Business Meals And After Work In Sweden

business meals and after work in Sweden

It can be said that there is a tendency in Sweden not to go for a quick drink after work. How could it be otherwise when the closest neighbour works and lives several kilometres away, and the closest town and pub are presumably even further away? I addition to that, in Sweden family life happens in the late afternoon and early evening. Hence foreign guests often find it difficult to make acquaintances after work.

But it is quite common to have lunch together or to invite others to a (special) dinner. Good food and good conversations promote good interpersonal relationships, and that is very desirable for Swedes.

Business Meals In Sweden

If you are invited to a business middag in Sweden, this will most likely take place between 6 and 8 pm and you ought to place great value on the dress code. Swedes mostly surprise you at dinner with a relatively strict protocol.

The midday meal is called ›lunch‹ in Swedish and occurs between 12 noon and 2 pm. It generally includes a simple warm meal, often a lunch special completed with crisp bread, a little butter and cheese, closing with coffee.

Topics Of Conversation

At a business meal, you can in principle speak about anything: professional topics are just as acceptable as hobbies and private matters if they are not too private. The aim of a mutual meal is to build up a good relationship with business partners with tact and in a casual, friendly and relaxed way.

As noncommittal small talk topics, there are the weather and everything linked with outdoor activities, that is, hiking, mountain biking, swimming, orienteering, etc. Sport has a high priority in Sweden, and it may well happen that the managerial staff you are dealing with are getting prepared for their next marathon.

The sport Swedes are ›passionate‹ about is not football but ice hockey. And the worst thing that can happen, from the Swedish viewpoint, is that Norway beats Sweden. If that has just happened, please go easy on your Swedish business partners …

Of course what always offers good conversational topics is everything typically Swedish: festivals, traditions, regional matters, and everyman’s rights. If you ask about these things, you will find all doors and hearts open to you.

Taboo topics?

That you should not criticise the Swedish royal family and the Swedish welfare state at the first encounter is after all obvious. And it is per se advisable not to express misgivings about Sweden’s role in the Second World War.

Anything that offends against the basic value systems, such as equal treatment and omtanke, is also taboo for Swedes!

Who pays?

If you go to a meal with colleagues at midday or in the evening the question may arise as to who picks up the tab. That is really quite simple: always the person who invited. Exactly! Even if it is a woman!

In Sweden it is quite common for the woman to handle the bill – she has fully equal rights. Of course, one can also invite a lady. But it is not a ›law of nature‹ or a social norm that the gentleman always pays.

If you do have a meal together with colleagues and there is nobody who issued the invitation, it is usual for everyone to pay for themselves. Generally, a waiter comes with the bill on a plate and each person puts the amount for their own meal on it. After that, you may leave. In Sweden you are trusted, which means that the waiter will probably not come and count the money until you have stood up and gone.

Should You Give A Tip?

Normally a provision for the waiter is already included in the bill; that means no tips are expected. In places where many international visitors come and go, it can happen that the waiter will not refuse a tip from you as an international guest.


Small presents preserve a friendship. This also applies to Sweden, even in the business context, because everyone is regarded as a friend.

But be careful gifts must not be too expensive, otherwise, you might be suspected of attempting a bribe; in that case, you would be regarded as dubious.

So what are you supposed to give your Swedish business partners? There is often a spontaneous suggestion: a bottle of red wine or whisky. That is certainly a good idea if you know your Swedish business partners well and know that they like to drink alcohol. If you do not know that for sure, alcohol as a gift could be ›putting your foot in it.

Alcohol is a very special topic in Sweden. And there are absolute teetotallers (particularly in the areas in and around Småland and in Norrland). If you give a teetotaller (and they are by no means ›reformed alcoholics‹) an alcoholic drink, that is an affront!

In cases of doubt, it is better to look for other possibilities and come up with something original. Perhaps something typical from your home country? It can be something tasty, but also an artwork or an illustrated book. Or something that has a special link to you personally or your company.

But keep in mind that taste (both culinary and in relation to design) is strongly determined by culture. So it ought to be only a sample.

What you can always give as a gift are flowers, especially if you are invited privately. But in doing so keep in mind that heather is regarded as ›the flower of death‹, and pure white bouquets are often handed over at funerals.

Private invitation

If you are given a private invitation that is a great honour! Generally, it takes a long time until the relationship of trust is deep enough for that because after work Swedes dedicate themselves to their families.

As far as dress code and presents are concerned, in general, the same norms hold as on business occasions. But you definitely should note one thing: never enter private quarters in your street shoes! So take off your shoes straight away without being asked at or in front of the door (think of your choice of socks!) and leave them there. If you do not do that you will be seen as inconsiderate and uneducated – and arguments such as ›my shoes are quite clean!‹ are unacceptable.

If a dinner jacket or evening dress is called for, which means a long evening dress for the ladies, it does of course look strange if you in your fine clothes are hopping about in socks or barefoot. Swedes think so too. In that case, you should take house shoes with you. That can be quite normal leather shoes for men and for women pumps or high heels. Take them, clean and in a bag, with you and put them on at the door.

Etiquette And Dress Code

Good conduct is emphasised and highly valued in Sweden, even if in daily life there is less of the usual formal politeness than in many other countries.

Since Swedes at work often give an uncomplicated impression and are casually dressed, it surprises many business partners from abroad that at official invitations their conduct is suddenly no longer so uncomplicated, informal, and unconventional.

So here are a few basic tips for you, so that you can at least make a good impression:

Modesty and omtanke as ground rules are extended in all areas, and in this one too. As well, you should always observe a respectful distance to your conversational partners and certainly do not speak or laugh too loudly. Simply take note of the noise level of the Swedes and if necessary reduce your own. 

When you enter a restaurant you should first of all exercise a bit of patience. It does not matter whether you have booked a table or not – you will be allotted your place. So you stand waiting at the entrance until you are addressed by the staff and led to your table.

Expressing Thanks Correctly

Independently of whether you are invited privately or as a business matter, you should never forget to express your thanks. That may sound trivial and in a certain sense, it is. However, there are certain rituals and moments in Sweden when one gives thanks. If you do not say thank you you a
re regarded as ›uneducated‹.

In Sweden, every child learns to say thank you for their food. After every meal, they say ›Tack för maten!‹ – ›Thanks for the food!‹. You too should thank your hosts immediately after the meal, don’t wait until you leave.

If you are invited to a major festival, a reception, or a formal dinner and have the honour of sitting, as a woman, to the right of the host, or as a man on the left of the hostess, you are clearly the guest of honour. And so then it is your task to give a speech of thanks after the meal! That should if at all possible not be long and stiff. Say a few jolly and personal words of thanks, and you’ll make an eloquent impression.

What also is a definite part of good breeding is to say thanks for what happened ›just recently‹, ›Tack för senast!‹ A few days, but not more than seven to a maximum of ten days after an invitation you should send your hosts a nice card or e-mail or simply give them a short call on the phone.

After invitations linked with business, you should always express thanks in writing – on your corporate paper. ›Tack för senast‹ is an extremely important ritual, both for private and for business invitations which you should on no account ever forget.

If you meet your hosts the next day personally or ring them or correspond, you should of course thank them straight away. For that too there is an established sentence ›Tack för igår!‹ – ›Thanks for yesterday!‹ You should think of that immediately when greeting them. You can use that expression even as a form of greeting yourself. Whether at the end of a meeting or a day of work together, whether you were invited privately or professionally, formally or informally, when you say goodbye it is proper to say thanks for the day/evening. And that is in Swedish ›Tack för idag!‹ – ›Thanks for today!‹

And if you yourself are or were the host and the Swedes thank you, say thanks back: ›Tack själv!‹ – ›And thanks to you!‹

It is of course a nice gesture if you say thank you in Swedish – but it is not absolutely necessary. More important is that you say thank you at the right moment in an appropriate way. Naturally, you can do that in the language in which you talk to ›your Swedes‹ – generally, that will be English.

The Culture Of Drinking

Concerning alcohol in Sweden, things are a bit complicated. Apart from schnapps, which can be distilled anywhere and from anything, among the ›common folk‹ there was no culture of drinking such as that in central Europe, where wine could be made from your own vineyard.

So, drinking alcohol was always a phenomenon confined to the ruling class – consequently, there are still some formal, ›courtly‹ rituals today. If necessary, ask your Swedish colleagues what is drunk in Sweden and how.

That is a good small talk topic, and your interest will be chalked up as positive.

The first clinking of glasses at the table is something you should do successfully in the Swedish manner! Especially when toasting with wine: you raise your glass and say ›Skål!‹ – ›Cheers!‹, sip from the glass and immediately look in the eyes of everyone at the table with a nod. That is how you confirm that the wine has a good taste. Do not go too deeply into the taste! The ritual of the confirming nod comes straight after the first swallow!

Drinking beer is not as courtly, and so after the friendly ›Skål!‹ that ritual is dropped.


For a start, schnapps is drunk before the meal as an aperitif. Apart from that, with schnapps, there is often singing. Especially at summer festivals in the open air, at the traditional crab-eating (kräftskiva) or at the traditional Christmas buffet (julbord) drinking songs are a must.

Generally, the texts are printed, and mostly someone starts the singing. Just sing along as well as you can. In this case, bel canto is not required.

Dress Correctly

Presumably, you have already guessed that it is important, your clothing is appropriate for the occasion – and it is!

For that, there is in general a strict protocol. If you do not observe it you attract negative attention! To avoid that, ask how you should dress. That is what the Swedes do too.

In Sweden, it is common to go to work ›casually‹ dressed. If you go out in the evening to eat you dress up. Always!

If you are invited to a summer festival make sure you dress for a summer festival. That is really obvious. At a kräftskiva (crab-eating) you will get a cardboard bib and a pointy cardboard hat. Yes, those festivals are (boozily) merry. The ›protective clothing‹ really does serve to protect you! When you crack open crabs they often squirt. Remember that when you choose your clothes.

If you get a written (formal) invitation read it carefully. Often it includes hints on the dress code. If it says ›dark suit‹ that means that the men should come in a dark, dressy suit. The ladies can choose between an elegant dress, trouser suit, or a a lady’s suit.

If the invitation refers to a ›dinner jacket‹ or ›swallow-tail‹, that really means a dinner jacket or a swallow-tail! You should take that absolutely seriously. And with a dinner jacket or swallow-tail, you always add a bow tie.

For ladies that dress code means a long evening dress. Quite simple, really. As a man, you should keep in mind that in Sweden a white tie is generally worn only at funerals by close relatives.

Reception With The Royal Family

It may very well happen in Sweden that you are invited to an official event and a representative of the royal family is present. That is not unusual.

In that case, there is a strict, meticulously planned protocol. In this respect, the Swedes do not stand for any nonsense. Ask what you need to know and how to prepare yourself. Practise the correct behaviour and the correct forms of address – and then enjoy a unique experience …

Scandinavian Buffet

Presumably, you will not very often be invited to a reception with the royal family – but perhaps to a Scandinavian buffet. And for that too a few teeny-weeny rules are to be observed:

  • You have all the time in the world! The buffet will constantly be filled, so preferably take many small helpings rather than a few big ones so you do not stand out negatively.
  • Take a fresh plate for each course and fresh cutlery. Generally, your emptied plate with its cutlery will be immediately removed.
  • Never mix the dishes! It is disgusting for Swedes when fish and meat (or possibly even dessert) lie on the same plate and the sauces mix with each other.
  • Take note of the sequence! Fish always comes first. So first cold fish, then cold meat or meat cuts. Salad and bread you can choose additionally at any time. After that come warm fish dishes with whatever side dishes, you like. To round off the meal the cheese buffet follows, and the jewel in the crown is the dessert buffet.

Going To The Sauna

It can happen that after a day of intense work you want to have a convivial and relaxed meal, and then one of your Swedish colleagues comes up with the idea of going to the sauna together. Most colleagues from abroad then pull out as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. The horror in their eyes is presumably attributed to a cultural misunderstanding. In some western countries, it is common to go to the sauna in mixed groups, with men and women together, which would cause discomfort in a circle of colleagues. It would do that with Swedes too!

In Sweden, it is unimaginable to go to the sauna in mixed groups. Either you go into separate buildings or rooms or one sex after the other – never together! If you have the opportunity to go to the sauna, by all means, enjoy a bit of the Swedish attitude to life: relaxing in the sauna and perhaps jumping into a cold lake after a long workday – you will be amazed to notice that you will feel as though you were reborn.

Uta Schulz

Extract from Business Culture Sweden, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag

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