Some Tricky Swedish Phrases

There may be some American-English phrases that foreigners find weird.  I can admit that.  But here, I'm the foreigner.  And Swedes have some strange and sometimes confusing phrases that they use.  Just when I think I have the hang of this language something new is thrown at me.  I'll break down a few of my favorites:

Helt Okay
This phrase is a perfect description of Swedish people.  Helt Okay.  It means "completely okay".  How is that possible?  Can something be completely (a superlative) okay?  I don't think so.  It's strange every time I hear it.  A friend of mine went to see a movie.  I asked how the movie was and he said it was "helt okay".  So it was an absolutely average movie?  Does a helt okay movie get relegated to "wait for the DVD" or "catch it on cable"?  I need more details.  To me, helt okay matches the Swedish attitude.  This isn't a culture where excitement is expressed often.  If you don't believe me, watch the people winning on the scratch-off lottery each morning.  You would think they won a newspaper subscription or something.  No, lady.  You just won 100 grand on national television.  Act like it!  That FREE money is by no means "helt okay".

Inte Så Dumt
This one is our "not so bad".  It's not a confusing phrase like "helt okay", but its usage is more perplexing.  Me being the positive ray of sunshine that I am, I hardly use the term "not so bad" in English unless I'm speaking about something that is universally accepted as bad like morning traffic or a really tough workout.  I think most people use it the same way.  But here I hear it all the time.  It's almost offensive.  First-time customers come to my job and I hear them utter "inte så dum".  Or they may even say it to me.  Am I supposed to smile at that?

       - Thank you ma'am.  I am glad that we didn't suck as bad as you thought we would.

They say it as a compliment.  That is not okay.  Nowhere near helt okay!  This one also matches the culture as well.  Swedes are more pessimistic than we are.  Pitching an American Dream-styled idea to a Swede is like trying to convince your parents that stripping is a good career move.  They will bring up all the negatives.  The furrowed brow comes out even at their most supportive.  In my case they figure I'm American and we're just like that.  Eventually I'm supposed to realize that "lagom" living is "inte så dumt" and stop being so freaking ambitious.

Tack, det bra
This one is frustrating to me.  The phrase translates to "Thanks that's good". But it is really used as "No thanks".  The language gods indeed have a sense of humor.  I think this is the Swedish version of politeness, but it's pretty mean.  You missed the mark, Sweden.  There is a phrase for no thanks here.  It's "nej, tack".  No and then thanks.  Simple and effective.  Why go messing with it?  Why play a jedi mind trick on a nice American trying to learn your language.

Imagine being at a bar and offering a guy a drink and he says

       - Thanks, that's good.

So what do you do?  You get that guy a beer, that's what you do!  But this guy just said "no thanks" in a weird and some how mean as hell but still polite way and now he thinks you're an idiot.  So you come back with two beers and he has to reiterate that he said no.  Now you have to talk to this guy over two beers.  Your two beers.  See what you created there, Sweden?  I thought you didn't like awkward situations.  Why build them into the language?

I haven't gotten the chance to use these phrases in conversation yet.  Maybe I'm not at that level of fluency yet.  But I tell you one thing, if I get on TV and scratch off a lottery ticket for 100k, my reaction will not be a "helt okay" or "inte så dumt" reaction .  I'd put on a freaking show to remember. Until next time...


  1. This is helpful to read :) Although I would disagree that "Tack, det bra" is really that confusing ... Think about the way we use that phrase in English: Both of the following make sense to English speakers (at least in USA), when saying "no thank you"
    1) "That's okay." (said like "ehh... that's okay"). Or,
    2) "I'm good."

    Those would probably be just as confusing for a Swede. But there's no denying that, when offered something, if you say, "I'm good," it definitely means "no thank you." In my mind, the Swedish phrase is nearly identical to that. It's just a positive way to turn something down.

    Thanks for the post!

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