She gave me a handout to peruse while we waited for the others. It was a selection of job advertisements from the week’s papers. I sensed trouble.
Like housing, country of origin, occupation in country of origin, reason for being in Sweden, religion and America, a person’s job is a sensitive subject in our Svenska för invandrare class. Indeed, anything which doesn’t relate to supermarkets or children is more or less a conversational no-go area.
But I sympathise with the powers that be at SFI. As far as integration issues go, getting a job is the biggy. And you won’t get very far if you don’t know the Swedish for application, interview or deadline. (Although everyone seems to be familiar with we had many excellent applicants who met our criteria and you weren’t one of them.)
So it has to be covered, but what sort of imaginary jobs should the students practise on? Lawyers, marketing directors and chief accountants? Senior analysts, doctors and sales managers?
That might have been nice and motivational. But Swedes are nothing if not pragmatic and instead I found myself browsing through ads for a shop assistant, a dental secretary, a waiter or waitress and a hotel receptionist.
Most of my classmates had arrived by now, trooping in like Arctic explorers. Their faces slowly thawed into sneers as they saw the evening’s subject matter.
“Vadå, dental secretary?” said Arri, who, as I have mentioned before, intends to become a dentist.
Arri is proud and appeared to be willing to quit the class altogether rather than roleplay applying for a dental secretary’s job.
Being an immigrant herself, Rositza understood the subtle paradox at work: while many of those in the class would leap at one of these jobs, they aspire to much more.
Arturo is a good example. For all I know he could have been a government minister in his native Chile. Here, he cleans offices. But he doesn’t describe himself as a cleaner – he calls himself a businessman.
He has big ideas. At the moment he and his wife clean a couple of offices in central Stockholm each morning between 5am and 9am. But he has plans for more customers, more staff, a fleet of vans – it’s just a matter of time and hard work. But the ambition is there.
Last year, Niklas Zennström, the Swedish founder of the internet telephony company Skype, put a pretty vertical wind up his countrymen by saying that they are lazy.
He observed that “people don’t work very hard in Sweden – they go home at five, and take the whole summer off work”.
The first time I heard the same accusation made was a few years ago at a business meeting in Gothenburg, long before I moved to Sweden. It was all very embarrassing. My English boss castigated our Swedish partners (dot com, blah blah blah) for their lack of ambition. No commitment, he said, no desire.
I must point out that this was a man whose own ambition didn’t just border on hubris – it marched right in, surrounded its parliament and rewrote its constitution.
He declared with messianic fervour that the project we were cooperating on would be bigger than the Red Army within two years.
Our gentle Swedish hosts looked at him as if he was a few herrings short of a smörgåsbord and, as it later turned out, they weren’t far off the mark.
“So much for blonde ambition!” he muttered repeatedly, as the project was scaled back to something more achievable.
On the surface, Mr Zennström and my former boss may have had a point – Swedes can come across as lacking a little oomph on the job. And in conversations with Swedish friends, it has become clear that wearing your ambition on your sleeve is considered rather vulgar.
If you happen to be afflicted with ambition, you don’t talk about it. Take an Alvedon – it’ll pass.
Actually, two things blunt ambition: age and comfort.
Since most Swedes are tickling the toes of thirty by the time they finish university and start work, maybe the careerist mentality has already started to be replaced by thoughts of family.
And what with Sweden being perhaps the world’s most comfortable country it’s hardly surprising that there are fewer people starting their own businesses here than anywhere else.
Of course, there are plenty of Swedes who are more driven than a vintage Volvo. No Englishman could criticise Sweden’s determination to succeed in sports, for example, and in many areas of business, science and the arts Sweden has churned out more individual successes than its small population merits.
But to think of ambition purely in terms of get-rich-or-die-trying is to discredit Swedes. Swedes are ambitious, but their ambition usually isn’t financial. We all know about the American Dream, but Swedes’ determination to succeed is measured not in dollars but in red cottages, lakes and the number of days spent with the kids.
That’s the Swedish Dream, that’s blonde ambition.
Mr Zennström was referring to economic ambition, and his serious point was that without it, Sweden would suffer in the big, bad, competitive world. He shouldn’t worry, though – Arri and Arturo have other ideas.