Going for gold

A friend of mine has a 5 year old daughter, currently attending day care in Stockholm. It’s fascinating to talk to her and to see how cultural norms and values are instilled in us right from an early age.

Swedish day care, like many others around the world, is about teaching children social skills, the rights and wrongs of society and what is acceptable behaviour. And this particular little girl has learned all of that. She shows respect to others. She understands the concept of turn-taking. When she grows up she doesn’t want to be a Nazi.

One evening she was playing a game with her mother, and she won fair and square. But she wanted to back-track and do it again so that she didn’t hurt her mother’s feelings. Her mother, an American, said that it was ok and that she had won rightfully. This 6 year old Swedish girl then said, ‘But at daycare, we all win.’

The Swedish values of equality, modesty and a touch of envy are all represented in this statement. It’s the participation that’s important, not the winning. No one person should win, but everyone is a winner because they contributed. Cultural indoctrination starts early and we see this particular cultural characteristic everywhere in Swedish society. In the concensus decision-making. In the fact that bragging is seen as unattractive. In the acceptance that being average (lagom) is ok, or even something to strive for.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully support the philosophy that participating is valuable. But winning is also strengthening. For the individual and the group.

Now, thankfully not everyone in any single culture follows the national tendencies. There are always individuals who deviate. And when enough people deviate, that is when the cultural norm shifts.

At the Winter Olympics, Sweden fights along side many nationalities for a place on the podium. While other countries may win more medals, Sweden does succeed in an occasional gold. Yesterday, Charlotte Kalla won a gold medal for cross-country skiing.

I’m sure that no matter how much she thought that participating was great, winning gold must have felt even better.

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