Sweden is in the eye of the beholder

Sweden is in the eye of the beholder
Sweden means many different things to many different people. Just ask the United States Secret Service, writes Olle Wästberg, director-general of the Swedish Institute.

People’s view of Sweden varies greatly depending on the context, as I discovered a few years ago while working as Sweden’s Consul General in New York.

I was hosting a visit of then Prime Minister Göran Persson. The procedure was the usual: meet him at the airport accompanied by the US Secret Service. The Secret Service turned up with several cars and had closed one lane in the Lincoln Tunnel for our use.

Having brought the PM to the Waldorf-Astoria, I asked the head of the Secret Service operation if they went to all that fuss for every visiting PM. The officer answered:

“Oh no, only for the risky countries.”

“Risky? Us? Sweden?” I replied.

He looked into his papers and said:

“Two political murders. One unsolved.”

For a Swede it might seem strange, Swedish crime statistics being close to New York’s low figures in most crime categories, that this could be an image of Sweden.

Still, the fact that both a prime minister and a foreign minister have been assassinated is quite unique.

Author Lars Gustafsson once told me about a time he was sitting beside a person he did not know on a bus in Slovakia. As they began talking, it soon emerged that Gustafsson was Swedish:

“Oh, you are from the country of the great Lindström.”

Gustafsson racked his brains: The great Lindström? The inventor of the Swedish dish “Biff à la Lindström”?

But no. It turned out to be professor Per Lindström, one of the most outstanding scholars in the academic discipline of logic. To his colleagues, he was “the great.”

Sweden means different things to different people…

According to research, people in China first mention the Eiffel Tower when asked about Europe. When asked about Sweden, they can’t name anything. Unfortunately, Sweden is quite unknown in the emerging markets in Asia, not least in China.

When surveys have indicated that Sweden’s “culture” is unknown or rated low, it has nothing to do with the Royal Dramatic Theatre or the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Nor with contemporary culture. It is simply a natural verification of the fact that Sweden cannot compete with France, Greece, Italy, Egypt or China in terms of cultural heritage. Sweden has no Louvre, no Parthenon, no Great Wall.

Nowhere is Sweden known for its monuments. It has more subtle connotations, like internationalism, innovation, care, the environment and openness. And people in other countries know Swedes. J-O Waldner, the table tennis legend, is a star in China; Björn Borg is a household name all over the world; and Annika Sörenstam is very well known among golf enthusiasts.

And then there are world-famous historic names like Carl Linnaeus, Alfred Nobel, Raoul Wallenberg and Dag Hammarskiöld. And, of course, Ingmar Bergman, the film-making giant. During the more than five years I spent in New York, there was a Bergman film on every night.

To many people from far away, Sweden is not a physical place. It is more a state of mind, or – mostly – a country personified by Swedes that people know about or have met.

Anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what Swedes are about – or what some visiting foreigners reflect on – can have a look at some short, filmed interviews at Sweden.se, Sidewalk Sweden — meet the people .

Olle Wästberg, Director-General of the Swedish Institute