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The Swedish psyche – you could write a book about it

Christine Demsteader · 15 Apr 2009, 09:54

Published: 15 Apr 2009 09:54 GMT+02:00

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Never judge a book by its cover, so they say. And never judge a Swede on first impressions, so many of these books will tell you.

Be cautious. It’s a national trait explored on the first page of Modern-Day Vikings (2001). Labelled as “a practical guide to interacting with the Swedes” the opening lines quote the Hávamál, verses of Old Norse poetry dating back 1,000 years.

“Praise not day until evening, no wife until buried, no sword until tested, no maid until bedded, no ice until crossed, no ale until drunk.”

The words are poetic advice for living and survival. “Historically, being cautious has worked,” says Lisa Werner Carr, an American of Swedish descent and co–author of Modern-Day Vikings. “Swedes don’t have a very compulsive culture; you see that in everyday life today – just think about the way meetings are run.”

Those of you nodding your head have already experienced, come to terms with or remain infuriated with aspects of Swedish life. Werner Carr chose to write the book she wished she’d been given on moving to Malmo in the early 90s.

“I thought it was going to be very easy for me and sometimes it was,” she says. “But I fell into every single cultural trap.” Within months her hair started to fall out, she broke out in rashes and wasn’t sleeping.

“I was suffering from classic culture shock and it had a very physical manifestation,” she adds. “Had I been prepared for things I learned the hard way, I would have adjusted better.”

It took three months for anyone at work to invite her out socially and no one offered any help. “If I’d asked, three dozen would have jumped at the chance,” she says. “They didn’t want to presume I couldn’t manage myself. That would be insulting.”

Like many who came before her, and after, Werner Carr didn’t see anything extreme about Swedish culture. Indeed, the Swedes are pretty much perceived as being as normal as they think they are. Stereotypes suggest one awaits a northern nirvana of tall blondes who sing when they speak and get quite drunk when they drink. And they even like sex.

But the idiosyncrasies of this ordinary nation have inspired a wave of literature, from jovial banter to academic thought.

Professor Åke Daun is considered to be the godfather of the Swedish soul. The former Head of the Institute of Ethnology at Stockholm University, his 1989 book Svensk Mentalitet (Swedish Mentality) was the result of a decade of research. It concluded that the Swedes are in fact shy, conflict-avoiding and, in his own words, “dull”.

“Swedes are often serious when they get together,” Daun begins. “There’s little skill in conversation and we don’t raise our voice, we don’t interrupt. We just want to exchange the same ideas and tastes.”

Daun explains why neighbours may well avoid sharing an elevator. “With people they do not know, few Swedes feel moved to talk,” he writes. “Solitude offers ease and liberation. The satisfaction so many Swedes feel when they walk on their own in the woods…derives partly from an absence of social pressure to talk and adapt to others.”

He’s pretty harsh on his countrymen, which makes for an entertaining read. But, Daun adds, his country, seemingly lacking in cultural quirks, has been replaced by a nation with a surplus of stereotypes.

“It has become immensely popular to discuss Swedishness and Swedish identity,” he says. “By writing this book I have inevitably helped to establish or reinforce these stereotypes. Many think Sweden is a good subject to study.”

Indeed, while the 80s brought cross-cultural communication to the fore, the 90s saw more immigrants crossing Swedish shores. The cultural guard had to be protected more than ever before, says Gillis Herlitz, Doctor of Ethnology and author of “Svenskar: Hur vi är och varför” (2003) (Swedes: How we are and why)

“In the 90s there were more books on Swedish culture written by Swedes than had been produced in the previous century,” he says. “I think immigration and Sweden’s EU membership is the reason – it is in confrontation with others that you have to start trying to identify yourself.”

Herlitz wrote the book for teachers of immigrants. “I talk about our notion of being modern,” he says. “We didn’t suffer like many after World War II; we were well ahead in Europe. A lot of Swedes still believe this; we are a role model for every country and we view ourselves as being very good.”

When lecturing, Herlitz asks Swedes what they think are typical national characteristics. Shy, quiet and boring usually make the top list. You see, Swedes think they’re good but they’re not allowed to say it. “Swedes have a prohibition of bragging,” he says.

“It’s absolutely forbidden to speak or think too good of yourself.” And that’s a risk for foreigners. “We don’t want to be criticised; we want people to think we are absolutely brilliant,” he adds.

But Swedes on Swedes is only half of the story. As Daun admits: “To look at yourself, and people of your own kind, your own culture from the outside is exceedingly difficult.”

Which is why others have been inspired to write their perspective. Englishman Colin Moon has been living in Sweden since 1981. The cross-cultural speaker recently updated his 2000 book “Sweden: The Secret Files.”

“It helped me come to terms with some of my own frustrations,” he says. “Swedes tend not to look behind them when they’re going through doors – that breaks my cultural upbringing. But it’s about keeping yourself to yourself – live and let live. It’s quite a nice philosophy but non-Swedes don’t know where the grey zone is between that and I don’t give a damn.”

Through his work and own experience Moon says people don’t always find it easy assimilating. “Anything that can bridge this gap is good – a link between Swedes and the rest of us,” he says.

“If a Swede had given me my book when I arrived it would have proved they do have a sense of humour – many say they don’t.”

Story continues below…

Humour or the lack of it is one of many likely chapter headings alongside lagom, nature, equality, the weather, the rule of shoes, conflict, neutrality, being punctual, jantelagen, alcohol, sex, tax, welfare, and suicide.

For Moon, some of these common themes have become a little too common. “I’m talking about the relationship to drink, how they bring up the kids, the summer, the winter and so on,” he says.

”Of course they are an integral part of living in this country but how much can you write about Systembolaget and keep being innovative? One has to be careful not to do it in absurdum.”

Cue the explosion of blogs, internet forums and guidebooks with the word ’xenophobe’ in the title. ”Swedes don’t see that they are different or interesting to write about,” Moon says. ”And suddenly there’s a plethora of books and blogs about them. But I think they quite like it really, everyone likes to think they are special.”

On her return to the US, Lisa Werner Carr co-wrote Modern-Day Vikings with cross-cultural trainer Christina Johansson Robinowitz, a Swede living in the US. The book is another search into how and why the Swedes act and react. Yet it traces typical characteristics back to Viking times.

“When people move to another country they focus on etiquette - what to do and what not to do - and that’s fine,” she says. “But when you are exasperated with Swedish culture you might not realise things are rooted back thousands of years. “It doesn’t describe everyone,” she adds. “But explains common traits which shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

Indeed, like characteristic Swedes, all these authors err on the side of … err…caution. Daun points to a new anti-lagom generation, Herlitz presents a warning in his introduction and Moon doesn’t see the avoidance of conflict from his apartment window. “I see fights and people shouting at each other – that’s modern day Sweden,” he says.

Whether culture shock is an inevitable chapter in the story of living in Sweden is somewhat autobiographical. Writing aided Werner Carr through it and Sweden remains part of her life today.

“But I will always smile too much and be uncomfortable with silence. I really wanted to have a seamless cultural experience but that’s not always possible. I’m ok with that now. I’m ok with not being Swedish.”

Christine Demsteader (christine.demsteader@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

23:54 April 15, 2009 by Gwrhyr
This article reminds me of my time spent in the Netherlands and the slew of books about the Dutch. It seems to be a trend within the past 10 or 20 years for cultures to be analyzed in such a way - by foreign 'ervaringdeskundigen', people who have experienced something and then feel the need to teach others about their experiences in order to ease the process of learning.
02:14 April 16, 2009 by JGame
That is a really great article and a lot of insights for us Americans, who are married to Swedes and I looking to move there someday. You nailed how those kookie Swedes are. BRA!!
21:12 April 16, 2009 by catnmus
I am married to a Swede, who moved to the US. I picked up the book Modern-Day Vikings at an event in Silicon Valley, California and it has been a big help for me. I particularly remember "having coffee" at work being an actual break from work to have coffee, but in the USA, we generally take our coffee back to our desks. Now I know why he looks at me funny when I hand him a cup of coffee and then leave the room. The rule of the shoes was also interesting. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone that is married to, or works with, a modern-day Viking. I feel like I understand my husband so much better now.
11:22 April 17, 2009 by JulieLindahl
Oh Christine! I know that you won't want to overlook "On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being" (Penguin 2005). It is Swedish Culture 101 told the personal way and has been the gift of choice for friends coming to Sweden for the first time (including at embassies and consulates). Watch out for Julie's Nordic Island (blog) hitting The Local next week. You could also check out my monthly Letters from the Island at the Swedish American publication Nordstjernan (some of them provided on my personal site www.julielindahl.com).
11:45 April 17, 2009 by Johno
Well, thank you Julie Lindahl for that bit of empty self promotion. Will some substance be forthcoming, or is that it ?
07:40 April 18, 2009 by Pursuivant
Interesting - that all could have been written about Finland. And of course, if you ask a Finn or a Swede - we're different as night and day - or are we? Finns also achieve consensus - but they achieve that without discussion. Or then they have a fight, but endless debating causes the Finns to call the Swedes irritating babblemouths. And then being equal to your neighbor... the joke is: The Swedes neighbour buys a new Volvo, so the Swede buys a new Volvo. The Finns neighbor buys a new Volvo, in the night theFinn goes to pour sugar in the tank and the neigbor two houses off rats him to the tax office. So I guess the Jantelagen is well in effect.

As for expats' ease of integrating - I guess people saying "Swedish is difficult" will have objects thrown at them from expats in Finland ;)
22:58 April 18, 2009 by rybo1
You jerks should make it known that you only have 1000 characters in writing a response. Anyway, I'm an American who has been here for ten years and has become a citizen. I don't know my neighbors and am quite happy about that. However, I know they'll come to my aid if needed,

Sadly, I'm in culture shock because I can't find a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Oh God, what am I going to do?! If you want real culture shock go live and work in Saudi Arabia, as I have for twelve years. I'll be here until they put my lights out at Huddinge Sjukhus.

The Swedes are who they are. Why this nonsense at dissecting their inherent nature? Oh, sorry, they're not like us.
12:18 April 19, 2009 by Jakub72
My wife was instructed in a formal Cross Cultural class offered by her employer that it is taboo to bring a bottle of vodka to a dinner party. But it is OK to bring wine, scotch or brandy. Funny that they will serve vodka with dinner, but please please don't bring us any!!!! Supposedly it is a sign of drunkedness and disorderly conduct, cause all the drunk Poles and Russian are vodka drinkers. I wonder how they would feel if I showed up with a 1.75l bottle of Jose?

Oh yes and the following was to discribe Americans in a Who Am I game:

Any ideas on that one?
09:51 April 20, 2009 by olleello
Regarding vodka on dinner parties.

On the one hand, vodka is associated with the Swedish booze served at holidays like christmas or midsummer.

On the other hand, yes, it is a symbol of drunkedness. Not because of any association with Poland or Russia, but unlike scotch or brandy, the idea isn't that you savour vodka as an after dinner drink but rather down it as shots during the whole evening.

But dinner parties differ oh so much, it's actually a class/education/preference thing.
10:01 April 20, 2009 by Faunaman
Jakub72: Swedes are who they are. Why this nonsense at dissecting their inherent nature? Oh, sorry, they're not like us.

Amen to that brother

This article is like "Oh my god, we are americans and these vikings do not act to our standars in the USA, there must be a problem with them we gotta solve in a book/article which can not be applied to even 1% of swedissh population"

People are a product of the place they live in and what they have to do to adapt to that place, don´t expect a Swede to be like a Jamaican ...
10:55 April 20, 2009 by Willy
With so many explanations why Sweden is the way it is: The late industrialization, the Lutheran church, the Labor movement, the civil servant tradition of Axel Oxenstierna, the loss of Finland in 1809, the entrepreneurs at the turn of the last century -- to name a few -- why this obsession with vikings?
11:55 April 22, 2009 by casinoed
I guess its quite commonplace for nationalities to examine themselves, but quite why there needs to be so many books about Swedes is a bit of a mystery. A single book would be plenty or perhaps a paragraph or two would suffice.

It seems, however, that the capacity for navel gazing in this country is vastly disproportionate to its achievements. This is almost certainly an attempt for Swedes to create an identity for themselves, having opted out of the 20th century and every event of note that took place during that period.

Just because your nature is not to brag, doesn't automatically disqualify one from arrogance. And since there is nothing to brag about, it makes sense that Swedes keep fairly quiet most of the time.
13:32 April 22, 2009 by VikingHumpingWitch
Funny, isn't it. "I know so much about Swedes that I can write a book about them, but I don't seem to have noticed that that part of their history finished over a thousand years ago."

I think the point of these books is to explain to people who have their heads in buckets that foreigners are not like we are back home.
15:17 April 22, 2009 by Streja
Erhm...we opted out of the what century?

15:19 April 22, 2009 by Streja
what about the finnish wars?

What about the 60's? Women's lib and all that? I think that is more important than starting a war just because some generals needed the work experience...
16:56 April 25, 2009 by Leif G
I suppose it was inevitable, that a news-site in english should repeat all the tiresome prejudices about swedes.

And the embarrasing thing is that so many swedes are taking part.

You know, I suspect that there is in fact an inferiority complex behind it. As your psycholgist can explain to you,people who has low selfesteem tend to always worry about what other pople think of them.

But of course there is a political element in it too.

People who are right-wing oriented write books about how bad it is in Sweden, and blame it all on the social-democrats. We have been brainwashed! But luckily,we are now being re-brainwashed again!
07:30 April 26, 2009 by Joemath
Did anyone see " Fanny and Alexander" ?

Is that the Swedish psyche in any shape, manner or form?

How about the oldee "I Remember Mama" for the Norwegian psyche?

Joseph S. Maresca
15:51 April 26, 2009 by Streja
It's Ingmar Bergman's psyche, and he was Swedish, but also upper class.
16:55 April 26, 2009 by bira
If Swedes, such as myself, were really so different, shouldn't it follow that we would have a difficult time as we move to different countries? Speaking for myself, born and raised in Sweden but living in the U.S. for the last 25+ years, I did not have any difficulty fitting in and assimilating to the American culture. Much comes down to the individual and their willingness to adjust, take the example of the woman stating that for three months not one individual invited her out socially nor offered help at work. Why not take the first step yourself? Ask for help if required, invite someone out to lunch. That speaks as much to her own introversion as it does Swedes'.
01:07 April 27, 2009 by Deedk
Very Good for you However, as you probably well know if you've lived here 25 years, American 'culture' is really a mix and grab-bag of ALL cultures. We just tossed things up a bit and called it 'American'. Such as why we celebrate March 17 as Saint Patrick's Day and everyone claims to be Irish and wear green. Or why we love May 5, Cinco de Mayo, and everyone goes out and eats Mexican and has margaritas. Really, we just like to add any festivity that gives us an excuse to party. Because Americans ARE from everywhere!!!

Sweden as a whole represents itself as a specific and identifiable country with certain features (Vikings and being the land of the midnight sun) that are unique only to Sweden. Which is FINE. So it's not that Swedes (of which I claim my ancestry, and am proud to do so) are different in a negative way. Really it's a matter of perspective, whether one gets defensive about where one is from.
09:31 April 27, 2009 by Beef
Difference is that in my experience of living in the US, coming from London and moving to Stockholm 7 years ago. All the Swedes I met in London are much more relaxed and open to change.. When moving back to Sweden, my ex change so dramaitcally that it drove us apart..

Also, next time your in Sweden, try inviting your colleagues out for a beer on a Tuesday, say how much you are pro-death penalty and how dagis sucks or how you are thinking of taking your summer holiday in September! You will receive confused, awkward and blank looks. Try the same in London, the US where you are and you will get debate and probably someone to drink with..
10:31 April 27, 2009 by DidiE
Given the innundation of American culture around the world, and extreme openess of the US society, not to mention the huge number of subcultures, I would find it very surprising that anyone would have a hard time assimilating there. If you want a particular niche, say, vampire-loving vegetarian who only wears tap shoes on Wednesday, there is doubtless a support group slash drinking group for you to fit into, with just a short look at Craig's list or your daily paper. What non US people tend to forget is how overwhelmingly BIG we are. Third most populous country in the world, huge landmass, and no one ethnic group able to claim supremacy. Dude. Of course you'd fit in. That is the beauty of the US, actually.

As to a Swedish psyche, I'd be more willing to assume, based on the small populations spread over a fairly large and isolated landmass, that there is far more likely to be stronger identity with local or regional groups. That certainly is the case with my Swedish family, all of whom consider themselves to be first from Elsborg, secondly from VG region, and thirdly from Southern Sweden (following the old Three Kingdoms boundaries.)
12:36 April 27, 2009 by Eel
I reckon one of the reasons there´s so much literature on Swedish society is the fact that it´s fairly extreme (especially from a UK/US point of view). Swedes of course often don´t understad this - they tend to think of Sweden as "lagom":


A UK national could move pretty much anywhere in Europe and find basic values being closer to what he´s used to than he would in Sweden.
14:09 April 27, 2009 by nic_tester
Hm, think you thinking of geograpical regions from the weatherreport. It has no cultural significance.

If you speak of the 3 crowns in various swedish symbols thats probably representing sweden, skåne and norway.

Or it could mean västergötland, östergötland and svealand/uppland+

Or it could be part of the title of the swedish king, “kung av Svear, Götar och Vender” (its just old propaganda, it never had any real significance)

Anyway, three kingdoms is a very dubious concept, whichever way you look at it.
14:32 April 27, 2009 by DidiE
Nice exposition on my 'We Three Kings of Sverige Are' comment, but must state back, you have never met MY family. Ancient history is still discussed at our family gatherings as if it were current news. They do make a clear distinction between what I would call South, Middle and North Sweden (for which you clearly have a better feel than I,) with the Southern part of Sweden clearly superior in all things. For my own part,I surely understand Swedish spoken by northerners far more comprehensible than that of Skåne, but that's about all the difference I can see. I think it might be one of those You have to be Swedish things to clearly understand.
14:51 April 27, 2009 by nic_tester
Clearly there are many cultural divisions that are still relevant. YOUR family probably have alot more feel for this than me, im only qouting stuff i read in books. So, your sources are more relvant than mine
15:16 April 27, 2009 by DidiE
I thought you were Swedish? Eller?
15:18 April 27, 2009 by nic_tester
Almost, im from Stockholm
17:37 April 27, 2009 by Streja
I don't think it's any different than English "regional" awareness. It's grim up north, as my English sambo's parents say. Meanwhile, a guy from Southampton claimed my sambo came from a northern town (Northampton).

It does not mean Swedes do not feel Swedish.

I don't think it's that easy to assimilate in the US as you might think. Despite what all Americans seem to believe, there is a specific American culture, no matter if you're Italian American or African American. Are there differences? Yes, just like there are differences for Swedes with Finnish ancestry or whatever.

The difference between being Swedish and moving to the US, compared to an American or a Brit moving to Sweden, is that Swedes know that they are a small fish in a big lake, whereas Americans and Brits tend to have a more I am important type of attitude. Not that there is anything bad with that. It's just different.

Then there is the language, Swedes understand English mostly, they might be at it but the situation is nowhere near the experience of understanding a completely new language as Brits an Americans have to.

Sorry for the poorly constructed sentences.
18:13 April 27, 2009 by Eel
Never been to the US myself but according to a few American relatives of mine there is a stricter social contract in some European Countries than in the US. Of course there is an American culture but I still think the fact that the American population originates from all over the world makes the culture a lot more diverse - and in a way, welcoming - than the culture of a country that has only had large scale immigration during the last 40 years or so.

By the way, I happen to know a few people in Skåne who consider themselves as Swedish as Sean Connery is English...
18:21 April 27, 2009 by Streja
Skåne used to be Danish and a lot of Skåne people think they are fro Danish descent, which might not be the case since so many were killed by Swedish troops.

01:14 May 9, 2009 by bira
Good for me indeed. Yes, America is certainly a grab bag of cultures, that IS our culture! Good Lord, who said anything about Swedes in a negative way, my point is that we are not much different than most people around the world, and those who think that we are needs a reality check.
23:44 May 28, 2009 by Ali Hussein
It's often stated on this forum that swedes have a taboo against bragging , my notion on this is that swedes often feel insecure or even threatened by people who they percieve as equal to them or may even be better, because in sweden there is a sort of popular delusion that they are the best even though they don't express this explicitly .So the taboo agaist bragging doen not stem from humility but rather from insecurity .Swedes furthermore never like to be seen to appreciate or commend non-swedish talent or ability & this is acutely noticible when it comes to immigrants from the third world .On a more positive note , I have personally noticed , being an asylum applicant in sweden for the last 18 months,that swedes are compassionate towards immigrants but i also felt that this compassion is conditional upon assuming an inferior position on the part of the immigrant , act as an equal and you are certain to lose that compassion at once .
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