‘To hell with traditional Swedish behaviour’

Youth centre worker and columnist Milad Mohammadi questions whether traditional Swedish behaviour is really all it's cracked up to be if it often means not helping those in need.

'To hell with traditional Swedish behaviour'

A few weeks ago I wrote about tripping over on the pavement, and how even with bleeding knees I didn’t get help from anyone, in fact not even getting a single glance in my direction – which I felt people did on purpose.

Now it’s happened again, but to someone utterly undeserving of such treatment.

An older gentlemen on the train to Uppsala wanted to buy a ticket but didn’t have a credit card. He asked the other passengers if anyone could pay for him and said he’d give them the equivalent sum in cash instead.

Nobody helped him. Nobody even looked at him.

You know that feeling when people just keep on walking, pretending nothing has happened?

Or when people’s first reaction to someone asking for help is suspicion. And how we ourselves have stopped asking for help simply because that fear of suspicion holds us back.

Or when people only care about their own time and their own lives?

I ended up paying for the old man’s ticket. It turned out we were heading in the same direction and we chatted for a while.

He told me how people don’t see him as human. He got upset.

I told him I was about to give two lectures that day in two different cities to about 600 teenagers.

I promised to tell them to see their fellow humans as fellow humans, explaining that holding talks is what I do best.

The old man’s face lit up; he looked happy.

Fuck Sweden, I thought to myself.

Fuck traditional Swedish behaviour, to be more precise.

What’s my conclusion here? That my country disappoints me.

Everyone’s gone through this – not only as a witness but as an active participant, when you notice that you act this way yourself.

We see people bickering in public and we just walk past. We see people hurt themselves and we just walk past.

We see someone who is sad and we just walk past.

We see a person without a home and we just walk past.

We see someone who simply needs help for whatever reason and for some reason we – just – walk – past.

When was the last time we acted like fellow human beings in Sweden?

We’ve become incredibly good at disengaging our responsibility to other people. We’ve disavowed that responsibility. Everyone is on their own, everyone keeps away from others.

Swedish culture has made passivity the norm.

We trust that society’s structures will carry the weight of that responsibility and that unburdens us.

The worst thing for me is seeing how people are fascinated by the few who actually do step in and help.

That Swedes are shocked when people help each other shocks me more than Swedes in general never helping.

That shock tells me that something isn’t right. We have been indoctrinated to disengage.

We’ve become so good at disengaging that even those of us who complain about Swedish behaviour don’t truly break out of the pattern ourselves.

We call ourselves the Twitterati, talking heads, and star reporters à la Swedish House Media.

Therein lies the comedy (read tragedy). We judge people who behave badly but we don’t take the opportunity to think about our own behaviour.

We don’t judge our own passivity.

Or the passivity of our friends.

When someone we perceive to be on our side says something offensive we just let it pass. We pretend nothing happened. Or we make excuses for them.

And even though we might spread Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on our Facebook page with righteous pride, we find it hard to live up to his words: “The greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people”.

Swedes like to react when big bad things happen. But not when they happen in everyday life.

The problem is that a society is built up by the small things that happen in everyday life.

When we engage we’ll give money to distant villages in developing countries; we might sponsor a child; send an SMS contribution when charity galas take place following large-scale calamities.

We do not engage in everyday life and we do not care about each other.

Similar problems underline racism and discrimination. We don’t see it because we have good lives.

It’s easy to distance yourself from a reality that you cannot experience in the same way that the victim of racism and discrimination does.

We don’t even get close because we live safe and secure lives that were given to us for free. Take note of the word free. The life that most Swedes have been given was given to them mostly for free.

The only people who rattle our cage are the Sweden Democrats.

It’s time to change the norm. We’ve discussed the need to be good Samaritans, but this isn’t the topic today. It’s about waking about and treating each other like human beings.

Honestly. What the hell are we doing, Sweden? Why do we even deserve to live?

I’m throwing down the gauntlet to you, you who are reading this right now: How do you act towards your fellow humans, if you’re totally honest?

Are you one of the people who just walks on by? And, if you’re totally honest, why?

Milad Mohammadi is a 23-year-old columnist for the news website, a public speaker, and a youth worker at Fryshuset in Stockholm.

This column was originally published in Swedish on Translation by The Local.

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Frogs, ducks and crayfish: A crash course in weird Swedish traditions

If you're ever fortunate enough to spend a full year in Sweden, you'd better be prepared for a whole universe of unusual traditions. Podcaster Oliver Gee of The Earful Sweden shares what he considers to be the five most unusual traditions in a Swedish year.

Frogs, ducks and crayfish: A crash course in weird Swedish traditions
There is, of course, Creamy Bun Feast, but what other weird traditions exist in Sweden? Photo: Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT

The first time I saw a Swedish “Small Frogs Ceremony” ten years ago, I thought I was being pranked. 

Do the dance, do the dance, the Swedes urged. Be like a frog! No ears, no tails! 

What was going on? Feeling like a fool, I joined in, waiting for everyone to start laughing at me. But no one laughed. They just made the sound of a small frog, which was apparently Kouackackack, on repeat.

Fast forward a decade and I'm married to a Swede, I know all the words to the frog song, but I still raise an eyebrow at many Swedish traditions. 

Here are my favourite five traditions, all of which are commonly practised among typical Swedes.

The Creamy Bun Feast

As The Local Sweden says, semmeldagen is just another manic bun day. And manic is correct, people go nuts for this sweet and fatty treat. The bun is enormous, about the size of a Big Mac, and impossible to eat without covering your face with whipped cream or powdered sugar. Legend has it that in 1771 King Adolf Fredrik died after eating 14 servings of them for dessert.

The Freckled Easter Witches

Most Swedes don't realise how unusual this is, but at Easter they dress their children up as broomstick-riding witches with huge freckles on their faces. Much like at Halloween, these witches collect candy from their neighbours, who've duly put bright feathers on their trees to mark the occasion. 

The Small Frog Dance

This is my favourite tradition. On Midsummer's Eve, Swedes erect a massive flowery maypole (“erect” is the right choice of words – it's a fertility symbol complete with testicles).

Then, they dance around the pole while imitating small frogs, singing a song called Små Grodorna.

The rough lyrics: Small frogs, small frogs, are strange to look at, nary an ear or a tail dost they have, Kouackackack, Kouackackack, Kouackackack (this is the sound a small frog makes, obviously).

There are more wild traditions on this day, like girls collecting seven different flowers and jumping over seven fences in order to dream of their one true love… but nothing beats the frogs for an eyebrow-raising tradition.

The Crayfish Ceremony

If you thought the frogs were weird, wait till you see a crayfish party.

At a “kräftskiva”, Swedes sit around a table full of boiled crayfish, often while wearing crayfish paraphernalia like bibs and hats. Sometimes you'll get flags with happy moons and crayfish to complete the picture.

Then, everyone slurps down at least 15 crayfish as noisily as possible, interspersed with drinking strong Schnapps and singing what can only be described as a cross between drinking songs and sea shanties. I sing the easiest to learn in the podcast episode below (subscribe!) and a loose translation of the text would be: The whole thing goes, sing yabba dabba do ding dong ding dong (repeated three times with a full shot near the end).

Swedish crayfish parties are usually held in August. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

The Donald Duck Hour

Christmas brings more traditions than all, including my personal favourite: The Donald Duck Hour. Yes, the entire nation sits down at 3pm to watch Disney snippets from the last 70 years.

Favourites include The Bear Necessities, the song from the Jungle Book, but also less universally popular clips like Ferdinand the Bull. The show often features a much anticipated new Disney addition, which in recent years has included Moana, Frozen, and Zootopia.

Oliver Gee runs the new podcast The Earful Sweden. The latest episode features a much deeper dive into these traditions with Oliver's wife, a Swede, defending them all. You can listen to the episode below and follow The Earful Sweden on Instagram here.