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OPINION: ‘Sweden and our mentality is more like a village than a country’

OPINION: 'Sweden and our mentality is more like a village than a country'
Life in Sweden is like in a village, revolving around shared celebrations, gossip, and revered 'village elders', writes Lisa Bjurwald. Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se
For those who move to Sweden from elsewhere, the best way to think of this country might be not as a country at all — but as a village, writes journalist Lisa Bjurwald in the first of a new series of columns for The Local.

Sweden may be the European Union's third largest country, but there are fewer inhabitants in our entire nation than in the British capital alone – and our society, indeed our very mentality, is still in many ways a provincial one.

So whether you've just arrived or settled here decades ago, it can be helpful to think of Sweden as a village when navigating everyday life.

As you may have noticed if you follow the increasingly heated debate over the country's unique Covid-19 strategy, we're immensely proud of being talked about by the townsfolk (read: Europe). So proud, in fact, that our journalists are often too busy referencing what British, French and American newspapers, experts and politicians say about Sweden – whether it's good or bad matters less – to do in-depth reporting themselves.

The village parable is not only useful in times of global crises, although our tendency to look to 'village elders' for guidance and point our fingers at all who question their leadership and thus upset the most important ingredient of all in Swedish society – konsensus, or general consent – is extra visible now we're all in the hands of the unshakable Anders Tegnell, state epidemiologist. (Current membership of the Facebook group 'We support AT&Co': 87,816).

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State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has become the figurehead for the national coronavirus strategy. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

When Tegnell has left the national stage, another somewhat unexpected national influencer, professor Leif GW Persson will still be standing.

For a non-Swede, a leading criminologist and thriller novelist would be expected to advise solely on crime. But Persson is called up by reporters to comment on everything from xenophobia to the Eurovision Song Contest, practically on a daily basis.

As in all ancient, tribal communities, no modern conceptions such as elected politicians can compete with the wisdom of the village elder – and woe unto them who dare challenge or make fun of such a figure.

Some of these phenomena require you to scratch the surface, or even try to integrate fully in the country for a few years. But there are also the more visible village signs: cottages that are all painted in the same hue of red, winter coats that unofficially must never be any other colour than jet black, the summer uniform of white T-shirt and blue jeans. You'll stand out if your window is without an adventsljusstake at winter. Being a non-drinker is practically an affront.

And if you don't whole-heartedly partake in the village festivities – jumping around the midsummer pole pretending you're a little frog, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus by binge-eating a kilo of lösgodis (pick'n'mix sweets) – then well, you must either be a foreigner or a madman.

The finest judgment of character a Swede can ever hope to receive: Hen stack inte ut (He or she never stood out). The famous ten-point 'Law of Jante' which discourages individual success, could be summarised as 'don't try to appear as if you are special'.

There's only room in the village for one or two local eccentrics. Otherwise the necessary balance, the holy konsensus culture, could be upset. We're the least religious country on Earth, but God forbid there be an uncontrollable flurry of ideas and opinions spreading in the village like wildfire. Only a handful of personalities are permitted to go off the chart and still be tolerated in public.


Except for the small island that is Old Town, Stockholm was made up of cottages and randomly sprinkled wooden sheds until the seventeenth century. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/SCANPIX/TT

An exception is always made for villagers who make it in the big city, ie the US or the UK. This tiny group is as close to saints as Sweden will ever have. From Greta Garbo to modern-day DJs, these men and women have spread the gospel of the welfare state across the sea and therefore can do no wrong.

And let's not forget that universal hallmark of a small community: village gossip.

There's Flashback Forum, an online swamp with defamatory threads on almost every single public profile in Sweden, from actors to news anchors. The fact that so much of the country's official and unofficial powers are packed into central Stockholm means that the oft-repeated, disdainful remark that “everyone [in these circles] knows everyone” is actually not that far off the mark.

The bitchier variety, “everyone's slept with everyone” would be slightly exaggerated, although I've personally lost count of the number of times when panel talks and talk shows have been hectically re-arranged because of someone refusing to sit next to their ex-lover or ex-best friend. All that's missing to nail the village atmosphere is a catty bake-off.

Swedes may have failed to reach herd immunity, but at least we've got the herd mentality down to a tee.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here. Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Member comments

  1. It’s such an accurate analogy I’m surprised I haven’t heard of it earlier. Great article, keep it up.

  2. Hahaha I never thought of the village analogy but now thanks to Lisa’s article i Will never forget it. What a really good observation! I agree with her.

  3. What the heck is this guy going on about and was this a google translated document you uploaded at The Local.

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