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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Are Swedes funny? Explaining the many types of Swedish jokes

Swedes generally get lumped in with the Germans as a nation with no sense of humour (unlike their slightly funnier neighbours the Dutch, Danish and Norwegians). But it's not true! Or not entirely, anyway. Swedes do have a sense of humour, it's just a bit different. Here's The Local's contributor Richard Orange's guide to help you recognise when a Swede is trying to be funny.

Are Swedes funny? Explaining the many types of Swedish jokes
Hasse Alfredson and Tage Danielsson, the much-loved Swedish comedy duo active from the 1950s to the 1980s. Photo: Jan Collsiöö/TT

In a way, talking about having a “national sense of humour” is outdated, given that so much of the comedy we consume on TV or through podcasts is international, or, in the case of podcasts, aimed at a small niche. The days when you claim comedy shows on TV, such as Benny Hill, Monty Python, or in Sweden Hasse och Tage, as somehow representative of the nation are long gone. 

But if you go beyond comedy and look at the jokes people themselves make in person or on social media, you can still make out national differences. 

Every time I return to the UK, for instance, the person who checks my passport always seems to make some kind of light-hearted comment or joke, like, “You’ve got your hands full,” if I’m travelling alone with my children. Humour isn’t used as much to lighten interactions between strangers in that way in Sweden. 

Instead, Sweden is a consensus culture, a culture of rule-following, and a culture where having overblown artistic or intellectual pretensions is frowned upon. Very often this is reflected in the humour.  

Doing inexplicably lame things in very large numbers or to a strict routine

Is the insistence on watching the otherwise justly forgotten 80s jousting movie Ivanhoe on New Year’s Day a sort of national joke? I’d argue it is, as is Disney on Christmas Eve, the Melodifestivalen-watching parties where highly educated PhD students take manufactured pop extremely seriously, or the groups of friends who meet every single Friday to watch the crushingly dull geography quiz På Spåret.

“We do it because we do it,” a Swede is likely to smile with satisfaction when challenged. 

At root, this is a sort of celebration of consensus. Swedes find it very funny to follow a rule or tradition that is self-evidently not worth being followed. 

Absurd, grotesque, silly, or just shockingly boring things 

If you look at hit humorous Facebook groups in Sweden in recent years, there’s a definite amusement at the absurd, grotesque, and simply silly (at least in the ones followed by my Swedish wife). The success of groups like the now-defunct Svåra Föremål (Troublesome Objects), Fullständigt ointressant information (Totally uninteresting information), or Lokaltidningsbesvikelser (Local newspaper disappointments), shows Swedes’ revelling in the bad taste or tediousness of their compatriots.  

One meme on Svåra Föremål concerned failed craft projects using seashells. The group’s admins even sold a wall calendar featuring seashell animals and figurines. 

The humour here lies somewhere in the disconnect between the effort made and the pointless result, between artistic aspirations and irredeemable ugliness. As such it reinforces Sweden’s take on Jante’s Law, that sentiment of “you’re not to think you’re someone special”, in much the same way that the British use humour “to knock someone down a peg”. 

One recent post on Fullständigt ointressant information, where users compete to share the dullest possible anecdotes or insights, sums up a certain brand of Swedish humour.

“Last night I dreamed that they had taken away VAT from dill. I was in total bliss.”

Here there’s the admission, even pride, in a dull internal life, a subconscious concerned with VAT and that most Swedish and swamp-tasting of herbs. This is very Swedish.

Norgehistorier and Bellman jokes 

These are the Swedish equivalent of “Irishman” jokes in England, or of the short set-up and punchline jokes beloved of schoolchildren in the UK, and perhaps everywhere.

They’re generally not very funny (but then again, nor are their British equivalents). Bellman jokes were originally supposed to be about the 18th century song-writer Carl Michael Bellman, but the Bellman figure has come to stand for a sort of every-Swede.

Here’s a collection of Bellman jokes, and here’s an example of a Bellman joke (courtesy of Wikipedia).

A Dane, a Norwegian and Bellman made a wager on who could remain inside a goat pen the longest. First out was the Dane, who came out after just 10 minutes yelling “Damn! The goat stinks!” After him the Norwegian went in, and after half an hour he came out yelling, “Damn! The goat stinks!” Finally Bellman went in. After two hours the goat came rushing out yelling “Damn! Bellman stinks!”

Norgehistorier are very similar, but more like England’s ‘Irish’ jokes, as they rather unfairly tend to focus on the country ways and perceived low intelligence of Norwegians (Swedes should be aware that while Norwegians may be the butt of Swedes’ jokes, Swedes are the butt of jokes in Norway, Denmark AND Finland). Here’s a collection

Here’s an example: 

Two Norwegian policemen found a dead body in front of a Peugeot. “How do you spell Peugeot,” one asks the other. “No idea, let’s move him in front of a Fiat instead.”

Gothenburg puns 

Gothenburg is the city most renowned in Sweden for its sense of humour, with the city’s humour heavily based around puns and wordplay. The term Göteborgsvits, or Gothenburg pun, dates back to the second half of the 19th century, so it has pedigree.

What’s prized among people from Gothenburg is mental quickness, spotting a potential pun or play on words and turning it immediately into a joke, so examples of Gothenburg puns on the internet cannot really capture it. What would be brilliant in the heat of the moment comes across more like a Christmas cracker joke when written down. 

But here’s an example nonetheless:

How many Gothenburgers live in Canada? 

Åtta-va? (‘eight, no?’) (Ottawa… geddit?)

Scanian teasing 

The sense of humour in Scania (or Skåne in Swedish), Sweden’s southernmost county, seems more similar to that of Denmark, with its culture of mickey-taking and teasing, than to that of much of the rest of Sweden.

We are currently trying to build a summer house in the countryside an hour outside Malmö, and more or less every time our very neighbour comes to survey our progress, he says deadpan, “so, when are you moving in?”, the joke being, of course, that we aren’t, and won’t be for a year, or (God forbid) many years. It strikes me that this is very close to the sort of dig someone might make back home in England. 

Do Swedes have ‘banter’? 

In Britain, there’s a great love of ribaldry, humorous repartee in the pub, or more recently on the Whatsapp groups that groups of friends have set up to replace it. 

The back-and-forth flow of British conversation, with its frequent interruptions and interjections, works well with this. In Sweden, people tend to talk in longer chunks, and interrupt each other less, making Swedish pub chat more likely to be based around funny anecdotes. 

Swedish TV comedy and the new shock standups 

Swedish comedy on TV has tended historically to be based around unsubtle skits and slapstick in the vein of the UK show Little Britain (just less good). It’s generally rather unfunny in my opinion, although it should be pointed out that the Swedish comedian Petra Mede went down surprisingly well among UK audiences when she presented Eurovision in 2013 and 2016. 

The rise of podcasts has given a new generation of standup comics a way of reaching their audience, leading to a new brand of very dark, taboo-breaking humour, with comics like Sandra Ilar, Johannes Finnlaugsson and Kristoffer K Svensson, or the rapper Mr Cool, who caused a scandal with a comedy rap about paedophilia. 

Some of the new generation of Swedish stand-ups, such as Fredrik Andersson, Tobias Persson and Evelyn Mok, have even managed to cross the North Sea and make a living out of their comedy in the UK. 

So who said Swedes can’t be funny? 

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ECONOMY

EXPLAINED: Sweden’s rising prices and what’s being done to stop them

Sweden is experiencing the highest inflation in 30 years. What's behind the price rises and what can the government do about it?

EXPLAINED: Sweden's rising prices and what's being done to stop them

What are the factors behind the increase in prices in Sweden? 

The biggest single factor has been the rise in oil and gas prices, which has pushed up transport and manufacturing costs across the world, pushing up prices more or less across the board. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has also disrupted the production and transportation of goods, leading to shortages as the lifting of restrictions releases pent-up demand. 

Finally, most countries have been running expansive fiscal and monetary policies. The US, for instance, has so far sent out $1,400 cheques to 127 million households. 

SEB’s senior economist, Robert Bergqvist, told The Local that Sweden if anything faced slightly lower inflationary pressure than other countries. 

“One reason why Sweden has lower inflation is that we still have slower wage growth, because we have wage agreements that last for three to four years,” he said. 

READ ALSO: 

What has the government done to help people in Sweden? 

Quite a lot. 

In January it offered an electricity rebate of up to 2,000 kronor per month to all those hit by high electricity prices.

On March 14th, it launched a package of subsidies for car-owners. 

This included a pay-out of between 1,000 to 1,500 kronor to every car-owner in the country, which has cost the government 13.9bn kronor. 

It also included a temporary reduction in tax on petrol and diesel to the lowest level allowed by the European Union. The government said that this would reduce the price by 1.3 kronor per litre. This will reduce the government’s tax intake by 3.8 billion kronor. 

Finally, it has also a temporary increase in housing benefit for families with children, which could provide up to 1,325 kronor in extra benefits a month between July and December this year. 

Are the other political parties satisfied? 

Of course they’re not. This is an election year.

The Moderate Party are pushing for a tax cut that will reduce the price at the pump by five kronor a litre for diesel, and “several kronor” for petrol.

The Sweden Democrats party has proposed a package it claims will reduce the price of diesel by 9.45 kronor and petrol by 6.50 kronor, at a cost of 34bn kronor. 

The only party that is against reducing fuel tax is the Green Party, which instead wants to pass 20bn kronor to households living in the countryside to help them deal with the additional costs. Subsidising fuel, the party argued, meant “filling Putin’s warchest”. 

What about economists? 

Robert Bergqvist said that Sweden’s relatively strong government finances meant that it could easily afford to be this generous to lessen the pain for citizens. 

“It’s nothing that will jeopardise the very strong government finances that we have,” he said. “Sweden can afford a more expansionary fiscal policy.” 

The only risk, he argued was that having what he called a “slightly more expansionary fiscal policy” could end up pushing prices up even higher. “It could be a bit inflationary,” he said. 

What can Sweden’s central bank do? 

Controlling inflation is one of the key purposes of a central bank, and Sweden’s Riksbank is instructed to aim for inflation of two percent. 

The Riksbank’s current position is that there will be no increase in interest rates until the second half of 2024. But the prices rises of the last six months will almost certainly force it to act sooner. 

In an interview with Sweden’s state broadcaster SR last week, the bank’s governor, Stefan Ingves, said that the bank would need to change its position. Most economists in Sweden now expect a rate rise in the second half of this year, or at the start of next year. 

Ingves’s deputy, Anna Breman, said in a speech on Wednesday that it, now “now looks like it would be reasonable to bring forward a rise in interest rates”. 

Will Sweden manage to get prices under control? 

Bergqvist said he believed that the Riksbank had a relatively short window in which to act if it was to avoid the risk that high inflation expectations become firmly established among companies and wage earners. 

“We have new wage negotiations which will start at the end of this year, and you will have new wage deals in the first quarter of next year,” he said. 

If the unions expect higher inflation in the coming years, they are likely to push for more generous wage hikes, which could in turn lead to rising costs for companies, and so increase inflation still further. 

“When I talk to companies and households, everyone says that we have an inflation problem, that prices are going up, and I think we haven’t seen the worst yet,” he said. “I think inflation will continue to rise. Companies say costs are rising and that it’s also quite easy to raise prices right now.” 

If the Riksbank does not take action soon, he argued, then high inflation expectations will become more too established to reduce much higher interest rates, which could cause a recession.  

“And that will make it much more difficult for the Riksbank to bring inflation down to two percent,” he said. 

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