• Sweden's news in English
 

Why do Swedes like to be 'alone together'?

Published: 27 May 2014 14:28 GMT+02:00

Upon arriving in Sweden, I joined a well-populated local exercise club. When I work out there it's usually full of people, but very few words are spoken. The exception to the silence occurs when small groups of immigrants from the Middle East or Africa indulge themselves in the abundant self-expression of their native cultures. 

The Swedes, in contrast, are silent.

This is not to say that Swedes exercise alone. They seem to enjoy assembling in large groups for organized exercise classes. During these workouts, music plays and the instructor shouts out instructions. But the participants remain silent. Swedes seem to enjoy being alone together.

Now, I know that is a stereotype. After all, Swedish actress Greta Garbo’s signature line is "I want to be alone".  But stereotypes often contain a germ of truth. As an American, I have been struck by both the solitude and togetherness of Swedish society.

Swedes leave each other alone, but do conform to a number of national group norms. My experience with Americans is just the opposite. Americans spend much time fraternizing and freely creating friendships, but the group norms available in my country are plural and optional.

What Swedish group norms? Well, how about lagom, jantelagen, sexual autonomy and wearing black? It is difficult to identify a comparably lengthy list of norms uniformly characterizing the US.

The US has long been and remains an invented culture, full of disparate and changing parts. Those parts vary by race, ethnicity, class and region, to name a few demarcations. Identities in the US are lightly held; there is always the possibility of moving to a different geographical and cultural location and reinventing yourself. Lots of Americans are at any time “on the move” in that way. Jay Gatsby is alive and well in contemporary America. 

Sweden, like many European nations, has an old and deeply-rooted culture that manifests itself in dominant group norms. Reinvention is less possible and, it seems, less desirable to Swedes. 

Those norms may have grown from the centralist history of their institutions. Sweden has long had one strong national government, a single state church, one public system of higher education, one set of national employment laws.

The US, in comparison, is pluralism run rampant. Upon arriving in Sweden, I spotted in the newspaper a story about how all employed Swedes can maximize their vacation days under the national employment laws. In the US, there are no common vacation employment laws at any level of government. One’s vacation arrangements are entirely between the employee and the company.

The Swedish view of the US is an interesting one. I know it as a polyglot of fifty states, each with varying laws, cultures and populations.  For Swedes, the US is heavily defined by the city of New York. Swedes focus on New York far more than most Americans do. I have spotted more New York Yankee hats in Sweden than I have ever encountered in the US outside of New York. 

That is sad news for Minnesota, my state, which has the largest number of residents with Swedish heritage in the US (that includes me).  Scant evidence of its presence appears in Swedish culture.

But why? Minneapolis, Minnesota is the home of the Swedish-American Institute and the state includes Gustavus Adolphus College and many towns with Swedish names, such as like Stockholm, Vasa, Lindstrom, Kalmar, Borgholm, Malung, Ronneby, Svea, Tegner and Upsala. For many years, the world’s largest Dala horse stood in Mora, Minnesota, until Swedes built a larger one. But to Swedes, Minnesota is not cool like New York.

The New York fascination, according to a Swedish academic I know, comes from Swedes priding themselves on being open-minded, cosmopolitan and tolerant. In fact, she argues, Swedes are quite Germanic, preferring group conformity to common social norms.

Now, many of those norms are defensible and desirable, but they stand in contrast to America’s pluralism. As someone from a culture outside of those norms, I have frequently been asked by Swedes “How long are you staying with us?”

That’s the big lesson for me as I leave Sweden. It is a country that works well, but its success derives from a history and culture at great variance from that of the US. So, as an American, I will always view and frequently admire Sweden "from afar".

Steven Schier is Fulbright Professor of American Studies at Uppsala University and Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
World reacts to notorious Swedish spy's death
Eugene Sydholt, better known as Swedish spy Stig Bergling, being released from Sweden's Anstalten Asptuna prison in 1997. Photo: TT

World reacts to notorious Swedish spy's death

News of Stig Bergling's death made global headlines on Thursday, and by the end of the day it was Twitter's 10th most trending topic in the world. READ  

Christian Democrat party leader quits politics
Christian Democrat leader Göran Hägglund is quitting politics. Photo: TT

Christian Democrat party leader quits politics

Göran Hägglund, the leader of one of Sweden's four centre-right opposition Alliance parties has resigned, insisting it had nothing to do with the controversial December Agreement that the Alliance struck with the government. READ  

Presented by Verksamt.se
Stockholm job fair helps immigrant entrepreneurs
The scene at Bazaren in Stockholm. Photo: The Local

Stockholm job fair helps immigrant entrepreneurs

One of Sweden's largest job fairs, Bazaren, kicked off in Stockholm on Thursday, with an estimated 10,000 people set to attend the event with a special focus on entrepreneurs. The Local was on hand to survey the scene. READ  

Teenage gunman threat at Gothenburg school
Police in Gothenburg are searching for the missing gunman. Photo: TT

Teenage gunman threat at Gothenburg school

A teenage gunman threatened a female teacher at a high school in Gothenburg on Thursday afternoon, before fleeing the scene. Police told The Local that a huge operation was underway, with patrol cars and a helicopter scouring the city. READ  

Swedish Dads project gives surprise snapshot
Bävman and his 3-year-old son, Viggo. Photo: Johan Bävman

Swedish Dads project gives surprise snapshot

Sweden is often described as one of the most gender-equal nations in the world, but when Swedish father Johan Bävman started a photo project about being a dad during his paternity leave, he realized his country didn't always match global expectations. READ  

Integration now second biggest voter issue
A mosque in Stockholm. Photo: TT

Integration now second biggest voter issue

Education is the top issue for Swedish voters, with integration coming second, in a new poll which also suggests growing concerns about rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Sweden. READ  

Sony ditches streaming service for Spotify
Swedens most famous start-up is gaining rapid momentum. Photo: TT

Sony ditches streaming service for Spotify

Swedish music streamer Spotify will provide the soundtrack for Sony devices, the two companies have announced, spelling the end to the streaming music service from the Japanese tech giant that invented the Walkman. READ  

The Local List
Top five trends from Stockholm Fashion Week
Stockholm Fashion Week. Photo: Kristian Löveborg/Fashion Week.se

Top five trends from Stockholm Fashion Week

Stockholm's twice-yearly fashion week wrapped up on Wednesday night, with bare backs, bellbottoms and beige among the top trends spotted by The Local on the catwalks. READ  

Sweden wins bronze at food 'World Cup'
Tommy Myllymäki from Sweden came third in the contest. Photo: TT

Sweden wins bronze at food 'World Cup'

The world's most prestigious food competition, Bocuse d'Or, has wrapped up in Lyon, France, with a top Swedish chef scooping a bronze and a Norwegian talent taking the crown. READ  

What's on in Sweden
What’s on: January 31st - February 7th
Jokkmokk Market is set to draw in the crowds this week. Photo: TT

What’s on: January 31st - February 7th

Gothenburg's Film Festival is underway, the Swedish capital has got its skates on as it hosts the European figure skating championships for the first time in decades, while Jokkmokk in northern Sweden is stepping back in time. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
People-watching: January 28th
Gallery
IN PICTURES: European Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm
Business & Money
FATCA: 'The age of financial privacy is over'
National
Does Sweden help returning Isis fighters more than Swedish veterans?
Gallery
IN PICTURES: January snow snaps
Blog updates

26 January

The mysterious -s, part 1 (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! How is your Swedish coming along? A while ago I read on a forum on The..." READ »

 

23 January

Editor’s blog, January 23rd (The Local Sweden) »

"Happy Friday from The Local’s team in Stockholm. We can’t wait for the weekend, when we’re planning..." READ »

 
 
 
Society
Is Sweden's healthcare system a national embarassment?
Gallery
Property of the week: Skanör, Vellinge
Lifestyle
'Life as a Swedish candy-maker is sweet'
National
Why Sweden's Left party wants a European 'Red Spring'
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's hottest new fashion designers for 2015
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Who travels on Stockholm's different subway lines?
Lifestyle
Why this Swedish baby is a US hit
Lifestyle
'Limousine' snowplough for sale
People-watching: January 24th - 25th
Gallery
People-watching: January 24th - 25th
Society
Meet the 'beggars' buttoning up immigration critics
Lifestyle
What's on in Sweden this week
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Princess Madeleine through the years
Features
Learn Sweden's bizarre dating lingo
People-watching: January 21st - 22nd
Gallery
People-watching: January 21st - 22nd
Society
Why Sweden's viral 'genital' video is getting an English remake
National
Why does Sweden's Luleå have a giant ice beaver?
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Who are Sweden's richest one percent?
Business & Money
How a classic Swedish snack got a revamp for 'busy' Stockholmers
Lifestyle
The Local's top Swedish acts for 2015
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's Årets Bild photography prize winners
Business & Money
'I met my Swedish man in Tokyo's first Ikea store'
Gallery
Property of the week: A cozy apartment in Bromma, Stockholm
Gallery
People-watching: January 17th - 18th
Lifestyle
How to make Swedish gravad lax
Lifestyle
Four hot Swedish home design trends
National
How The Local's video on a strange Swedish sound went viral
Gallery
People-watching: January 14th
National
The Local's guide to Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Politics
Paris attacks: Knock-on effects in Sweden and across Europe
National
Swedish Muslims react to new Charlie Hebdo magazine
National
The Local talks to Sweden's Home Affairs Minister about Paris attacks
Business & Money
Will Spotify launch on stock market after users rocket?
Accelerated
Texans and Swedes to play ice instruments
Gallery
Property of the week: An 18th century mansion in Stockholm
Business & Money
'Snowboarding drew me to work in chilly Sweden'
National
Are Sweden's royals moving to London?
National
How Sweden's Charlie Hebdo rally broke a winter protest record
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Princess Madeleine through the years
Sponsored Article
Everything you need to know about moving to Stockholm
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

1,135
jobs available
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
psdmedia.se
Counselling and Psychotherapy in English
Sometimes living in another culture can cause stress, confusion and feelings of sadness and loneliness. Talking to a professional psychotherapist/counsellor might help you. I am a UKCP Reg. psychotherapist. My practice is in Södermalm, Stockholm.
Contact me to discuss your options