Dear Professor Etikett:
I am a hopelessly ill-mannered American. I come from a country where people drink Coca-Cola all day long, right out of the can. In the car, even, as they drive around. I wear baseball caps 24 hours a day, and I cut meat with the edge of my fork.
How on Earth can I rehabilitate myself in time for my upcoming trip to Sweden?
-Uncouth in Chisago City.
Etikett-Professorn is here to help you. You are not alone. A recent discussion on SWEDE-L dealt with this very same subject. In typical Swedish-American form, the question posed was not "how can I impress and please my Swedish hosts", but rather "how can I avoid embarrassing myself in front of my Swedish hosts? What are the most common behavioral gaffes committed by ill-mannered guests from Amerika?"
That negative attitude will get you every time. The typical white-tennis-shoe and baseball-cap-clad Yank walking through Östermalm somehow knows that he is improperly attired and truly an embarrassment to his county, but somehow he just can help it. The cultural gaps are simply too overwhelming for him.
Etikett-Professorn has no easy answers. There really isn't much help for those who insist on walking through a large metropolis as if they were in a gym or on the beach.
However, bad manners are like alcoholism: the road to recovery begins with a single step. For those who want to begin their journey towards social acceptance in Sweden, Etikett-Professorn offers the one tip most likely to have a positive effect on their acceptance into Swedish society.
I speak, of course, of the Rule of Shoes.
The Rule of Shoes goes, to be succinct, as follows: "Never, ever wear shoes inside another persons home. Unless, of course, others are doing so."
Note that this, the most important rule of Swedish ettiquette, lacks any sort of explanation or motivation. The Rule is very relativistic: "do this, unless it is not being done by others." That is because, even after years of research at the outstanding behavioral science institutions in the world today, nobody has been able to definitively say why shoes are worn at certain Swedish gatherings and not at others. Consequently, the only safe guideline from the politeness standpoint is to do what everybody else is doing.
Case in point: August 1989. Etikett-professorn is invited to a party at a colleague's home in Stockholm. Several coworkers are invited, as well as a number of the firm's clients. After a brisk walk from the nearest bus stop. he removes his coat and heads into the living room. Everyone is dressed to the nines. Ties and jackets on the gentlemen, skirts and dresses on the ladies. After five minutes, however, Etikett-professorn realizes that among all of these nicely-clad people there is not a single pair of shoes to be found. He looks down at his own humble loafers, skuffed and clumsy-looking, and reddens with embarrassment. He excuses himself, makes a contrived trip to the rest room, then sneaks down the hall to place his shoes among the many lined up in the hallway (that he should have noticed on the way in).
Same location, one year later. More or less the same people in attendance, this time without the clients. If anything, the occasion was a little more casual than the first. Etikett-professorn greets his hosts at the door and confidently prys off his loafers and sets them aside in the hall. He walks into a room full of smiling colleagues and feels curiously short. The reason, of course, is that everyone else is wearing a pair of polished news shoes, while Etikett-professorn bounds about in his argyle socks. Rather worn ones at that.
Same locale. Same participants. Same clothing, except for one hugely signifigant detail: at one party everyone took their shoes off, at the other everyone kept them on. For no apparant reason.
Learn from Etikett-professorn. Do not repeat his mistakes! The best way to learn is repetition, repetition, repitiion, so again I say: Take off your shoes, unless nobody else has taken theirs off. Look your host directly in the eye, shake his hand, then look down at everyone's feet! Do not leave the entrance hall before insuring that your feet are in the same state of dress or undress as everyone elses!
Proper etiquette has no room for certainties. Etikett-professorn cannot guarantee that certain situations call for stocking-feet while other call for shoes. Nobody really knows. Ask a Swede about this - when do you wear your shoes, and when do you take them off? He will give you a look as if you had just asked him how he breathes or why he drinks a snaps. He does not know - he just does it. The only recourse, for those of us not born and bred with the Swedes innate shoe-sense, is to simply do what everyone else is doing.
That, along with a bottle of tax-free shop Scotch, will virtually guarantee the uncouth Swedish-American his place among the socially accepted.
Etikett-Professorn answers your questions about Swedish manners and culture. Write to him at email@example.com. (It is no longer possible to write)