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‘Detail, duty and good sense’: Is the PM right about Swedishness?

Sweden's prime minister chose "attention to detail", a "sense of duty", and "good sense" as her three Swedish values in a speech this month. For Alex Rodallec, who grew up in Sweden with foreign parents, it's not so simple.

'Detail, duty and good sense': Is the PM right about Swedishness?
Prime Minister and party chairman Magdalena Andersson, the Social Democrats, spoke at Almedalen during the party's half day. Photo Henrik Montgomery

A French or American president might have mentioned a love of culture or freedom, but “attention to detail”, a “sense of duty”, and “good sense”, were the somewhat austere values Sweden’s PM chose to foreground as ‘Swedish’ in her patriotic speech last week.

Noggrannhet – “attention to detail” – the first value she mentioned in her speech at the Almedalen Political Week, would have seemed strange coming out of the mouth of any world leader but Magdalena Andersson herself.

Pliktkänsla, “a sense of duty”, and sunt förnuft, “good sense”, are perhaps shared by other nations, but still exhibit a rather dour sensibility. 

My own experience as a foreign national born and raised in Sweden has given me a somewhat unique position to comment on Swedishness.

Growing up I often found myself feeling Swedish abroad and not Swedish at all in Sweden. That might seem strange, but it is an experience shared by an increasing number of people. I would defend Sweden when foreigners criticised the country (I still do) and criticise it myself while I was living there. 

The values listed by the Prime Minister are indeed among those many Swedes consider particularly “Swedish”. And all three are reflected in the well-oiled machinery that is Swedish bureaucracy (with which I have an ongoing love story). 

They can really be seen in many things, such as plumbing, housing quality, the ever-so-classic Volvos and their safety features, that many Swedes feel it is their duty to pay taxes, how Swedes obsess about following protocol when their association has an official meeting, how you always have to pay it back (even if it is just ten kronor), in how when you try to get some official to be a bit flexible and they shut you down with some version of the phrase, ‘those are the rules’, or when a cyclist screams at you for walking in the bicycle lane or almost runs you over intentionally to make a point.

But is this the whole story, or are there other values that come to mind? What values do foreigners attribute to Swedes? Are they the same as the Prime Minister’s somewhat Lutheran list?  

My mother, who immigrated in her thirties, was no fan of Sweden, but she would no doubt have agreed with the Prime Minister’s list, perhaps even adding two: timeliness and pragmatism. Though she never went a day without talking about leaving the country, or about how much she hated it, she would always give the devil his due. 

Although she was French, which one would imagine is not that far removed from Sweden in terms of culture, hearing her speak about the country, you would have thought she had moved to the jungles of Borneo. She felt her home country was worlds apart – and now I’ve moved to France and communicate via email with the Kafkaesque French tax authorities, I am beginning to feel she might have been right.

(On the subject of tax and Swedishness, it is worth pointing out that the yearly estimate of Swedish tax evasion as a portion of GDP is one of the highest in Europe. Perhaps the value of ‘attention to detail’ that comes to play here?)

To me the concept of Swedishness remains elusive.

But I do believe some values are common in a Swedish context, and I would add a couple to the values the Prime Minister and my mother put forward. 

Striving for consensus – This might be why Swedes are always in meetings.

Mysighet – This is an odd one, but the Swedish ‘coziness’ can be seen in fika, and the love of nature, and I do believe it really completes Swedishness.

The image of Sweden abroad can vary wildly from country to country, but is overall positive. Sweden has ‘a strong brand’. But when I was younger I went abroad with other Swedes on more than one occasion, and this gave me some insights into how Swedes are perceived there in more unofficial ways.

If you ever look up articles about Swedes in Mallorca, Spain (you will find quite a few), very little positive is written about the Swedes who live there or who visit. The Mallorquins have had enough of Swedes. There are reports accusing Swedish residents of wanting the Spanish authorities to adapt to them, rather than the other way around.

But the fuss is mostly due to drunken tourists. The sense that Swedishness and alcohol are not always a charming combination is one you find both at home and abroad (as a person who is visibly not of Swedish ancestry, I have often been privy to live commentary on Swedish drinking habits from immigrants in the country). 

Could it be that for many Swedes, ‘good sense’ and the dictum of lagom e bäst (~ ‘moderation is best’) does not apply to alcohol? Certainly. You only need to look at history of Systembolaget (The Swedish alcohol monopoly) and the Swedish sobriety movement.

In her speech the Prime Minister also said that Swedes have been careful about expressing love for their country, and that perhaps there has even been a fear of appearing haughty or proud. This is a reference to the Law of Jante, a social dictum that one should not be too braggadocious.

Again my experience of Swedes is slightly different. I find Swedes are not at all afraid of bragging about their country – all you need is the right conditions. Most often that will exclude non-Swedes, but not necessarily.

When I was studying in the US, I ended up living with a small group of other Swedes, and all of us, including the ones with an immigrant background, could often be heard bragging among ourselves of how much better things worked in Sweden.

To be honest, we would even do so to Americans. Perhaps Swedes only avoid bragging to someone whose country is not that well off, and as the US does not fall into that category, we felt we could all brag away. 

Now that I have moved abroad once again, I find myself doing it again. And the bureaucracy is always the thing that comes to mind. In what is perhaps my most nationalistic expression of my Swedishness I sometimes find myself wishing that Swedish bureaucrats be put in charge of restructuring all the bureaucracies of the world.

I would say this is an expression of my Swedish ‘good sense’, but critics would immediately note that I have broken the Law of Jante. 

By Alex Rodallec

Member comments

  1. I totally second „that Swedish bureaucrats be put in charge of restructuring all the bureaucracies of the world.“

  2. I wish this amateur Politician would shut the hell up . She is busy selling Ukraine state of the art missiles and lying about her love for country and so on when she is making a lot of money with her business partners Von Lynden and Jo Biden . I call for the Parliamentary Ombudsman to investigate her role in NATOGATE.

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For members


Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

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