• Sweden's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Why do Swedes like to be 'alone together'?

The Local · 27 May 2014, 14:28

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.

Story continues below…

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
Drunken Christmas goat burner risks four years in jail
The Christmas goat looks at the fireworks and contemplates its future. Photo: Mats Åstrand/TT

His singed eyebrows were a dead giveaway.

Joe Biden: 'Sweden has shown great leadership'
Joe Biden, left, and Stefan Löfven. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

US Vice President Joe Biden praised Sweden for "punching way above its weight" in the global refugee crisis.

Nepal's Sherpas rebuild Swedish mountain paths
Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain. Photo: Stockholms Universitet

Nepalese sherpas have been called in to improve hillwalking safety on Sweden's highest mountain Kebnekaise.

23 people tricked into renting the same Malmö apartment
Sweden's housing market is notoriously tricky. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

"I have never felt so stupid and so conned."

Sweden on standby to help earthquake-hit Italy
Rescue workers search through the debris. Photo: AP Photo/Sandro Perozzi

Swedish authorities are ready, if asked, to quickly assist Italy as it recovers from a deadly earthquake.

We harmed Sweden's teachers and should apologize: prof
A tired pupil at a school in Stockholm. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

"The situation is very worrying," says Professor Jonas Linderoth.

US keeper kicked off team for calling Swedes cowards
Hope Solo made her comments after Sweden knocked the US team out of the Olympics. Photo: Eugenio Savio/AP

The US team will be Hope-less for six months.

Five must-see cultural events in Sweden this weekend
Like The Bridge? You'll love one of the events we've picked out for this weekend. Photo: Erland Vinberg/TT

The summer is almost over but Sweden saved the best for last with these cultural events this weekend – including one that will make The Bridge fans happy.

Was there a secret plot to kill Swedish ex-UN chief?
Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN's Secretary General, pictured months before his death in 1961. Photo: TT

Ban Ki-moon wants to find out.

Joe Biden to arrive in Sweden for refugee talks
Stefan Löfven meets Joe Biden during a visit to Washington in March 2015. Photo: Monica Enqvist/Government Offices of Sweden

US Vice President Joe Biden will arrive in Stockholm on Wednesday evening ahead of talks with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven that are expected to focus on migration and refugees.

Sponsored Article
Malmö to host global skateboard championship
Gallery
People-watching: August 24th
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
The Local Voices
'I want to be a businesswoman but I don’t care about money'
National
Experts: Gothenburg grenade blast is 'part of a cycle of violence'
Blog updates

23 August

A Summer in Sweden (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"For our first year here in Sweden we decided to have all our holidays in Sweden.…" READ »

 

22 July

After the horror, carry on regardless (Globally Local) »

"This time last week, we were just digesting the horror of the Nice killings, in which…" READ »

 
 
 
Sponsored Article
The mystique of Asia - in the middle of Stockholm
Gallery
Property of the week: Karlsborg
Sponsored Article
Why you should learn to trade (and just how easy it is)
National
Why Sweden could change its criticised detention laws
National
Watch this dog's reaction when she tries Swedish fermented herring
Gallery
People-watching: August 19th-21st
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
National
How to find student housing in Sweden
Sponsored Article
'Sweden's Lauryn Hill' touches the country's musical soul
National
VIDEO: Swede films first Northern Lights of the season
Gallery
People-watching: August 17th
Sponsored Article
6 simple travel hacks that will make your life easier
Society
Swedish population nears ten million
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
The Local Voices
This Syrian artist found love in a Swedish library
National
Sex pigs halt traffic after laser attack on Pokémon teens. Only in Sweden.
Sponsored Article
Five easy ways to travel more often
Gallery
Property of the week: Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Society
Drunk knight detained in Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
National
Can you solve this Swede's strange Star Wars mystery?
Gallery
People-watching: August 12th-14th
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
National
Swedes cheer first snow of the season
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Gallery
People-watching: August 10th
Sponsored Article
Jordan Pass: your ticket to the experience of a lifetime
The Local Voices
Syrian presenter: Swedish media should make more shows in Arabic
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Travel
Watch the meteor shower in Sweden
Sponsored Article
6 simple travel hacks that will make your life easier
Lifestyle
How to survive a crayfish party
Gallery
IN PICS: Your Sweden summer snaps
The Local Voices
Gabriel mastered Swedish and got accepted onto a medicine degree in just 7 months
3,361
jobs available