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.

Feeling foreign

Yesterday I felt very foreign.

It was the day of the ‘Vikingarännet’, the world’s longest skating competition on natural ice. The track is a total of 80km, ending in the centre of Stockholm. My partner had signed up for the ordeal and headed off at 6.30 in the morning to catch the bus to the starting line. My job was, 6 hours later, to go down to the finish line and cheer and applaud and welcome him back.

At 2pm, I headed down to the lakeside. I passed a few weary-looking ice skaters on the way. Eventually, I arrived at the finishing line. A few tents were set up around a little podium for first, second and third place. A man with a microphone was walking around interviewing contestants who had finished and made it up the slope to the tent area. His voice echoed around the lakeside from strategically-placed loudspeakers. As I stood and waited, he approached one of the contestants who turned out to be an Australian. The Australian was exhausted. It was only the 5th time he had ever ice-skated.

Jokingly, he said to the interviewer, ‘there’ll be no Valentine’s Day romance today’.

‘Oh’ said the interviewer with typical direct Swedish communication style, ‘you mean you have no energy left for the bedroom?!’

The Australian looked a little embarrassed and said as he cringed, ‘Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it.’

I decided to move away from the tent area and proceeded down the slope and across the frozen lake to the finishing area. A large, inflatable archway marked the end of the 80km race. Lots of people huddled around waiting. Silence prevailed.

As exhausted racers lumbered across the finishing line, the crowd did nothing. No reaction. No cheering. No bravos. No clapping mittens. Nothing. Just staring with blank expressions. The silence was almost oppressive. How does that feel, I wondered, to have acheived such a magnificent feat and to come back to this? 80 km is a very long way! And nobody showed any appreciation! Not outwardly anyway. The Swedish value of modesty was very clear at that moment.

As I saw my partner approaching across the ice, I started waving my arms and jumping up and down. Perhaps I overcompensated somewhat.

I clapped my gloves and, with steamy breath, I shouted ‘Yeah! Come on! Bravo! Well, done! Keep going!’

I shouted ‘Brilliant! Looking good! Yeah!’

My voice echoed out over the lake and was suspended in the air like an embarrassment.

Now, I am not an over-expressive type. But compared to the Swedes I experienced yesterday, I was positively Italian.

Yes, yesterday, I felt very foreign indeed.

The Swedish pricks

When I was new in Sweden, I was walking down Katarinavägen on Södermalm with my Swedish mother-in-law. Katarinavägen has a fantastic view over the harbour and the city and far across the lake Mälaren. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and the air was crisp.

My mother-in-law, who doesn’t speak very good English, was struggling to keep the conversation going. She was pointing out different features in the cityscape. Over there is the animal park, over there is the green fairground.

She pointed at the large building looming into the sky behind the old town. I knew this red-brick building to be the city hall. The city hall has a large tower and embellishing the top of the tower is the symbol of Sweden – three shining crowns.

My mother-in-law pointed at the tower and said proudly,

‘That is the town hall – the house with the pricks in.’

She was referring to the crowns as ‘the pricks’ and she meant to say ‘on’ the roof.

However, without knowing it, she couldn’t have been closer to the truth.

This year is election year. Let’s make sure that the pricks stay on the roof and not inside the building.

It only takes a moment

In my job, I have the good fortune to work in different countries around the world. On one such jaunt, I was asked to run a workshop in Dubai. It was around the time that the USA and UK had invaded Irak and there was, to put it mildly, a great deal of tension in the middle East. Being British was far from popular. There had been a few cases of kidnappings and murders of foreign business people.

With this in mind, my American colleage and I decided to pretend we were Swedish. We spoke only Swedish to each other in public places. We said ‘We’re from Sveden’ if anybody asked us. It worked really well. Being Swedish in the Middle East was not considered provocative. We were able to bask under the long-standing, international reputation of the Swedes as honest, neutral and decent.

And actually, these are three of the stereotypes that other cultures have of Sweden. Years of ‘good behaviour’ has positioned Sweden in the international arena as a decent nation with strong integrity. Except in Poland.

Listening to the radio today, I heard a Swedish correspondent living in Warsaw. He talked about how, until recently, he was proud to say he was Swedish. But lately, he denied it vehemently. Two major things have happened to sully the reputation of Sweden in Poland.

In September last year, Swedish stockpiles of Cold War-era canned meat were sold to Poland. The meat, some as old as 27 years, was sold by a Swedish trading company for use in restaurants in Poland. Experts said the meat should only be used up to 10 years after it was packaged. After tests at the Agricultural College in Warsaw, Poland, the canned meat was found to be turning rancid. Basically, the meat that Sweden had sold was not fit to give to a dog – but fine for Poles.

On Thursday this week, a Swedish man was arrested in Stockholm over the theft of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The metal sign was stolen in December 2009 from above the entrance to the notorious Nazi death camp. It was later recovered, cut into three pieces. The 5m (16ft) wrought iron sign – the words on which translate as “Work sets you free” – symbolises for many the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

The theft caused outrage in Israel, Poland and around the world. More than a million people – 90% of them Jews – were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in occupied Poland during World War II.

So Sweden’s reputation is seriously, perhaps irretrievably, damaged in Poland.

It just goes to show that it can take decades to build a credible reputation but only moments to destroy it.

Equality in Sweden

One of the great Swedish values is that of equality. In comparison to other cultures, Sweden has probably come the furthest in terms of equality between the sexes.

Sweden, obviously, isn’t alone in believing in equality. Many other cultures believe it too. What is interesting is how equality is demonstrated in society. In other cultures equality might be demonstrated by positive discrimination of women for top management postions. It might be demonstrated by the way in which domestic roles are divided up. It might be demonstrated in the bedroom.

In Sweden, however equality is demonstrated in a different way. Here, it is a sense that everyone is the same as everyone else.

To help this, most Swedes have the same surnames, eg Svensson, Nilsson, Andersson, Persson. They earn roughly the same amount of money after tax. They have the same taste in furniture. They watch Melodifestival on Saturday nights in February. They dress alike and think alike. They socialise on Facebook and Twitter. They recycle. And, most tellingly, they go to Thailand in the winter.

Equality, Swedish style.

Avalanche in the city

In town today, pavements everywhere were cordoned off with orange pylons and hazard tape. Men in flourescent yellow coats were shouting ‘Watch out!’ and ‘Stand still!!’ and waving us pedestrians into the street and straight into the on-coming traffic.

Mounds of snow were pushed down from the roof-tops by men perched precariously on the roof tiles and attached by ropes and harnesses. A seemingly insecure occupation. The snow came exploding into the pavements below and splinters of ice and powdery snow billowed up like jets of steam. Walking through Stockholm today was like navigating a minefield with explosions to the left and to the right.

It seems like the snowy roof-tops have become too dangerous in the city. And when this happens, who do you call? The snow busters.

This is yet another strange part of life in Sweden. Avalanches in the city.

A birthday – Swedish style

This morning we had a power cut and the flat was plunged into darkness. It’s also my birthday and I was celebrated, accordingly, by candle light. In Sweden, birthdays are celebrated in much the same way as in other countries – presents, cake, songs. Although the birthday song in Swedish is bizarrely about hoping the birthday boy or girl lives to a hundred and is then pushed around in a wheelbarrow.

A few years ago, I had my 40th. I had a big party with 40 guests and we ate and danced into the night. At Swedish birthday parties, it’s quite common that the guests perform – singing a song with altered words, acting out a cabaret or reading poems. It’s a grand way to be celebrated.

The big birthdays are important in Sweden. Most people celebrate 30, 40, 50 with a bang. Some even say that 50 is the biggest party of your life. You celebrate your achievements and the journey your life has taken you on. This is quite different from the UK where people tend to want to forget that they are ageing. Small celebrations but nothing big. 40 is uncomfortable, and 50, my god – 50 is a nightmare.

And this reflects one of the differences I see in cultural behaviour between Sweden and the UK. Celebrations.

While Sweden maintains tradition and celebration, the UK has abandoned it. Christmas and New Year in the UK are probably the only national celebrations that survive. But in Sweden, festivities abound and traditions are kept alive. Apart from Christmas and New Year, there’s Lent, Easter, Walpurgis Eve, May Day, National Day, Midsummer, Crayfish party, ‘Surströmming’ premiére, the Eel feast, All Saints’ Day, St Martin’s Day, Advent, Lucia. Many of these celebrations revolve around tradional food and gathering together of friends and family.

Many Swedish traditions have ancient roots, others came with immigrants or the church. Regardless of the origin, Swedes observe and enjoy these traditions.

It’s a shame that traditional celebrations aren’t as important in other countries such as the UK anymore. They are a part of the life cycle here, giving shape to our lives and giving us a sense of time and seasonal rhythm.

I love the Swedish way of observing the traditions, eating the food and being together with friends and family.

So, Happy Birthday to me. I live in Sweden.