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ANALYSIS: Why don’t more people in Sweden wear face masks?

It's been over a year since Sweden first brought in a recommendation to wear face masks on public transport, and even now, hardly anyone does. We asked two anthropologists why, in a country famed for being rule-followers, so many are failing to follow the rules.

ANALYSIS: Why don't more people in Sweden wear face masks?
Passengers with and without face masks at Lund Central Station. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

A spot check by Swedish Radio just before Christmas found that only about one in ten passengers on public transport in Sweden were wearing a face mask, a rate even the Public Health Agency conceded was “much too low”. 

This came even after the agency had reintroduced recommendations to wear a face mask on crowded public transport.

Many foreigners find this surprising. Not only is Sweden failing to use what many countries see as one of the easiest tools for reducing infection rates, but unlike in their home countries, they have to travel on buses and trains full of unmasked passengers. 

So what is going on?

Swedes are not natural rule-breakers, as anyone will attest who has witnessed people waiting patiently at a zebra crossing in rural areas without a car for miles around. What explains the reluctance to wear masks or the willingness to break the rules in this specific situation?  

‘In Sweden, we don’t wear face masks’

Dr Claudia Merli, professor of medical anthropology at Uppsala University, thinks it is significant that the Public Health Agency and other commentators in Sweden from the start referred to face masks in cultural terms. 

“There was this idea that a face mask is something that the Japanese are used to, that it is something that is part of Japanese culture,” she remembers.

The authorities came close to dismissing masks as “symbol politics”, a sort of talisman which gave wearers a sense of security without making a real difference. It was a type of magical thinking which rationally minded Swedes should avoid.  

“There was a moment where the state epidemiologist said, ‘I have seen people using the mask, but they look like tourists‘,” Merli continues. “This was attributing a behaviour immediately to a non-Swedish group.” 

Merli argues that Swedish opposition to face masks might also have a connection to the discomfort felt in the country towards the niqab, the face-covering worn by some Arab women. 

“I think that covering the face is assimilable, so it is possible to assimilate it, to the same kind of resistance to and rejection of the niqab,” she says. “You see the covering the face as a matter of lack of trust: somebody that you cannot trust and somebody who doesn’t trust you.

“So suddenly, there was this possibility that everybody would be wearing a mask and that therefore, we would all be behaving like the people that we are resisting. I think this was also playing out subconsciously. Will we all be reduced to niqab-wearers?”

Swedish individualism

If face masks were viewed as somehow “un-Swedish”, why were they viewed that way? 

Dr Katarina Graffman, who runs the social research company Inculture, wonders whether the aversion might have something to do with the individualism in Swedish culture. 

“There is another side to an individualistic society,” she says. “The face is the most important part of the body when it comes to expressing individual singularity. Wearing masks make us anonymous.” 

Graffman also suggests that people in Sweden, which can be a lonely, isolated society, wanted to avoid “the social distance, in a psychological way, that masks create”.

“During the pandemic, we saw a feeling of solidarity grow for the community and for people having a hard time because of the pandemic,” she says. 

“Wearing a mask is a very visible distancing, while keeping a physical distance and not wearing a mask still gives us the possibility to see another person’s face. And what has been and is tough for people in the pandemic? The lack of social interactions, the lack of human response and physical contact.”

Medical masks are for medical professionals

The shortage of face masks at the start of the pandemic meant they were largely reserved for doctors and nurses, with even workers at elderly care homes having to work without. At the same time, the messaging from the Public Health Agency was that face masks were difficult to use properly. 

“They were even telling people that it was dangerous to use them, that if you handled them, you ran the risk of being infected,” Merli remembers. She argues that this sense that mask-wearing is complex and difficult still limits their use today. 

“Five-year-old kids in Taiwan were putting on masks, and Taiwan is a success story. They got very few cases, and there were no school closures,” she said. “And you are telling the citizen that they are not smart enough to handle a piece of fabric, a piece of personal protective equipment that five-year-old kids in Japan and Taiwan can handle?”

Lutheran openness 

Does the aversion to hiding your face fit into a broader pattern of Swedish culture around openness and privacy?

Visit any Swedish suburb and you’ll be struck at how few garden fences or hedges there are compared to what you might see in, for example, the UK. The same goes for curtains, which are seldom drawn in Sweden. The husesyn ritual, the requirement that Swedes show visiting guests every single room in their homes, also reflects a reluctance to be seen to be hiding anything. 

“This openness, what is it about?” Merli wonders. “Because you’re not supposed to look into the windows. The first thing I learned when I came to Sweden was that there was a specific term for people looking in windows and it was fönstertittare [“window-lookers]. It is an offence.” 

The same goes, she argues, for looking at people’s faces. “If you go in central Stockholm, and you walk in the street and you look at somebody, they will react like, ‘you are not supposed to look at people’. So how can suddenly the fact that you cannot look at people be seen as a lack of trust? That’s interesting. You say, ‘Oh, but people cannot look!’ But you are preventing people from NOT looking at you.”

So perhaps face masks clash with the Swedish idea that privacy should be achieved through a mutual agreement not to stare at others or peek through their windows, rather than through putting up physical barriers.

The language issue 

The Swedish word for face mask, munskydd, literally meansmouth protection”, which puts the emphasis squarely on protecting the wearer from others.

“How you call things is culturally relevant,” Merli argues, pointing out that in Japan, Taiwan, and also in the US and UK, masks have been portrayed overwhelmingly as a way of protecting others from the wearer. 

She argues that this idea of “mouth protection” had also made masks feel like more of a constraint in Sweden. 

“A lot of people who are refusing them seem to feel that something that is ‘protecting your mouth’ is also preventing you from expressing your rights, so it has been seen very much as a constraint on individual liberty. In other places, it has been seen primarily as an expression of solidarity.”

The word råd (“advice” or “recommendations”) has also been significant, she argues, as it has meant something different to the authorities issuing them than it has to the population to which they are given. 

“That is another interesting term, culturally, because legally, it is quite binding. To say ‘recommendation’ actually means something very serious. So they kept using it, meaning from their own side, correctly, that it is binding. But go to speak to anybody in the street in Sweden, and they will say men det är bara en rekommendation. ‘It is only a recommendation’.”

Maybe, in the end, it’s not about culture

Group behaviour is of course determined by a lot more than national cultures, if it even makes sense to speak of national cultures at all.

People in the culturally very similar Denmark have been more than willing to wear masks, and the Norwegians and Finns have all worn them to a greater extent than the Swedes. 

So the biggest factor behind the reluctance to wear masks in Sweden could very likely be the public scepticism the Public Health Agency expressed about them, for the first six months of the pandemic, the decision to never make masks compulsory or to enforce the rule, and the unnecessarily complex guidelines as to when they should be used. 

Even Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist, conceded as much in an interview with Dagens Nyheter in December.

“You can’t get away from the fact that we have been hesitant about face masks and that has of course had an effect, which is there at the back of your mind. And then it’s hard to change that attitude,” he told the newspaper.

Member comments

  1. Tack Richard for such an excellent and comprehensive article.
    Your in-depth analysis of important issues in Swedish society, helps
    us to understand the country where we’ve chosen to live.

  2. That study is more about analysing lockdowns. Where they have references to studies about masks, many of them show that they help.

    Page 7 “An et al. (2021) conclude that “The analysis shows that the mask mandate is consistently associated with lower infection rates in the short term, and its early adoption boosts the long-term efficacy.””.

    Pages 14 and 15 “Chernozhukov et al. (2021) find that employee mask mandates reduces mortality by 34%.””.

    Page 20 “Leffler et al. (2020) finds that masking (mask recommendations) reduces mortality. For each week that masks were recommended the increase in per-capita mortality was 8.1% (compared to 55.7% increase when masks were not recommended).”.

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