will take pity on you and briefly translate the current discussion without breaking conversational flow and bringing attention to your lack of Swedish comprehension.

3. Keep a glass of your favorite drink in hand, and make use of it by taking a sip whenever you might be expected to speak, interact, or otherwise contribute to the conversation. Bonus points if you take large sips and drink fast, then excuse yourself more often to fill up your glass and/or take a much-needed bathroom break.

4. Get yourself a large slice of bread, spread some salted butter on top, and place a thick slice of cheese over that. Enjoy half of it, and then get some gum. Now you can walk around with your half-eaten snack, chewing your gum at the same time, and if the company you’re with is drunk enough, they won’t realize you’ve been chewing on that bite for the past hour and still wait politely for you to finish before you speak.

5. Use allergies as an excuse. Whether it be the spring, cats, vegetables, grass, nuts, not being able to breathe is a good excuse for not wanting to talk.

Full disclaimer: Use these tips in moderation. I would never encourage a solely-English speaking person to avoid Swedish conversations. Additionally, Swedish conversation should never dissuade a non-Swedish speaking person from joining in. Swedes are nice, and they’ll include you, speak in English, and/or translate for you. Don’t feel like it puts unnecessary pressure on them to make sure you feel included in the conversation. You don’t need to understand every word in a conversation to get the point or get to know people. And it can be fun!


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