I was there on the bride’s side, she being a once-fairly-good-friend of my own catch (the difference being that far from returning home with mine, I got dragged out of the boat and pulled under until I stopped resisting). Consequently I spent most of the event uncomfortably straddling the great divide between the two nationalities.
The ineffable logic of wedding seating plans had rammed me in with a bunch of Brits and at first I was delighted: for once at a Swedish wedding – and I have attended many – the conversation would not be limited by my vocabulary.
The number of guests whose enjoyment has been ruined by having to translate speech after speech for me is painful to recall and I’m sure that I have become a ‘problem guest’ among our friends.
Anyway, here I was with Brits all around me. And yet the conversation was still limited – by my being constantly asked to confirm or deny cliches about Sweden.
“Very efficient, are they, the Swedes?”
“Is it as cold as this in the summer?”
“Married to a Swedish girl are you? You lucky bastard.”
De – no, I won’t deny that. She read this column once and you never know when she might again.
By the first leg-stretch break I found myself drifting back to the Swedish contingent, or at least to the peace and quiet of the no-man’s-land. I felt lost, rootless, still unable to connect with my future, suddenly unable to relate to my past.
What I needed was a direct contrast, a controlled test – something epitomising both cultures which would allow me to evaluate my relative position. And then the speeches started.
The Swedes had very sportingly agreed that since the ceremony had been in Swedish, all the speeches should be in English. And a good number of Brits had very sportingly agreed to deliver speeches despite a lack of experience in such matters.
(The British rules on who gives a speech at a wedding are very clear: father of the bride, best man and groom. In Sweden, who gives a speech seems to be determined by who has a larynx in working order.)
So we kicked off with a speech from one of the bride’s friends about what a marvellous friend she had been through the years. That was swiftly followed by one by the groom’s friend about what a complete idiot he has been through the years.
The Swedes laughed nervously. That’s not what you’re supposed to say at weddings, they whispered.
Order was restored with a speech by the bride’s brother. She had been the most supportive sister he could ask for. Up stepped the groom’s sister. She described how her brother had been a pain in the neck from the moment he uttered his first words.
Hang on just a moment, muttered the Swedes, just what sort of fellow is our girl marrying?
And so it continued, until we were left with a picture of the bride as the most angelic creature ever to have set dainty foot upon Sweden’s pastures, and a picture of the groom as England’s champion village idiot.
By that time of course, the Swedes had, with considerable relief, managed to categorise what they were hearing as “English humour!”. Speaking to them afterwards, the majority of Swedes said they felt they had experienced something entirely new: affectionate humiliation.
It’s something which is entirely absent from the Swedes’ low-key humour repertoire. But this is not really about their sense of humour. Swedes are not unfunny people. Indeed, they appreciate Britain’s last great export better than most other countries.
And the country’s wholehearted endorsement of the Eurovision song contest and Robert Wells and Surströmming is surely evidence of a great comic instinct. (Isn’t it?)
This is more about their relationships with each other. To be able to pour scorn on your nearest and dearest is a confirmation of the bond between you. The more comfortable you feel with each other, the more scorn you can pour.
But despite the fact that Swedes are obviously very comfortable with each other, gentle jibes are almost entirely absent from Swedish conversation. I’ve tried it, and it’s like playing tennis without an opponent.
Putting someone down, even just by teasing them, means subtly raising yourself above them, if only for a moment until they put you down. It’s part of the daily banter of British life (and surely the ‘Great’ in Great Britain is just a cheeky jibe at the rest of the world?).
But what Swede wants to be seen raising himself, even subtly, above those around him? It goes against every Swede’s instinct. But daily life is duller for it, and relationships are taken more seriously than they deserve to be.
Swedes should try teasing each other more. And maybe even change the name of the country to Super Sweden. Just for fun.