Friday, August 29, 2014

Swedish Escalator Etiquette

Stand to the right. Walk to the left. Always.
There are certain rules on escalators in Sweden. Stand to the right. Walk to the left. They’re pretty simple rules. Step onto any escalator in Stockholm and you’ll see the vast majority of people following those rules. It’s both impressive and slightly creepy. So I took a picture. I'll be honest, I felt like I was doing something wrong standing on the left to take this picture. Swedish cultural expectations are strong.

Of course, these two rules get broken. Especially on a drunken weekend. Or even when you’re carrying on a conversation with someone as you head to the escalator. It can be awkward standing above or below someone or standing backwards on the escalator as you descend into the art exhibition that is the Stockholm subway system. So some people choose to willingly break the rules. It’s a bold move. Breaking escalator rules can have drastic consequences.

The two people in front of me heading to Centralen found this out firsthand. I was standing to the right. Quietly. I know the rules. But just in front of me was a woman, also standing on the right, in a conversation with a man. Standing on the left! I know, I know. How could he? But he did. A rebel without a cause.

Just above us appeared a man, walking on the left with an air of self-importance, a black sweater over his dress shirt matching his black pants and black shoes. He did not approve. So much so that he stopped. He looked on with disgust at the man, who, apologizing in broken Swedish, sucked in and hugged the railing of the left side of the escalator. Our friendly Swede continued to look on with disgust at the man. He did not move. He did not take the space offered and walk past. He said, loudly: stand there! and pointed to the right. That’s it. No please, no thank you, no politeness at all. It was a command. And the man listened and the man moved to the right. The Swede blew past him with not a word of thanks or acknowledgement. He then came to the end of the escalators and waited for the subway to arrive. He did not have to hurry. He was just mean.

The guy might have had a bad day. He might have thought he was going to miss the subway. He might have been tired. I don’t know. There are a lot of possibilities. The worst, of course, is that he was just a racist, calmly commanding someone who was not like him to bow to his demands. Expecting, even knowing, that he was in the right and thus did not need to be a decent human. That’s the worst-case scenario. Maybe it’s unlikely, but, as I’ve written before, the latent racism in this country is alive and well – and becoming more and more blatant.

No matter the reason for this display, it does speak to the strict cultural conventions that can make this country so hard to feel a part of. Is it every Swede? Of course not. Is it every cultural tradition and display? Of course not. But Sweden is hard sometimes. It’s especially hard to learn what is and is not expected. What is and is not accepted. And those little things? Like escalator etiquette? Those things that you don’t necessarily think about if you’ve lived here for years and years and years? They matter and can be used as a tool to mark someone as other.

Welcome to Sweden. And escalator etiquette.


  1. I don't think it was racism in this case. Even naturally blonde swedes get the same treatment if they stand to the left, blocking the fast lane.

    There is one more escalator rule that people break a little too often: When you reach the end, do not stop, continue walking or step to the side. It has happened to me twice (in 14 years of living in Stockholm) that someone in front of me with luggage stopped just at the end with the luggage still behind them, causing several people (including me) to trip over their luggage, creating a pile of angry people lying down shouting swear words while quickly trying to get back on their feet before even more people will join the unintentional orgy.

  2. Not Sweden as much as Stockholm. Stockholm has an underground so people might actually be in a hurry in the escalator. This has influenced their general behaviour. In smaller towns where escalators are a mere mean to reach the second floor of H&M, there is no need to keep a fast lane.

  3. Enjoyed reading this one and the one about park benches. Tack så mycket.

  4. I agree with the creepy part.... I haven't thought of that before as I don't live in Stockholm and escalators aren't so common in other parts of Sweden (at least not crowded ones), but seeing that picture it seems a bit creepy. The same feeling as when I visited a gym in Cork and saw like 100 people spinning on bikes at the same time in the same room.

    1. Now I'm just imagining 100 Irish people sweating in unison, which seems more comical than creepy.