Never judge a book by its cover, so they say. And never judge a Swede on first impressions, so many of these books will tell you.
Be cautious. It’s a national trait explored on the first page of Modern-Day Vikings (2001). Labelled as “a practical guide to interacting with the Swedes” the opening lines quote the Hávamál, verses of Old Norse poetry dating back 1,000 years.
“Praise not day until evening, no wife until buried, no sword until tested, no maid until bedded, no ice until crossed, no ale until drunk.”
The words are poetic advice for living and survival. “Historically, being cautious has worked,” says Lisa Werner Carr, an American of Swedish descent and co–author of Modern-Day Vikings. “Swedes don’t have a very compulsive culture; you see that in everyday life today – just think about the way meetings are run.”
Those of you nodding your head have already experienced, come to terms with or remain infuriated with aspects of Swedish life. Werner Carr chose to write the book she wished she’d been given on moving to Malmo in the early 90s.
“I thought it was going to be very easy for me and sometimes it was,” she says. “But I fell into every single cultural trap.” Within months her hair started to fall out, she broke out in rashes and wasn’t sleeping.
“I was suffering from classic culture shock and it had a very physical manifestation,” she adds. “Had I been prepared for things I learned the hard way, I would have adjusted better.”
It took three months for anyone at work to invite her out socially and no one offered any help. “If I’d asked, three dozen would have jumped at the chance,” she says. “They didn’t want to presume I couldn’t manage myself. That would be insulting.”
Like many who came before her, and after, Werner Carr didn’t see anything extreme about Swedish culture. Indeed, the Swedes are pretty much perceived as being as normal as they think they are. Stereotypes suggest one awaits a northern nirvana of tall blondes who sing when they speak and get quite drunk when they drink. And they even like sex.
But the idiosyncrasies of this ordinary nation have inspired a wave of literature, from jovial banter to academic thought.
Professor Åke Daun is considered to be the godfather of the Swedish soul. The former Head of the Institute of Ethnology at Stockholm University, his 1989 book Svensk Mentalitet (Swedish Mentality) was the result of a decade of research. It concluded that the Swedes are in fact shy, conflict-avoiding and, in his own words, “dull”.
“Swedes are often serious when they get together,” Daun begins. “There’s little skill in conversation and we don’t raise our voice, we don’t interrupt. We just want to exchange the same ideas and tastes.”
Daun explains why neighbours may well avoid sharing an elevator. “With people they do not know, few Swedes feel moved to talk,” he writes. “Solitude offers ease and liberation. The satisfaction so many Swedes feel when they walk on their own in the woods…derives partly from an absence of social pressure to talk and adapt to others.”
He’s pretty harsh on his countrymen, which makes for an entertaining read. But, Daun adds, his country, seemingly lacking in cultural quirks, has been replaced by a nation with a surplus of stereotypes.
“It has become immensely popular to discuss Swedishness and Swedish identity,” he says. “By writing this book I have inevitably helped to establish or reinforce these stereotypes. Many think Sweden is a good subject to study.”
Indeed, while the 80s brought cross-cultural communication to the fore, the 90s saw more immigrants crossing Swedish shores. The cultural guard had to be protected more than ever before, says Gillis Herlitz, Doctor of Ethnology and author of “Svenskar: Hur vi är och varför” (2003) (Swedes: How we are and why)
“In the 90s there were more books on Swedish culture written by Swedes than had been produced in the previous century,” he says. “I think immigration and Sweden’s EU membership is the reason – it is in confrontation with others that you have to start trying to identify yourself.”
Herlitz wrote the book for teachers of immigrants. “I talk about our notion of being modern,” he says. “We didn’t suffer like many after World War II; we were well ahead in Europe. A lot of Swedes still believe this; we are a role model for every country and we view ourselves as being very good.”
When lecturing, Herlitz asks Swedes what they think are typical national characteristics. Shy, quiet and boring usually make the top list. You see, Swedes think they’re good but they’re not allowed to say it. “Swedes have a prohibition of bragging,” he says.
“It’s absolutely forbidden to speak or think too good of yourself.” And that’s a risk for foreigners. “We don’t want to be criticised; we want people to think we are absolutely brilliant,” he adds.
But Swedes on Swedes is only half of the story. As Daun admits: “To look at yourself, and people of your own kind, your own culture from the outside is exceedingly difficult.”
Which is why others have been inspired to write their perspective. Englishman Colin Moon has been living in Sweden since 1981. The cross-cultural speaker recently updated his 2000 book “Sweden: The Secret Files.”
“It helped me come to terms with some of my own frustrations,” he says. “Swedes tend not to look behind them when they’re going through doors – that breaks my cultural upbringing. But it’s about keeping yourself to yourself – live and let live. It’s quite a nice philosophy but non-Swedes don’t know where the grey zone is between that and I don’t give a damn.”
Through his work and own experience Moon says people don’t always find it easy assimilating. “Anything that can bridge this gap is good – a link between Swedes and the rest of us,” he says.
“If a Swede had given me my book when I arrived it would have proved they do have a sense of humour – many say they don’t.”
Humour or the lack of it is one of many likely chapter headings alongside lagom, nature, equality, the weather, the rule of shoes, conflict, neutrality, being punctual, jantelagen, alcohol, sex, tax, welfare, and suicide.
For Moon, some of these common themes have become a little too common. “I’m talking about the relationship to drink, how they bring up the kids, the summer, the winter and so on,” he says.
”Of course they are an integral part of living in this country but how much can you write about Systembolaget and keep being innovative? One has to be careful not to do it in absurdum.”
Cue the explosion of blogs, internet forums and guidebooks with the word ’xenophobe’ in the title. ”Swedes don’t see that they are different or interesting to write about,” Moon says. ”And suddenly there’s a plethora of books and blogs about them. But I think they quite like it really, everyone likes to think they are special.”
On her return to the US, Lisa Werner Carr co-wrote Modern-Day Vikings with cross-cultural trainer Christina Johansson Robinowitz, a Swede living in the US. The book is another search into how and why the Swedes act and react. Yet it traces typical characteristics back to Viking times.
“When people move to another country they focus on etiquette – what to do and what not to do – and that’s fine,” she says. “But when you are exasperated with Swedish culture you might not realise things are rooted back thousands of years. “It doesn’t describe everyone,” she adds. “But explains common traits which shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
Indeed, like characteristic Swedes, all these authors err on the side of … err…caution. Daun points to a new anti-lagom generation, Herlitz presents a warning in his introduction and Moon doesn’t see the avoidance of conflict from his apartment window. “I see fights and people shouting at each other – that’s modern day Sweden,” he says.
Whether culture shock is an inevitable chapter in the story of living in Sweden is somewhat autobiographical. Writing aided Werner Carr through it and Sweden remains part of her life today.
“But I will always smile too much and be uncomfortable with silence. I really wanted to have a seamless cultural experience but that’s not always possible. I’m ok with that now. I’m ok with not being Swedish.”