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

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

OPINION: Is there such a thing as a typical Swede?
A Swedish woman attends a Midsummer celebration in Dalarna wearing traditional folkdräkt costume

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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OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

The Swedengate Twitterstorm last week was a clash between recent arrivals in the country and Swedes with deeper roots, says David Crouch

OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

Last week saw a global storm in a Swedish teacup. The hashtag #Swedengate trended briefly in the US and the UK, sparked by an obscure observation that some Swedes would sometimes exclude visiting children from the family evening meal

Much fun was had at Sweden’s expense, and foreign media raised an amused eyebrow at all the fuss. But the conversation soon moved on. Cheap jibes at Swedish hospitality offered some light relief from war in Ukraine and the Texas school shooting.

Not so in Sweden. For four straight days, #Swedengate trended on Twitter among the top 10 hashtags in this country, not to mention a torrent of posts on Facebook and elsewhere. Popular tweets racked up tens of thousands of likes. Respected authors and academics hit the airwaves to explain the custom at issue. The placid Swedish duckpond (ankdammen) became a whirlpool. 

So why did most of Sweden spend the best part of a week debating its food culture? Swedes enjoy international attention, it makes a small northern nation feel noticed and important. Articles about Sweden in foreign newspapers are often picked up and discussed in Swedish media. As one Swede wrote during a Swedengate dispute on my Facebook feed, “we love to see ourselves as strange and special, even exotic”. 

But if some ripples are still being felt abroad, the eye of the storm hangs over Sweden itself. Swedengate was a clash between recent immigrants to Sweden and Swedes with deeper roots in the country. Or, to put it more bluntly, between multicultural Sweden and white Sweden. 

“New Swedes” (nysvenskar) often come from cultures that are extravagantly generous with respect to food. The idea that a guest, let alone a child, should sit separately and unfed during a meal seems monstrous to people with Iranian, Afghan, Arab or African backgrounds. My wife’s side of the family here, which has Polish roots, are positively mortified by the thought that a visitor might not be fed. 

Feeling this pressure, the old Swedes dug in their heels. The sensible thing would have been to lighten up, take the hit, confess that this once used to happen but now not so much, and admit that it looks to outsiders like very mean behaviour. This was the approach of singer Zara Larsson, who poked fun at “peak Swedish culture” and joked that “we might not serve food but we do be serving bangers” (i.e. great pop songs).

Instead, most old Swedes performed somersaults to defend the practice of excluding others’ children at mealtimes. In the mainstream media, it was explained in terms of personal insecurity or embarrassment, individualism, 19th century poverty, even respect for other families (!). On social media, people furiously supported the practice or furiously denied that it ever happened; they claimed it was not a Swedish phenomenon, or dismissed the whole thing as irrelevant. 

In any case, it is impractical to feed kids who turn up unexpectedly at mealtimes, said some. Others claimed it was an attempt by Russian trolls to derail Sweden’s Nato membership. Sweden’s Psychological Defence Agency (yes, there is such a thing) investigated whether Swedengate was a foreign disinformation campaign (it wasn’t). Author Jens Ganman, better known for his cynicism about Sweden as a cauldron of immigrant crime, was offended that people were ignoring his nation’s generosity towards refugees

The irony involved in all this was not lost on new Swedes. “As a white swede, how does it feel being judged for something that only a ‘small’ minority of your nationality do?” tweeted one, hinting at mainstream Sweden’s suspicion of Muslims as woman-hating extremists and terrorists. Said another: “It’s fucking wild to see all these people getting super defensive about #Swedengate.”

And new Swedes swiftly grasped that old Swedes were defending the indefensible; the Svenssons were in a hole and digging themselves even deeper. Whichever way you look at it, the practice – however rare it might be – of not inviting kids to share a family meal is, frankly, bizarre. 

Lovette Jallow, an author who emigrated to Sweden from Gambia when she was 11, wrote: “Laughing at Twitter finding out that Swedish people will not feed strangers. As a kid growing up here we knew to just go home around dinner time. On the flipside, my mom would feed Swedish kids though.” Centre Party youth leader Réka Tolnai tweeted: “It’s funny that the world has discovered what we immigrant kids have been talking about for years.”

Since the mood in Sweden swung against asylum and immigration in late 2015, new Swedes, particularly those from outside Europe, have experienced persistent pressure to prove that they fit into Swedish society. They have been told at every opportunity that they must integrate into Swedish society and conform to its behavioural norms. And no matter how hard they try, it is never enough – non-white Swedes feel keenly that they are second class citizens. 

With Swedengate, the boot was suddenly on the other foot. Who wants to be Swedish when Swedes are so weird?! For people from the Global South, as several observers noted, Swedengate became less about hospitality and more about far-reaching criticisms of Swedish society, such as its history of colonialism and racism. Using a debate about food to attack someone for racism seems a bit like jailing Al Capone for tax evasion. But the bigger picture is that new Swedes felt emboldened by Swedengate to express their broader grievances against Swedish culture.

The first week of June was the moment when new Swedes, immigrants, expats, whatever you want to call them, found their voice. Swedengate marks a step towards immigrants speaking up for their rights and celebrating the many contributions they make to Swedish society – not least in terms of helping to introduce a more warm and welcoming culture around food. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.