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.

Top ten list of Swedish values

In the world of cultural theory, there are many surveys carried out to try to charter the cultural tendencies of the different nationalities. One such survey tries to document what personal qualities Swedes believe they have, what they prioritise and how they want to see the future at work and in Sweden. It is a survey in which Swedes themselves reveal their own perceptions on what it is to be Swedish.

Foreigners living in Sweden – please check this top-ten list of values and see whether it matches your own experience of Sweden and the Swedes. Is it an accurate perception or is it a case of wishful thinking?

Top Ten Swedish Values

1) Honesty
2) Responsibility
3) Justice
4) Humour
5) Happiness
6) Togetherness
7) Meaningfulness
8) Involvement
9) Teamwork
10) Adaptability

Going with the flow

As a dog-owner, you are forced to go outside 4-5 times a day. Even in the deepest winter, you have to don hiking boots, fleecy jumper, thermal gloves, thick coat, woolly scarf and warm hat and venture out for a bracing walk in the battering wind.

Sometimes being outside is a very lonely experience. On the coldest, most-miserable days, there is hardly anybody else around. Just a few other sad dog-owners,an occasional lonesome jogger and a handful of hardy smokers huddled outside the local pub.

So, today, with the sun fixed brightly in the sky and the thermometer hovering around zero degrees, I head out with a smile on my face. It is a joy to be outside. I walk down my street, through the local square and down towards the lake. By the lake there’s a footpath. It’s always so lovely to stroll along there and admire the ice reflecting the sun and see the ducks bathing in the cracks and open areas. Stockholm really is a beautiful city. When the sun shines, the buildings radiate in orange and red.

Approaching the footpath, I notice what seems to be a queue. The kind of queue you see in a department store around Christmas time when kids line up to see Santa.

Strange, I think, has something happened?

I arrive at the end of the queue and realise that nothing has happened, it’s just the sheer volume of people that are lining up to go for a walk along the pathway. The queue is moving, but very slowly. Pensioners, young couples with push-chairs, dog-walkers, joggers, speed-walkers, cyclists,toddlers, groups of lads, it seems like everybody is out for a Sunday afternoon walk in the sunshine. Like a mass migration of lemmings, Stockholmers have left their homes and gone for a walk along the same stretch of footpath.

Me included. I go with the flow.

The walk is slow-going but eventually I make it to the other end. I feel pleased with myself that I have been so vigorous and out-doorsy. Then I scuttle across the street and plough home a different route to avoid having to press back through the crowd.

I’ve experienced this before in Stockholm, when I lived in a different part of town. At the first sign of sun, everybody goes out for a walk. Fully understandable, given the length and darkness of the winter.

In cultural theory, we talk a lot about how all cultures spring from a set of basic needs that we humans share. For instance, we all share the need for water, for food, for shelter. It’s just that we have solved how we meet these needs in different ways, depending on geography and circumstance. And it’s these differences that form the basis of culture.

In Stockholm, on a sunny Sunday in February, I guess we all share the same need. To breathe fresh air, to see light and to feel that maybe, just maybe, the winter is soon over.

Stockholm scoffs at the Bronx

Wandering from the beaten path in the Bronx, down back alleys amongst trash cans and restaurant containers is known to be dangerous. It’s just not something you’d do.

Entering the council estate off Coldharbour Lane in Brixton in London, past the brick buildings with narrow walkways and tiny windows is also known to be dangerous. You just wouldn’t do it.

And in Johannesburg, you wouldn’t venture out into the shanty towns at night, away from the bright lighted protection of the tourist area. Sad, but true. Unless you had a death wish, you just wouldn’t do it.

But Stockholm is comparatively safe. Most of us feel secure travelling on public transport, making eye contact with a stranger on the street and walking home late and night.

True? No!

Stockholm is a dangerous city! A city where you walk on the wild side. Where you take your life in your hands every time you walk out of the house. A town where you live on the knife edge.

In today’s newspaper, the cover story was about a woman recuperating in a local hospital. She’d been walking down the street, minding her own business when a block of ice plummeted from a snowy rooftop and smacked her in the head. She survived with stitches but it could’ve been much worse. A few years ago, a teenage boy was killed by a lump of ice that slid off a rooptop and crushed his skull as he walked along the road.

So, I scoff at the Bronx, at Brixton and at Johannesburg. It’s us in Stockholm who look death in the eye every time we leave the building.

Somewhere over Skåne

On a sunny May day a few years ago, a conversation was overheard between a pilot (nationality unknown) and a Swedish air steward approaching Malmö airport.

Pilot: “What are those yellow fields below us?”
Steward: “They’re probably rape fields.”
Pilot: “Oh, you have special fields for that in Sweden?”

(Note to all Swedes: It’s often better to say ‘rape-seed’)

What Estonians, Finns and Swedes have in common

I am currently in Helsinki running a training course. During the morning today, one of the participants mentioned something that he called ‘Estonia complex’. Probing closer, I understood this to mean the big brother complex that Estonia has towards Finland, the feeling of being the country cousin, the smaller player, an inferior.

Interesting concept, this. I have also heard that the Finns have a similar feeling of inferiority towards the Swedes. This possibly comes from the shared history of the two countries and that Finland once belonged to Sweden. This is something you still see evidence of here in Helsinki. All the signs are written both in Finnish and Swedish, for example. ‘The Swedish Theatre’ has a very dominant postion on the main street next to the main department store. Many citizens are fluent in Swedish as well as in their own language.

But this ‘big brother complex’ also exists in Sweden, in my experience. Sweden often compares itself to the rest of the world, with a kind of inferiority complex. Stockholm is referred to as ‘The Venice of the North’, Gothenburg as ‘Little London’, Vänersborg as ‘Little Paris’, Österlen in Skåne as ‘Sweden’s Provence’. It’s not unusual, in the winter, to hear Stockholmers telling visitors, somewhat apologetically, ‘in the summer, this is full of outdoor cafés, just like in southern Europe’.

So this inferiority complex is something that Estonia, Finland and Sweden have in common. I think it’s time to shake off these out-dated comparatives and be proud of their own unique cultural beauty.

If there’s something I’ve learned as I’ve gone through life, it’s this. We should define ourselves by what we are, instead of by what we are not.

I think these three Baltic countries would serve themselves well if they adopted this attitude.

Ten commandments of envy

‘Jantelagen’ is the ten commandments of envy. It was created by Aksel Sandemose, a Danish author, in the 1930’s.

1. You shall not think you are anything
2. You shall not think you are as good as us
3. You shall not think you are cleverer than us
4. You shall not think you are better than us
5. You shall not think you know more than us
6. You shall not think you are superior to us
7. You shall not think you are good enough for anything
8. You shall not laugh at us
9. You shall not think that anyone cares about you
10. You shall not think you can teach us anything

Sounds exactly like my methodist upbringing in the North-East of England. Spooky!