Laundry, Lagom, Pippi Longstocking and Parental Leave...
I came across the video below the other day; it reviews in brief 10 things to know about Swedish culture for those planning to live here. It's not my favorite thing to write about cliche cultural customs, and many of these (some quite overly generalized) topics have been addressed and readdressed in other expatriate blogs, so I tire quite quickly of them. But I found myself wanting to say a little something on some of the 10 points and they way they were presented.
So here we go... after over two years of living here and four years of knowing Swedes:
"It means having a coffee break together with family, friends or at work."
I don't really understand why fika is considered a concept in Sweden. It's used almost exactly the same way that we would say in American English to "meet for coffee" with someone, and likely the same way in other countries. When we say "let's meet for coffee" it usually includes the sweet or savory treat at the same time as well as a nice chat, and it's what I and my American friends do as our main casual way of spending time together. What I'm not sure about is if this is as common across the States. But everywhere I've been suggests that it is. And it doesn't feel any different when people "fika" here, from what I see and experience, from "having coffee" in the States.
Perhaps it's the connection to the workplace that is a bit different, as for some people in Sweden the word can symbolize some governmental bureaucratic organizational frustrations ("4 fikas a day and not getting enough done", some lament about these institutions with exaggeration).
I am fine with Swedes seeing it as their own concept... there are some things I could say that I miss about the States that seem culturally conceptual to me but to those from other countries it wouldn't seem like anything particular to American culture.
"We get uncomfortable when people are too loud, too different, too colorful, too expressive, too rich or too poor."
Let's start by saying that I think lagom is much less prevalent in my generation of Swedes than the one before, and that in the next generation it will be exponentially less so. And would I live in Sweden if I didn't like how balanced and not extreme things feel much of the time? No. But I was born and raised in a place, the San Francisco area, where being loud is more natural and often rewarded, being different is expected and valued, being colorful and expressive is usually praised, and being rich is idealized and being poor is an expected fact of life for all too many. So it's natural that when lagom feels too strong in a given situation or what someone says, it can rub me the wrong way. It's one thing when lagom is just subconsciously adhered to, but I can feel uncomfortable when it's (even indirectly) addressed and encouraged out loud. I do think that Swedes are highly intrapersonally aware... they pay a lot of attention to what others are doing and how they are coming across. Therefore, they are hyperaware of whether or not they or a friend or someone else might be doing something that is too much, that is not fitting in, and can tend to be a bit more judgmental against that compared to what I grew up with. Which I don't like.
This is all reminding me of a Burger King commercial that aired in Sweden last year that described its massive new burger as "Inte Lagom" (not lagom). And I remember that I have much more to say on the topic and will need a whole post for it sometime soon.
3. Swedes are shy
..."so approach carefully."
When I mentioned this video to a Swedish friend tonight but didn't say much about what it contained, he guessed that there would be something in relation to Swedes being shy about meeting new people for dinner. He said it in sort of a gently teasing tone about the more reserved people/regions of Sweden, like the north..."don't ask people over for dinner, it would be too intimate, you can just ask them for a fika..." I laughed and had forgotten, til I watched it again to finish this post, that the video says just that! That's not the Sweden that I normally encounter in my circles, but I know it can be elsewhere.
I've written before to defend Swedes against the super strong conception that they are painfully shy. However, it's true that the sense of reserve here is quite strong. It makes me feel comfortable, to be honest. But sometimes it makes me feel like sometimes I'm not quite picking up on things, that I can't read people as well.
"Disorganization makes us nervous so we love to stand in line, everywhere..."
Yeah, queueing is certainly prevalent here, I took more number slips in one year in Sweden than perhaps in most of my years in the States, but it's not like in comparison other western countries have mobs instead of lines. People (for example in the States) just stand and wait their turn, in most similar cases, often in a queue, without taking a number. They remember who was next or have their name in a list or something.
More culturally idiosyncratic is this: as this point in the video starts out, yes, disorganization can make Swedes veryyyy nervous. So speaking of that...
5. Follow the rules
"Don't put your milk cartons in the newspaper bin!"
Are Swedes an uptight and rule-obsessed culture? I don't really think so. There's a lot here, including the behavior of and approach to authority figures that is quite laidback. And the country scores quite low in Uncertainty Avoidance in Hofstede's well-known cultural dimensions, which states that in societies with low scores in this, "people believe there should be no more rules than are necessary, and if they are ambiguous or do not work they should be abandoned or changed." This would be in contrast to some countries that score highly on Uncertainty Avoidance, like Italy, Germany or Russia, where rules and details and bureaucracy are sought after and appreciated for providing guidance and avoiding ambiguity (but not often followed, as in Italy's case and other similar countries).
However I digress, because when this point came up in the video, I immediately thought of what Swedes are infamous for being uptight about when it comes to their stated and unspoken rules: laundry. They are infamous for this among expats and among each other. It is brought up on many a blog, this one nails it, with humor ("FOR FUCKS SAKE, CLEAN THE LINT OUT OF THE DRYER!").
Many Swedes and foreigners I know have some sort of story of the wrath of another Swede when made a mistake (or were perceived to, or just acted slightly carelessly) in their apartment building's laundry room. Including me. I'd rather not tell the whole story because it was quite unpleasant but it happened last spring when I had to leave my laundry room in a hurry and forgot to wipe up a tiny bit of spilled powder on top of the machine and remove my dryer lint. I don't remember the last time in my adult life that I'd ever seen someone both to my face and in a note be so extremely furious with me. I appreciate rule following, but the laundry anal retentiveness is a really ridiculous joke to me. The world needs that energy and anger directed elsewhere other than detergent powder.
"Some say that Swedes worship nature..."
The freedom to roam anywhere! For me and some of my expat friends, this law is one of our favorite to talk about and bring up randomly. No such thing as truly private property, we can pitch a tent and hike wherever we want? Any beach, field, forest, etc? Epic! California beachfront property owners would be up in arms!
7. Respect for children
lots of things mentioned here...
I love many things about what Sweden offers its children, and how the country encourages a lot of attention paid to families. Just read this article by a British/Irish expat about why he chose to live in Sweden with his Swedish wife to raise their child, and it nails everything that's good about Sweden in respect to this. I do find it interesting that the video ties the concept of respect for children in with how easily Sweden makes it for both parents to work. It's great that daycare is of low to no cost for families. But Swedish culture, especially my female peers, often seems to have disdain for the idea of a stay-at-home parent, while in my experience in the States, for some, it's a privilege to get to have one parent stay at home so that the kids receive more parental and individual nurturing, at least until they are school age. It's definitely really unfortunate that there are also families in the States and other countries that are forced to have one parent stay at home even if they'd rather work, since they can't afford daycare. But if one of my friends in the States who was/is a stay-at-home parent by choice was told that the government would respect their children more by offering their child daycare so that parent could work, they might take issue with that phrasing. But that's what constitutes a cultural perspective, and this video's phrasing and conceptualizing is not something I necessarily dispute, because it's particular to Sweden and I know Sweden.
8. Astrid Lingren
"#1 National Hero"
Indeed, all things Astrid Lindgren are very beloved by Swedes, especially Pippi Longstocking (or Långstrump, in Swedish). Pippi is sacred, and she fondly reminds all Swedes of their childhood. Clearly the world loved her too, with how the stories have been translated into over 70 languages. But nowhere as much as Sweden. As I watch them now, the tv shows do have a Swedish feeling to them; they are humble and quirky and lovingly unpolished. And joyfully musical.
"The winters can be long and cold, and sometimes the summers aren't much better...We're crazy about the sun and we love talking about the weather."
All pretty true, although there is an exaggeration there about the summers. But this summer was pretty lame. And this fall is turning out to be quite exceptionally cold too.
Swedes did teach me, even back in California, how to appreciate the sun more. It does feel super Swedish to me to, when it's a sunny day but in the colder half of the year, sit and look towards the sun and just let the bit of warmth envelop your face. And I do the same now. All seasons of the year.
10. Who's the boss?
"It's usually hard to tell who's the boss in a Swedish workplace."
This is often true, in my experience. The USA doesn't have a big power imbalance between bosses and employees, to be sure. But there is noticeably less in Sweden (and all of Scandinavia). Offices more often have open seating here, and directors and CEOS don't often take a particularly special office or spot, especially in midsize or smaller companies. There isn't as much of an authoritative way of speaking coming from those in upper management, there's more of a softer approach and checking in with everyone. Not that much commanding, less direct critique, perhaps.
And I love the last thing said in this point, "Some foreigners say it's strange that we dress down for work and up for the bbq." I've never thought about it that way... but I can see how some would! Especially in countries where work dress is more formal than in the US... but yes, dress code in Sweden, in many industries and offices, can be relatively casual. And Swedes do dress pretty well, relatively, for casual get-togethers and leisure time. And I like this combination.