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OPINION: Is there such a thing as a typical Swede?

David Crouch
David Crouch - [email protected]
OPINION: Is there such a thing as a typical Swede?
A Swedish woman attends a Midsummer celebration in Dalarna wearing traditional folkdräkt costume

We all know the stereotypes, but is there actually such a thing as a typical Swede? David Crouch explores a much-talked about issue.


A friend visited recently, his first time in Sweden. After a day in town, he exclaimed: “I’ve never seen so many blonds!”

There was one small problem: Swedes are not blond. (You read it here first.) Ask any hairdresser. Swedes generally have mousy hair (råttfärgat), they will say. Hairdressers in Sweden spend a lot of time dying their clients blond.

The hairdressers are right. As long ago as 1926, a survey of 43,000 Swedish conscripts found that only 7 percent were blond, while 63 percent had light-brown hair.

So why did my friend see so many blonds? He was suffering from “confirmation bias” – the tendency to interpret the world in a way that supports our existing assumptions. We have a stereotype of what Swedes look like, so we come to Sweden expecting to see blond people. When we see one, we think: “There we are, just as I expected.”

Swedes know that foreigners have stereotypes about Swedes. If you haven’t seen the hilarious video that SVT (Swedish Television) made for the 2013 Eurovision in Malmö, do so now, it will make your day. It is a delightful send-up of Swedishness.

But the stereotypes it plays on have a tenuous relationship to reality. For example, in the film, Sweden is invaded (which is rather topical right now), but the army’s commander-in-chief is off on paternity leave – making the point that Sweden is seen as a gender-equal society.


Yet this is a country where women still do twice as much housework as men, and the lion’s share of childcare. Stress levels among Swedish women go up when they come home from work in anticipation of everything they have to do, while men’s goes down.

Back to the SVT video. When the Swedish army comes under attack, the soldiers start a group discussion instead of taking orders – Sweden is such a flat, non-hierarchical society, you see. Certainly, decades of strong trade unions have left their mark on workplace relations in Sweden and may have contributed to a more democratic workplace culture. IKEA’s founder, the late Ingvar Kamprad, famously championed “humbleness” at work.

But the picture painted by Johan Stenebo in his best-selling The Truth About IKEA is rather different. In reality, Stenebo claimed, during the 20 years he worked there, the company was more like a secretive dictatorship run by Kamprad with an iron fist, helped by a network of internal spies who informed on disloyal managers. Nothing to do with Kamprad’s well-documented sympathies for the Nazis, of course.


Often it is people who are new to Sweden who are the most interested in finding out what Swedishness is. We want to fit in, we want to be accepted by the natives.

Keen to learn about his homeland, Qaisar Mahmood, a Swede of Pakistani heritage, set out on his motorbike to investigate. Several months and 900km later, he could find no common denominator connecting all the various people he had met. Swedishness was like an onion, with different layers but no kernel. “People in Sweden are more different than alike,” he concluded.

But despite their obvious differences, Mahmood found that Swedes did share an image of how they felt they ought to be, a set of boxes that must be ticked to be considered a “real Svensson”. Swedes felt they should be tall, blue-eyed and blond, reserved, trustworthy, and rational.

If there is one thing that does unite all Swedes, it is not just they are all different, but that these differences are rapidly getting bigger. If we surveyed the hair colour of young Swedes today, like the race biologists did back in 1926, we would get a very different result.


Since then, light-brown Swedish hair has been mixed with darker shades from all over the world. Thanks to high levels of immigration, one in 10 Swedes now has parents from different countries. That’s almost one million people.

This number can only get bigger. There are no statistics, but in terms of mixed relationships or marriages Sweden is becoming one of the most ethnically heterogeneous societies in the world, a Nordic melting pot like New York in the early 1900s.

So a typical Swede today is very different from the prevailing notions, and what might be typical today, won’t be so in 10 years' time. This is a dynamic, exciting society where the only constant is change.

But whatever we think Swedes and Swedishness are, a great amount of effort goes into maintaining our existing perceptions of them.

“Brand Sweden” is the official strategy to market Sweden abroad, developed by the Swedish Institute with Business Sweden, Visit Sweden and the Foreign Ministry. It includes a visual identity of ”calm, mild and light shades of green, grey, blue and beige”, materials such as reindeer hide, birch wood and linen, and “little but essential things that set the mood — flowers, candlesticks, tablecloths”.

This deliberate branding of the country filters back into our perceptions of it and its people. Minimalist, calm, sophisticated, prosperous, obsessed with design, socially conscious, reserved, modern, and just a little bit exotic.

Out there beyond your front door, actually existing Swedes are fairly obviously not like this. Do we secretly wish they were more like the branding?

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a former Financial Times news editor and now a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University. 




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