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CULTURE

Why do Swedes like to be ‘alone together’?

Swedes like conforming to their national norms - but they do it individually. Contributor Steven Schier muses about culture and why Swedes like to be "alone together".

Why do Swedes like to be 'alone together'?
Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Upon arriving in Sweden, I joined a well-populated local exercise club. When I work out there it's usually full of people, but very few words are spoken. The exception to the silence occurs when small groups of immigrants from the Middle East or Africa indulge themselves in the abundant self-expression of their native cultures. 

The Swedes, in contrast, are silent.

This is not to say that Swedes exercise alone. They seem to enjoy assembling in large groups for organized exercise classes. During these workouts, music plays and the instructor shouts out instructions. But the participants remain silent. Swedes seem to enjoy being alone together.

Now, I know that is a stereotype. After all, Swedish actress Greta Garbo’s signature line is "I want to be alone".  But stereotypes often contain a germ of truth. As an American, I have been struck by both the solitude and togetherness of Swedish society.

Swedes leave each other alone, but do conform to a number of national group norms. My experience with Americans is just the opposite. Americans spend much time fraternizing and freely creating friendships, but the group norms available in my country are plural and optional.

What Swedish group norms? Well, how about lagom, jantelagen, sexual autonomy and wearing black? It is difficult to identify a comparably lengthy list of norms uniformly characterizing the US.

The US has long been and remains an invented culture, full of disparate and changing parts. Those parts vary by race, ethnicity, class and region, to name a few demarcations. Identities in the US are lightly held; there is always the possibility of moving to a different geographical and cultural location and reinventing yourself. Lots of Americans are at any time “on the move” in that way. Jay Gatsby is alive and well in contemporary America. 

Sweden, like many European nations, has an old and deeply-rooted culture that manifests itself in dominant group norms. Reinvention is less possible and, it seems, less desirable to Swedes. 

Those norms may have grown from the centralist history of their institutions. Sweden has long had one strong national government, a single state church, one public system of higher education, one set of national employment laws.

The US, in comparison, is pluralism run rampant. Upon arriving in Sweden, I spotted in the newspaper a story about how all employed Swedes can maximize their vacation days under the national employment laws. In the US, there are no common vacation employment laws at any level of government. One’s vacation arrangements are entirely between the employee and the company.

The Swedish view of the US is an interesting one. I know it as a polyglot of fifty states, each with varying laws, cultures and populations.  For Swedes, the US is heavily defined by the city of New York. Swedes focus on New York far more than most Americans do. I have spotted more New York Yankee hats in Sweden than I have ever encountered in the US outside of New York. 

That is sad news for Minnesota, my state, which has the largest number of residents with Swedish heritage in the US (that includes me).  Scant evidence of its presence appears in Swedish culture.

But why? Minneapolis, Minnesota is the home of the Swedish-American Institute and the state includes Gustavus Adolphus College and many towns with Swedish names, such as like Stockholm, Vasa, Lindstrom, Kalmar, Borgholm, Malung, Ronneby, Svea, Tegner and Upsala. For many years, the world’s largest Dala horse stood in Mora, Minnesota, until Swedes built a larger one. But to Swedes, Minnesota is not cool like New York.

The New York fascination, according to a Swedish academic I know, comes from Swedes priding themselves on being open-minded, cosmopolitan and tolerant. In fact, she argues, Swedes are quite Germanic, preferring group conformity to common social norms.

Now, many of those norms are defensible and desirable, but they stand in contrast to America’s pluralism. As someone from a culture outside of those norms, I have frequently been asked by Swedes “How long are you staying with us?”

That’s the big lesson for me as I leave Sweden. It is a country that works well, but its success derives from a history and culture at great variance from that of the US. So, as an American, I will always view and frequently admire Sweden "from afar".

Steven Schier is Fulbright Professor of American Studies at Uppsala University and Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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CULTURE

‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/imagebank.sweden.se

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

Footwear

Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden

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