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The top six ways the US and Sweden differ

Back home in the US and with a solid Swedish stint under his belt, contributor Steven Schier has listed what he thinks are the six biggest differences between Sweden and the states.

I recently lived five months in Sweden, teaching at Uppsala University, travelling frequently to Stockholm, visiting the far north in Abisko and the exploring the medieval ruins of Visby. 
 
Upon returning to my home in Northfield, Minnesota, a small ex-urban college town near Minneapolis-Saint Paul, several contrasts between the America and Sweden struck me. The US and Sweden are two different worlds, in several respects. 
 
Consider the following:
 
Living large
 
In Sweden, I lived in a small university provided house, considered a spacious accommodation. Our US house, however, is approximately twice the size of my Swedish residence.  Americans on average drive much larger cars than Swedes. Most of my American neighbors have three car garages, and across the street resides a family with four automotive vehicles. Americans really do “live large” by Swedish standards.
            
Why the difference?  America’s lower taxes allow individual Americans more discretionary income for home mortgages or for securing loans for multiple vehicles.  Swedes, in contrast, contribute more in taxes for a greater array of governmental services, like extensive publicly-provided health care, family and elder care services, in return for less discretionary income. 
 
Getting around
 
Much of my time in Sweden was spent surrounded by many bicyclists or ensconced on trains and buses.  All of that vanished upon returning to my home in America.  My US environment features transport in large automobiles with mass transit an infrequently available option and bicycling a far less widespread activity.
 
In Sweden, ownership of two cars marks a household as economically elite.  Not so in the US, still very much a “car culture.”  Our two-car garage in Minnesota is the smallest on our street.  
 
American governments do less to discourage auto ridership.  One reason is the widespread popularity of auto ownership in the US, which makes efforts to curb auto use dangerous for any elected official.  Another reason is the abundance of gasoline available at about half of the price that Swedes pay.
 
I found Sweden’s mass transit to operate pretty well, except for a two week disruption of rail service between Uppsala and Stockholm in June that left me pining for an automobile.
 
 
Night and day
 
I arrived in Sweden in January, when daytime involved about five hours of dusk. I left in June, when nighttime consisted of three and one-half hours of dusk. 
 
The long days and long nights resulting from Sweden’s very northerly latitude are challenging for a visitor from one of America’s lower 48 states. It is one Swedish trait to which I doubt that I could ever fully adjust.
 
When should I go to sleep and when should I wake up?  The answer to that question varied greatly with the season in Sweden.  The only effective response to such a seasonal variation, it seems to me, are very dark curtains and very bright sun lamps.
 
Food
 
In Minnesota, one pays no sales tax on food, clothing or prescriptions. The large sales tax in Sweden produced a change in my diet.  I ate far less meat and reduced my portion sizes at meals.  I also dined out less because the average price of a meal out was fifty to one hundred percent higher than in the US. 
 
Substituting my unspectacular cooking for the fine food prepared by my wife, who spent most of the five months back in the US, also led to more meager repasts.  I lost weight and was probably healthier as a result, but did miss a few culinary indulgences.  I ate only one steak during my five months in Sweden, at a student “nation” at Uppsala University at a price well below what restaurants charged.
 
Upon returning to the US, I was immediately struck by the larger number of overweight people.  Swedes, on average, are much trimmer than Americans. 
 
Higher food prices may be part of the reason, but Swedes on average seem to have more physically active lifestyles than do Americans.  They walk and bicycle more, and caloric “fast food” seems to comprise a smaller portion of Swedish diets. 
 
Those reasons, combined with more comprehensive medical care for all citizens, helps to explain why Swedish lifespans are on average longer than those in the US.
 
Extroversion
 
Upon returning to the US, I was surprised to find that people in stores and on the street began talking to me.  The “buttoned up” quality of Swedes yielded very few such casual conversations during my five months in their country. 
 
American extroversion may be more evident in the center of the US than in the urban centers of America’s coasts.  I found casual and friendly conversations a pleasant experience again in the US.  It helped me “reconnect” with my American culture very quickly.
 
 
New York
 
Swedes are highly focused on New York City. I saw more New York Yankees caps in Sweden that I have ever seen in the US outside of New York City.  Living in Sweden, one gets the sense that New York City comprises the totality of Swedish interest in the US. 
 
Americans who do not live on America’s east coast pay far less attention to New York City than do Swedes.  For many Americans, the city represents several less desirable American traits.  That is a perception nowhere evident in Sweden.  And, for the record, I, along with millions of Americans, despise the New York Yankees.
 
In recent weeks I have experienced two very different cultures, indeed. Americans could learn from Swedish innovations in mass transit and health care.  Swedes could use more discretionary income and social extroversion. 
 
I miss Sweden, but realize, having spent several decades in the US prior to my Swedish sojourn, that the US is indeed my cultural home.  My time in Sweden revealed to me just how “American” I am, and I thank Sweden and Swedes for that useful self-knowledge. 
 
Steven Schier is Congdon 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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