The Svenssons go the the gym

I work out at my local gym in a nearby hotel. The gym is used by local residents and hotel guests alike. It’s a small gym, long and narrow, with enough room for one treadmill, a couple of step machines, a few weight machines and a free weights area. Being small it gets easily cramped, so it’s necessary to show respect for each other and cooperate so everyone gets the most out of the space available.

This weekend I was there on my own. It was a paradise. I could move freely about the gym without considering the needs of anyone else. It was a rare pleasure.

Until, hotel guest Mr Svensson walks in. The hotel also has a small plunge pool and Mr Svensson is ready for that. However, he’s decided that a little exercise on the step-machine would be good first. Dressed only in a pair of swimming trunks, bear-breasted and bare-footed, the sweaty 70-year old Mr Svensson climbs onto the machine and starts excersing. Gym etikett? Forgetikett. Half-naked and out of breath, Mr Svensson seems to have no sense of dignity or consideration.

I manage to ignore Mr Svensson, half successfully, when daughter and son-in-law Svensson come in and climb onto the machines beside him. They begin to converse. Loudly. The musical they went to last night was sooo good. Stockholm is sooo stressful. People even run on the escalators. I focus on my arm curls and try to banish them.

I consider myself a person who is able to focus. In most situations. Even Swedish country folk criticising the big city doesn’t penetrate my focus. But then it happens. Grandma Svensson arrives. Dressed in an outdoor coat and comfortable boots. In her arms, she carries grandaughter Svensson, a year-old baby, who she proceeds to put down and allow to crawl all over the gym floor. This rugrat, the loud conversation, the naked stepmachine grandad all proves too much for me, so I leave.

My work-out is finished.

On the way home, I try to analyse the situation. Why did they think it was ok to behave that way in a gym? They clearly had a sense of entitlement.

I don’t know the answer but I am glad of one thing. I am glad I wasn’t in the plunge pool.

To do a poodle

One thing I love about the Swedish language is picking up all the idioms and expressions. Things that don’t make sense when you translate them but have cultural meaning in their context. Things like ‘clear as sausage juice’ and ‘she’s on the thump'(hon är på smällen) are fabulous. But my favourite has to be the one for when somebody apologises after they have made a fool of themselves in public. ‘To do a poodle’. Makes sense, right?

Sweden is a nation of dog-lovers. You see lots of dogs everywhere. But not many poodles. But in this year of national elections and royal weddings I guess we’re going to see quite a few poodles being done, at least.

I can tell by your arse

No matter how natural Swedes sound when speaking English, their pronunciation often gives them away. One common example is the ‘z’ sound, which doesn’t exist in Swedish. It’s a dead giveaway when Swedes pronounce ‘muzic’ as ‘musssic’, say ‘pleasse’ instead of ‘pleaze’, ‘wass’ instead of ‘waz’. Their ‘s’ is pronounced as in the word sit.

It’s a classic mistake made by many international recording artists (Nina Persson, Marit Bergman, Abba, Moneybrother to name but a few) and it gives them away immediately.

This mispronunciation can lead to mísunderstandings too. One story I heard is about a Swede and an Irishman who met for the first time. The conversation went something like:

Swede: “You’re not English are you?”
Irish: “No, I´m from Ireland.”
Swede: “Yes, I thought I could tell from your R:s.”

The Irishman was confused and wondered how his nationality was obvious by looking at his arse.

Fucking najs

Standing on the platform at Rådhus tube station today, I noticed the walls were plastered with adverts for Dramaten’s new production of Pygmalion. The slogan designed to attract an audience was – ‘Från Fucking Najs till Förtjusande.’ An interesting tagline.

Yet again, the word ‘fuck’ being bandied about in Swedish media. A while ago, the front page of Stockholm News was ‘Inte Fucka Upp’, and in another paper the journalist referred to someone as a ‘smooth motherfucker.’

I don’t get it. Why is the word ‘fuck’ considered ok to use in newspapers and other printed material in Sweden? Is it considered cool? International? Fashionable? I really don’t get it. As a native English speaker, I have nothing against swear words. But when swear words are used by non-natives, I find it inappropriate and quite franky embarrassing. For them.

Let’s be clear about something. The word ‘fuck’ is a really strong swear word. Sure, it’s thrown around on American and British films, but in every-day use, it is still a taboo word. When it is used, it’s a word most often reserved for use amongst friends and some families. I think it’s a big mistake for non-natives to swear in English. Without the understanding of the social and culural impact of the word, it can be very offensive. Not cool, or international or fashionable.

There’s a reason Dramatan has Eliza Doolittle saying ‘fucking najs’. This is meant to reflect that she is a vulgar guttersnipe not fit to mix with people who have a better command of the language.

I rest my case.

Negotiating with a Swede

In today’s multi-cultural business world, we often find ourselves negotiating agreements with people from other countries. In this situation, we often notice that people have different negotiation styles. These differences can partly depend on culture.

Stereotypes of cultural negotiation style often exist. For example, the American hard nose. The emotional Italian. The evasive Brit. What then is the Swedish stereotype? Firm, unemotional, punctual are a few of the typical stereotypes I have heard.

But can stereotypes be useful when we negotiate? Sure.

For example, many international negotiators are aware of the Swedish stereotype of time-consciousness. And they use it as a tactic against them.

I know certain negotiators deliberately schedule negotiations with Swedes on a Friday afternoon, and make the discussions drag on, and on….an on. This, they believe, is a sure-fire way to put pressure on the Swede. The Swede just wants to get home to the family. His weekend is fully packed with ice hockey practice,food shopping,training, and an afternoon party for one of the kids from day care. There is no way that he can miss the plane home on a Friday evening. Feeling the pressure, he makes concessions just to get the deal done. A very different approach from some other cultures who might cancel all plans and stay an extra week if that’s what’s required to gain the business.

No right or wrong, just different ways to do something. And different ways to use stereotypes against us.

The cat needs to meditate

If you ask Brits or Americans what they think about Swedes, they are usually impressed by their high level of English.

So, why might this be? Well, it’s partly owing to the educational system in Sweden. It’s also due to the wide-spread acceptance of, and interest in, all things American and British and the fact that Swedes are well-travelled.

I also believe that the high level of English in Sweden also has to do with something else: subtitles. Unlike in Germany and many other European countries, Swedish television is not dubbed. This means that Swedish tv-audiences see the programmes in their original language. This approach increases vocabulary and English competence and is a great method for improving language skills.

However, we cannot fully rely on subtitles and presume that the ones we read on Swedish television are always correct. Sometimes, they can be very, very wrong indeed. Just the other night I was watching the television – a hospital drama – and a female doctor said to her male colleague ‘That was a close shave’ (Det var nära) when she saved a patient’s life. The subtitle said ‘Du har rakat dig’ (You’ve shaved).

Below, you will find some irritating, but classically wrong, subtitles.

Independence Day
‘Oh my God! There’s nothing left!’
‘Åh, herregud, det är ingenting till vänster’
(oh god, there’s nothing to the left)

Oprah Winfrey Show
‘This is a lovely dress from Banana Republic’ (an American chain of shops)
‘Det här en elegant klänning sydd i bananrepubliker’
(This is an elegant dress sown in banana republics)

Living Single
‘You’re 20 minutes late with the moonshine’ (hembränt)
‘Du är 20 minuter för sent med månskenet’
(You are 20 minutes late with the moon rays)

The Cider House Rules
‘We are all bound by these Ciderhouse rules’
‘Vi är alla bundna av reglerna på den här sidan huset’
(We are bound by the rules on this side of the house)

Interview with singer, Cindy Lauper
’He’s got a nice bum’ (= rumpa)
‘Han är en trevlig lodare’ (He’s a nice tramp)

‘The cat needs medication’
‘Katten behöver meditera’ (The cat needs to meditate)

Drugs and sunbeds

Today, Sunday 17th January 2010 is a historic date. It is the day that the first non state-owned pharmacist opens its doors to the public. This marks the start of the dismanteling of a government-owned monopoly and is designed to give the public more freedom of choice and improved customer service. I applaud it.

This is indicative of the changing culture in Sweden – a move from state control to a privatised market defined by competition. It’s a move from collective control to individual choice.

However, Sweden’s national culture of collectivism sits deep and isn’t changed over one night.

The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority demanded this week that all local councils should immediately shut down their solariums due to health risks and prevent people from sunbathing. This is a clear example of the Swedish state attempting to control the choice of the individual citizen. Surely people have the right to choose if they want to visit solariums, no matter how unhealthy it might be, especially if it helps them get through the dark half of the year? Not everyone can afford a winter holiday abroad.

In the debate about privatisation of pharmacies, some Swedish politicians argued that releasing medicine freely on the market would turn Sweden into a nation of drug abusers. As if the average Swedish citizen is too simple-minded to handle the overwhelming access to paracetamol.

I guess it’s the same with sunbeds.

Broken English noses

I often wonder how many English people end up with broken noses when they visit Swedish friends at home.

You arrive at their building. You tap in the obligatory door code. Climb the stairs or ride the lift. Ring the doorbell and wait. Swiftly, the door opens. But in the wrong direction! Unlike in the UK, the doors open outwards in Sweden and you didn’t expect it. The door moves towards you like an inevitable wave. And you’re not quick enough to get out of the way. Smack! Broken nose.

But why do Swedish doors open outwards? What could be the explanation? Does it symbolise that the English are inward-looking, and Swedes are more outward-looking? Is it for security? It’s more difficult to kick in a door that opens outwards. Could very well be.

I think, however, it’s something entirely different. The price of accommodation in Sweden is high. Houses and flats are sold according to their precious square meterage. This makes the space behind a door important. Definitely sellable. Furnishable perhaps. One extra usable square meter means space for a hatrack.

So, it’s obvious, doors open outwards to give people a valuable extra square meter. And this is roughly the price of a broken English nose.

Freezing is for wimps

Early January in Stockholm and it’s dark and cold. So cold that the lakes turned to ice a month ago. So cold that your lungs hurt when you inhale. So cold that being outside, well, is brief. I scurry from flat to office, office to home. I try to find as many underground shortcuts as possible. I freeze even though I am wearing 5 layers of clothes.

I walk briskly down Kungsgatan, hunched with cold, and cursing the sting of the chill, when a focused Swede runs past me. Dressed in shorts, a reflective vest and a Ipod, he’s off on a jogging round. Probably down to the frozen canal and along the slippery canal-side path. He’s probably going to circle city hall and run casually along the lakeside, past the boats frozen fast into the ice. His legs are red and slightly chapped. His breath is billowing steam. But he doesn’t seem to care. The cold won’t stop him from his daily jogging round.

That’s what I call determination.

Freezing? It’s for wimps.