Saturday, September 06, 2014

Ten Rules for the Stockholm Subway

I spend a lot of time in libraries. In fact, there are four library cards in my wallet now. It’s a little silly to be honest, but I use them all. All that time in libraries has helped me train my inside voice. As an American, it’s something I try to work on while abroad. My inside voice. I’m getting good at the projected whisper. What is surprising though is how useful that projected whisper has become. Especially on the subway.

The subway culture in this country fascinates me. The silence. The waiting. The pushing. The awkwardness. It’s all there. And there is very much a proper way to behave on this Stockholm subway system.

That proper way to behave holds true even on a Friday during rush hour when everyone is heading home from work. I, of course, was not on my way home from work. Or not really. I had spent the day in a library reading about women who traveled back and forth between Sweden and the US in the early 1900s. Which is a kind of work. One that allows me to still wear a backpack at the age of 30. You should probably be jealous. And maybe pity me just a bit.

I was on the subway with a friend. We were talking. And it was quiet. So I lowered my voice. Now we were talking politics. Well actually the labor movement in the 1910s and ‘20s, but still. Politics. I lowered my voice not because of the subject, but because of the place. And then I realized what I had done. Friday evening. Rush hour. And it was so quiet that I felt it necessary to use my projected whisper. And I kind of liked it.

That’s when I realized just how acculturated to the Stockholm subway system I have become. There are a lot of rules. Some of them are explicit. Certain cars are available to dogs. Others are not. If you see someone get stuck in the door, pull the emergency brake. Se upp för dörrarna. You know, the usual. Other rules are less explicit. Unwritten even. Until now. So, after years of careful study, in-depth fieldwork, and years of living among the very people I am studying, here are ten rules to the Stockholm subway system:
Look at all those rules being followed here!
  1. Shhhhh. Always.
  2. Do not look anyone in the eye. Ever.
  3. If you don’t want to take your newspaper with you, hang it on the handrail under the window.
  4. Stand right in front of the door when it opens during rush hour. Both to get on and off. You were there first. But be warned. I will judge you. Others won’t though. They’ll be trying to get in front of you.
  5. Shhhhh. Still.
  6. Do not talk to strangers. Ever.
  7. If you don’t want someone to sit next to you, put your bag on the seat beside you. But be warned. People will, rightly, judge you. I will judge you.
  8. Do not sit next to anyone if there is an open seat somewhere else. Ever.
  9. Stare at your phone to ensure avoidance of eye contact. Even at the risk of missing your stop. Not that I've done that. 
  10. Shhhhh. Seriously, just shhhhhhhhhhh. 
Of course, rule 11 of the ten rules says ignore all of these rules on Friday and Saturday night after drinking for several hours. Sprawl out on the seats. Make out on the seats. Drink on the seats. Vomit on the seats. But only on Friday and Saturday night.

Welcome to Sweden. And subway silence. Sweet, sweet subway silence.

P.S. Feel free to add your own unwritten rules in the comments.


  1. These rules are pretty similar to those of the Gothenburg trams.
    On the trams it is, generally, best not to speak to strangers, and to be quiet.
    No playing loud music on your phone without the headphones in.
    Do not put your feet up on the opposite seat, or you WILL get told off by old ladies.
    When getting on the tram, always stand to the sides of the doors and let people off first. If you try to get on before letting people off, everyone will HATE you.
    When getting off, get the fuck off, no dilly-dallying!
    Sitting on the outer seat, and thus blocking the inner seat, when available seats are scarce is considered bad form.
    Always offer your seat to the elderly, pregnant and impaired.
    If the tram is crowded and you have to stand up, remove your backpack first, so as not to shove it in someone's face (people seem to have a hard time remembering this one).
    Talking to a stranger who is using their smartphone or reading something is extremely annoying and will induce awkwardness.
    Again, do NOT talk to strangers.

  2. I don't see much offering of seats here in Stockholm.

  3. Hilarious. Loved this post. I wish we had more silence on the NYC subways.

  4. Really great writing. Thanks. So are there every solicitors on Swedish subways? Performers? People selling socks, hats and other merchandise?

    1. Sometimes you get a few people coming through looking for change or playing some music.

  5. Haha, this so awesomely true! As a native stockholmer now living in the USA, I can totally agree. Other thing would be the escalator rules, stand on the rightwalk (fast) on the left

    1. Yeah, those escalator rules are important. I wrote about that not too long ago here:

  6. My only issue about being silent in the subway is Stockholm is that every now and again, some good looking guy catches my attention. We make eye contact but he will avert his eyes immediately. Swedish people don't do small talk what more with strangers on the metro..