Personal Space

Posted in: Life in Sweden, Swedish Tradition on 25 November, 2016 by Keely

Mind the Gap

No matter how many new places I visit, I’m always tickled by the local customs and norms that are different from my own. On a short trip to London when I was sixteen, I was amused by the recording on the Underground which said, “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” It was just so polite, so British, that I couldn’t help repeating it in a sing-song voice for the entirety of the trip. In Sweden, one must also “mind the gap” when taking public transport, but for entirely different reasons. A quick Google search of “bus stop Sweden” will pull up a hilarious meme showing Swedes queued for a bus stop. They are all standing in a perfectly straight line with a sizeable gap between each person! Before I moved to Sweden, I laughed in disbelief: “This can’t be true!” Oh, but it is. Here is a snapshot my classmate, Kushtrim, took at a bus stop on campus at LiU!


You can clearly see the students waiting for the bus in a perfectly straight line with about a meter’s distance between them. Honestly, I think this quaint social norm in Sweden is absolutely adorable. Any foreigner in Sweden is quick to agree that Swedish people are awkward and need their personal space. This can be hard for someone like me who comes from Texas, land of hugs and unsolicited affection, to understand. The same can be said about students from other countries like Spain or India, where personal space and boundaries are less important than friendliness and an easy-going attitude. Actually, a friend of mine told me that people from colder climates tend to be colder or more reserved in nature, and that people from warmer climates are warmer and more outgoing! It’s so true! Even within the United States, people from cooler climates definitely seem less friendly than people from the southern states.

While Swedish people distance themselves from strangers in public, they can be extremely warm with friends and family. There’s just a very sharp divide between public and private etiquette that must be observed. The same observance of personal space can be seen on the bus, where Swedes try to sit as far away from another person as possible (unless the bus is full and they have no other choice).


The Swedish public sphere is one for quiet, personal contemplation in which one tries desperately to ignore the existence of other human beings. There is strictly no eye-contact or small talk allowed. Period. While my slightly introverted personality feels at ease in this standoffish society, sometimes I miss the friendliness and reassuring feeling of a small smile or word of salutation from a complete stranger. It always made me feel a bit connected to my fellow human, which is why I sometimes feel a bit alone walking around Sweden.

The plus side to people leaving you alone, however, is that no one bothers you while you’re shopping! I used to hate going to certain stores back home because I knew the employees were trained to ask everyone, “How are you can I help you find anything is there anything special you’re looking for please let me know if you need any help okay?!?!?!!” Granted, I used to work at H&M in Texas and had to do that exact same thing to customers, but I digress. In Sweden, people leave you the heck alone and it’s amazing. Probably not good for my shopping habit, but that’s another story.


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Keely Witherow

Keely Witherow
Hey you guys!

I came all the way from Texas to study International and European here at LiU, and so far I am loving it!
Grab a little fika, get comfortable, and let me tell you all about my adventures as a student in Sweden!

MSSc International and European Relations

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