Scandinavia is home to some of the most progressive countries in the world (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and, depending who you ask, Iceland and Finland), with each making frequent appearances atop lists of the best countries to be a woman, for gender equality, and for all-around happiness. The high quality of life owes a lot to the egalitarian culture and a strong social welfare system that prioritizes personal well-being as much as financial security. It’s an MO that bleeds into every aspect of life, including how people date and mate.
The result is a male-female dynamic steeped in mutual respect and autonomy, creating an environment that’s sexually liberated and decidedly pro-woman. Lemarc Thomas, CEO and cofounder of a Stockholm-based matchmaking agency, has worked with clients from New York to Tokyo to Copenhagen and confirms Scandinavian dating behavior stands out in the Western world.
“Equality, independence, and self-fulfillment is deep-rooted in Scandinavian culture,” he says. “There are no rules in dating. The only rules come from your individual values.”
While there may be no rules, there are certainly some common themes. Whether you’re planning a trip to Scandinavia (if so, please pack us in your suitcase) or are looking to switch things up at home, you just might want to import these tenets into your dating life.
Chivalry is dead. Equality reigns.
Cisgender heterosexual men, particularly millennial and Gen-Z ones, are less likely to make chivalrous gestures — think ordering drinks at bars, insisting on ladies first, or walking dates to their door — but if they do any of this, it’s likely to come from a desire to be nice rather than an attempt to fulfill social expectations or follow protocol.
“Etiquette stems from kindness. Opening the door, paying the bill — it’s all about showing kindness. We recommend breaking all the rules as long as you are being sincere to your values and acting with kindness,” says Thomas.
Marina Iakov, a video producer and creator of Dating Beyond Borders, has dated men in Denmark and Iceland. She reports that men there did offer to pay but only on the first date. “I think if they know you’re foreigner, they might offer to pay because they think you expect it, but women [usually] pay for themselves,” she says. “I talked to one girl who said, ‘It’s [considered] manly to let a woman pay. It shows they see you as an equal.’”
The best first dates are low, low-key.
“The idea of going out to dinner with someone you don’t know is just embarrassing.” This is something I overheard a woman say two years ago in a Copenhagen bar. How could that be when every restaurant was lit from within with candles, a fireplace, and the pure rapture of coziness? Was this a different kind of embarrassment? One with no English translation? Or was it a dark side of hygge whitewashed out of American books and Apartment Therapy articles?
The most likely answer? Standard-issue Scandinavian reserve. While not everyone will go as far as to describe a date as “embarrassing,” few will choose a prolonged one-on-one interaction with a stranger or acquaintance in the confines of a multicourse meal — and certainly not on a first date.
Those under 30 mostly meet in bars or clubs and through friends while drinking, making the first date a moot point. But as long as there are dating apps, there will be first dates — after all, many singles want to expand their pool. And once two people decide to test their connection live and in person, they often do so over coffee, preferably outdoors.
“It has become sort of a trend to go for a walk in nature with some really good coffee — to a large park, forest, or a walking path by the water,” says Swedish matchmaker Mikaela Berg, who works with Thomas. “Maybe this then leads to brunch, or fika — meeting up for coffee and cake in Sweden.”
There are no games — and no innuendo.
Saying one thing and meaning another is an essential skill in American dating. It’s how we flirt. It’s so rampant, so vital to the success of mating that it is only a little hyperbolic to say the practice must be imprinting itself in our DNA.
But in Scandinavia, the subtle art of innuendo is all but nonexistent. Directness reigns, and saying what you mean is the preferred form of communication. This forthrightness is so embedded in Scandinavian culture that Iakov says women in Iceland told her they would sometimes walk up to a person and ask if they wanted to have sex, because it actually can be that simple.
While that may be an extreme example, total disregard for the game is prevalent. Directness is appreciated. Knowing what you want and going after it are the keys to happiness. “The beauty of Scandinavian culture is that it values independence and self-fulfilment,” says Thomas. “You have to know what is right for you, confidently act within those parameters, and accept that some people will appreciate it and others will not.”
In fact, the only rules Thomas said cannot be broken are basic ones of tolerance and respect. This means showing up on time, not making assumptions about gender identity, and avoiding off-color jokes. “[Scandinavians] are very tolerant but will not tolerate behavior that goes against what we have fought hard to achieve — like equality, for example — so race jokes, gay jokes, gender jokes — no, just no.”