Sweden's news in English

Editions:  Europe · Austria · Denmark · France · Germany · Italy · Norway · Spain · Sweden · Switzerland

How to have an argument without offending a Swede

Share this article

How to have an argument without offending a Swede
Expand and reinforce, don't contradict. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se
14:36 CEST+02:00
Italians get worked up when discussing pasta sauces. The Brits and French have arguments for fun. But in Sweden, raising your voice is a bit like taking a glass and smashing it onto the floor. Here is The Local's guide to the delicate art of having a discussion with a Swede.
If you're British or French, debate is almost a national sport. People play 'Devil's advocate' (or l'avocat du diable) just to stoke up the passion in the room. If someone loses self control and raises their voice a bit, that's OK, at least between friends. It's a sign of engagement, a sign that they care.  
 
In reserved, conflict-shy Sweden, however, things are very different. 
 
You only have to compare the angry jeering in the UK's Houses of Parliament to the staid Swedish party leader debates on TV,  or seminars at Swedish universities with the way UK students are trained to to argue for positions they disagree with. You could also study Sweden's softly spoken court lawyers with their bombastic, adversarial UK and US equivalents. 
 
Swedish TV debates are much quieter than their UK equivalents. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
 
Swedes hate to express disagreement and after eight years living here, I feel that they don't, or perhaps can't, separate intellectual disagreements from actual personal conflict (as I instinctively would as a Brit). For a Swede a disagreement is a disagreement, and therefore unpleasant, no matter what it is about. 
 
There's also less of a tradition of argument as competitive sport. There are no winners once a debate gets heated. People just feel upset. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård describes going to bed after a boozy supper with literary Swedes thinking he'd had a great evening, only to wake to find his hosts feared relations had been irreparably broken. 
 
Like many foreigners living in Sweden, the writer Karl Ove Knausgård has struggled with Sweden's consensus culture. Photo: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/TT
 
The positive aspects of all this can be seen in the lower levels of hypocrisy in Swedish national life. A figure like UK PM Boris Johnson is so steeped in Oxbridge debating culture that he can breezily dash off articles both for and against leaving the European Union. In Sweden, this would be almost unfeasible. 
 
So how should you approach holding discussions with a Swede? 
 
1. Know the consensus
 
Swedes hate people talking about it, but as a foreigner in Sweden it's fairly clear that the fabled 'opinion corridor', or åsiktskorridoren, is no myth. There is a span of acceptable opinions and people start to feel uncomfortable if you move outside them.
 
For big topics, it's quite easy to learn where the boundaries lie. 
 
For the vast majority of Swedes, whether on the left or right, you probably can't get away with, for example, expressing your admiration of US President Donald Trump, arguing that it's bad for children to go to daycare before they're three, arguing that children don't need bicycle helmets, or that it's OK to drink moderate amounts of alcohol when pregnant. For reasons I don't fully understand, it's also appears unacceptable to argue that the state alcohol monopoly Systembolaget has a woefully poor selection of wine. At least, no one will agree with you if you do. 
 
Once you know where the boundaries lie, don't cross them. People won't think you're controversial or interesting, they'll think you're an ass.   
 
As it happens, the corridor can shift. Eight years ago, it was absolutely not OK to discuss setting concrete limits for immigration or the ethnicity of criminals. In 2015, that dramatically changed, with politicians of both left and right suddenly competing to tighten up border controls, and the media pumping out stories of sexual harassment by asylum seekers.  
 
'Systemet' is your friend. Photo: Geir Olsen/NTB/TT
 
2. Let the Swede lead
 
The demand for consensus is not limited to the big political issues, but runs deep into things like house decoration, music taste, food and films. Swedes have a natural instinct for knowing what any group thinks about any topic, and assessing what the bounds of opinion are likely to be. This is tricky for a newcomer to grasp, so the best advice is to let the Swede lead. Wait until you have a good idea about what the people you're with think before storming in with your own opinions. 
 
3. Expand and reinforce, don't contradict
 
Say the discussion gets into what a horrific let-down the last series of Game of Thrones was, and you thought it was well-written, with imaginative plot twists and a satisfying end. Don't contradict your companions head-on. Instead think of something you also felt was a weakness, or add details and new observations to the discussion of the shortcomings advanced by others in your group. 
 
Conversation in Sweden is about arriving at a richer, more nuanced picture of what it is assumed everyone present agrees to be the case, not deciding who or what is right and wrong.
 
Swedes pride themselves on their ability to ask searching questions, and you can see why, as it is one of the best ways to safely engage in discussions when you disagree with the majority position. Ask your friends what they thought was the worst let-down, or why it is that this or that plot decision was so wrong-headed. 
 
You had better keep your opinions about Daenerys Targaryen to yourself. Photo: HBO
 
4. Don't interrupt (or do so very sparingly) 
 
Conversation in Sweden doesn't have the same cut and thrust as it does in the UK and some other countries, where it is more common to interrupt, talk over others, or slip in quick details or additional facts that support or contradict what the speaker is saying.
 
In Sweden, interrupting others is seen as rude, and talking over them ruder still, particularly if you raise your voice to do so. If you've ever been to a Swedish work leaving do, or wedding, you'll have seen how everyone in turn stands up to make a short speech. Imagine group conversation as a less formal version of the same thing. 
 
When someone is speaking, let them finish. The group will then naturally look around for the next speaker, which is your time to make your contribution. 
 
This means of course that when you do speak, you shouldn't go on too long, as there's no way for your companions to shut you up without being rude. Swedes have a natural sense of how much social space each member of a group is getting and will try to make sure it's as evenly shared as possible. 
 
5. Don't raise your voice 
 
It's perhaps telling that the word 'skrika' in Swedish doesn't distinguish between 'shouting', 'screaming' and 'shrieking'. There's a level of raised voice which Swedes experience as aggressive which some other cultures would see as only a sign of mild agitation. If you raise your voice during a discussion, it's almost as if you are banging your hands on the table, so if you can possibly keep yourself under control, don't do it.
 
If you actually are angry and want to actively offend or put down another person, it's still wrong to raise your voice. It is socially acceptable in Sweden to be quite direct and even rather unpleasant (more so indeed, than in the UK, where it is bad form to drop the pretence of bonhomie and having a 'sense of humour').
 
If you raise your voice, you lose. A Brit or American might secretly congratulate someone who stands up and loudly but brilliantly tears strips off someone whose behaviour has been out of order. A Swede would be crippled with embarrassment. Swedes have a reputation for passive aggressiveness for a reason. 
 
6. Don't fall back on lazy stereotypes 
 
Perhaps the best way to annoy a Swede as a foreigner is to bang on incessantly about the "opinion corridor" and "Swedish passive aggressiveness". Don't do it.
 
Some of the least reserved people I know are Swedish. I know Swedes who revel in controversy, compulsively interrupt others, and get overly heated and shouty at the drop of a hat. I do feel though, that Sweden isn't perhaps the easiest country for them to live in. 
 
Ironically, in the parts of Malmö I live in, where nearly half the population voted for the Left parties in the last election, talking about the opinion corridor is itself outside the opinion corridor.
 
So if you don't want people to think you're a closet Nazi, pretend it doesn't exist. Everybody else does. 
Get notified about breaking news on The Local

Share this article

 

The Local is not responsible for content posted by users.
Wajana44 - 21 Aug 2019 20:53
What a great article! If I'd just known 4 years ago, it would save me a lot of troubles 😂😂 I have failed in every 'not-to-do'
Now I understand why my husband thinks that when I talk to my family, we are fighting (we raise the voices, we contradict, we interrupt and we fall on old layzy stereotyps by default 😂😂😂)
Become a Member or sign-in to leave a comment.