• Sweden edition
 
Opinion
Why do Swedes like to be 'alone together'?
Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Why do Swedes like to be 'alone together'?

Published: 27 May 2014 14:28 GMT+02:00
Updated: 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
Science
Swedes discover rare Antarctic fossils

Swedes discover rare Antarctic fossils

Researchers from Sweden have been speaking about a rare discovery of mammal fossils in the Antarctic. READ  

Ukraine conflict
Sweden Democrats reject EU-Ukraine pact
The Sweden Democrats have two MEPs, seen here with the party's leader Jimmie Åkesson. Photo: TT

Sweden Democrats reject EU-Ukraine pact

BREAKING: The European Parliament has backed an 'historic' agreement to allow closer trade between the EU and Ukraine, but the nationalist Sweden Democrats were among those trying to block the deal on Tuesday. READ  

Elections 2014
Löfven to get no help from Sweden's Liberals
Liberal party leader Jan Björklund. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Löfven to get no help from Sweden's Liberals

UPDATED: Liberal Party leader Jan Björklund says he has no plans to join a government with the election-winning Social Democrats, as Sweden's political future remains uncertain. READ  

Analysis
'Evolution' for Sweden's crowd-funding scene
Photo: Victor1558/Flickr

'Evolution' for Sweden's crowd-funding scene

The Local checks out crowd-funding in Sweden as US giant Kickstarter announces plans to launch in Scandinavia. READ  

Opinion
Scandinavia and Scotland: closer links?
Brit Kester Gibson (left) thinks Scotland should split from the UK but Swede Mimi Coglianos disagrees. Photos: private

Scandinavia and Scotland: closer links?

Scotland votes on whether to become independent this week and the Scottish National Party has suggested closer ties with Scandinavia if the 'yes' camp wins. The Local asked two readers if they agreed with Scotland splitting from the UK. READ  

Sport
Malmö gear up for Champions League
Sweden's biggest club Malmö face Juventus on Tuesday. Photo:TT

Malmö gear up for Champions League

Malmö are the first Swedish club in the Champion's League for more than a decade but they face a tough debut fixture against Italian champions Juventus in their Group A opener. READ  

Sweden earthquake 'was strongest in 100 years'
The town of Mora, near where the earthquake hit. Photo: Shutterstock

Sweden earthquake 'was strongest in 100 years'

An earthquake measuring 4.1 on the Richter scale shook parts of central Sweden on Monday and experts have revealed it was the strongest in a century. READ  

Elections 2014
Löfven rules out making government with the Left
Left Party leader Jonas Sjöstedt. Photo: TT

Löfven rules out making government with the Left

Election winner Stefan Löfven announced on Monday that he would not form a government with the Left Party, a move that party's leader called a "huge mistake". READ  

Elections 2014
Six big headaches for Stefan Löfven
Stefan Löfven: a man with a lot on his plate. Photo: Sören Andersson/TT

Six big headaches for Stefan Löfven

Stefan Löfven has started talks to form a new government, but the former welder faces huge challenges in bringing together an administration that will work. The Local explains why. READ  

Business
Microsoft to buy Swedish Minecraft makers

Microsoft to buy Swedish Minecraft makers

UPDATED: Microsoft announced on Monday that it was buying Swedish company Mojang, which was behind the hit game Minecraft, for $2.5 billion (17.9 billion kronor). READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
How to start a business in Stockholm
Society
How I became a surf blogger when I moved to Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: September 13th
Society
Why is Stockholm's Södermalm so cool?
Gallery
People-watching: September 11th
Blog updates

15 September

Liten, litet, små & lilla (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej igen! Have you ever been confused about when to use “liten”, “litet”, “små” and “lilla”? Today I’m going to sort out how use the adjective “liten” (small) and the different forms of it. Liten or litet? “Liten” is the form we will use when referring to a noun with the gender “en”. For example: Min pappa har en..." READ »

 

12 September

EU sanctions: necessary, effective and timely (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"Regular readers of this blog know I’ve written about the Russia-Ukraine crisis here. Today I’ve chosen to share an article by the UK Minister for Europe, David Lidington, with my readers: This week the European Union imposed further sanctions on Russia. This decision followed months of destabilisation of Ukraine by Russia, and months of political..." READ »

 
 
 
Gallery
People-watching: September 13th
Politics
Five possible election outcomes
Politics
Sweden elections: How do they work?
Politics
Sweden elections: Who's who?
Lifestyle
What's on in Sweden
Gallery
Property of the week - Hornstull, Stockholm
Analysis
Five differences between the UK and Sweden
Welshman Jonny Luck is now a chef in Sweden
Society
How I opened my own restaurant in Sweden's Malmö
Sponsored Article
Stockholm tech fest: relive the magic
Gallery
People-watching September 8th
Photo: TT
Politics
Feminists fight for first seats
Politics
Immigration cut push from Sweden Democrats
Sheryl Sandberg says women have "low expectations"
Tech
Facebook exec talks women's limits in Swedish business
Politics
Left Party calls for justice and equality
Politics
Green Party wants 'better world' for kids
Lifestyle
The five best Swedish songs of the month
Sponsored Article
Introducing… Insurance in Stockholm
National
Huge clear up underway after Skåne floods
Politics
Sweden's Alliance reveals full manifesto
Tech
Sweden's highest peak to lose title next year
Politics
How immigration became a key election issue
Sponsored Article
Graduates: Insure your income in Sweden with AEA
Sponsored Article
Introducing...Your finances in Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Introducing...Housing in 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

868
jobs available
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com
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:
http://psdmedia.se
If you want to drink, that’s your business.
If you want to stop, we can help.

Learn more about English-language Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden. No dues. No fees. Confidentiality assured.
AA-EUROPE.ORG/SWEDEN