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Sweden: the world's most modern country?

Paul O'Mahony · 13 Dec 2006, 12:00

Published: 13 Dec 2006 12:00 GMT+01:00

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The programme, 'Världen's modernaste land' (‘The most modern country in the world’), is a reflection on what it means to be a Swede. The presenter, television-friendly linguist Fredrik Lindström, has already notched up two major successes for the national broadcaster.

In his two earlier series he analysed the idiosyncrasies of the Swedish language and lent a curious ear to the nation’s most mysterious dialects.

But now Lindström has chosen to burrow into the deepest crevice of them all: the Swedish psyche.

Over seven episodes the timeless riddle that is Sweden will be broken down into its constituent parts and slowly unravelled.

The programme considers the theory that the Swedish mentality is premised on two opposites: complacency and insecurity.

According to Lindström and his historian sidekick Peter Englund, Swedes tend to trust in the notion that Sweden is one of the best and most modern countries in the world. But these same people also view themselves as tepid and boring when viewed in an international perspective.

Fredrik Lindström explains these generalisations held by Swedes about themselves and their country as “a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy”.

The programme offers answers to a whole catalogue of the type of questions posed by anybody who has spent any length of time in the country.

Wednesday’s first episode offers a dissection of the supposedly antisocial Swede.

Why is it not the done thing to talk to people on the bus, whereas when invited to somebody's home you are expected to babble incessantly? Is this not a burden for the famously reticent Swedes? Or is the shy Swede just another myth that needs deflating?

“There is a historical reason that is often mentioned to explain Swedes’ antisocial side: land partition reforms begun in the late 18th century, which destroyed village communities,” Lindström explains.

As a result, rather than preserving a strong sense of community, ”everybody had to look after themselves as much as possible. This becomes clear in sayings such as ‘alone is strong’ or ‘a good man looks after himself’.”

In another episode Lindström casts viewers back to the late 1960s, when plots were hatched to build a million flats, when politicians embraced the cardigan, formal titles were abandoned, the word "mysig" (nice and cosy) made its national breakthrough, and people started taking off their shoes at the door.

While shoe removal and cosiness might be viewed as intertwined, there is also a political sub-text, according to Lindström.

“It is a commonly held opinion in Sweden that it is bourgeois to keep your shoes on indoors. This is probably inherited from the 1960s when the radical left wished to distance itself from middle-class habits such as indoor shoes.”

All through the series the questions just keep on coming.

Why are 40 per cent of Swedish households inhabited by a single person (60 per cent in Stockholm), which is a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world. Is this a sign of modernity, atomization, independence, or something else entirely?

Why do Swedes have such a weakness for rational arguments, technology and standardisation?

Why did the pared down functional style prove such an architectural hit in Sweden?

Story continues below…

Are Swedes cold-hearted engineers who always let their heads rule their hearts?

Is it true that the majority of ‘traditional’ Christmas dishes made their debut in the 1960s and 1970s?

Why is everybody just sitting there? Why is nobody doing anything?

So many questions! Could be worth tuning in to get some answers.

Världens Modernaste Land will be broadcast on SVT 2 on Wednesday at 8pm. Repeated on SVT24, Thursday, 10pm; SVT2, Saturday, 11:50pm; SVT2, Sunday, 12:40pm

Paul O'Mahony (paul.omahony@thelocal.com)

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