Neil Shipley on Swedish culture – the strange, the special and the sublime
Author: Neil Shipley's watching the Swedes
Since 1994, I've been watching the Swedes. Not in a creepy, obsessive way, but like an adventurer in unknown territory who carefully observes his surroundings.
I run a training company with my American business partner in Stockholm. We hold seminars and workshops in Cultural Awareness and Communication.
For more info about this check out www.keytraining.se
In Swedish there is an expression ‘att koka soppa på en spik’ (to make soup from a nail). This is used to mean that somebody has the ability to accomplish or produce something through minimal means; to produce something with no or very little available material. It can be used to describe inventiveness and perseverance.
Where does the expression come from?
It originates in a traditional Swedish fairy tale about a tramp who tricks a miserly old woman into giving him soup. The tramp has only a saucepan and a nail which he begins to boil to make soup. He then asks the old woman for some herbs to add flavour. By gradually asking for more and more ingredients, he succeeds in the end to make an edible soup from the nail.
Sometimes in the sporting world, the name of the sportsperson really suits the sport. I think this is kinda funny. Here’s a list of some sportspeople, Swedish and other, and their highly relevant names:
Johanna Skottheim – Swedish Biathlon skier (with skis and a gun). Skott means shot in Swedish.
Sara Sjöström – Swedish swimmer. Sjöström means lake stream
Timo Boll – German table tennis player. Boll means ball in Swedish.
Josh Beaver – Australian swimmer
Zhu Ting – A Chinese football player – pronounced ‘shoo-ting’
Nathan Leeper – an American high jumper
Jeffrey Float – an American swimmer
Anna Smashnova – a Russian tennis player
Tiger Woods – an American golfer – wood is a type of golf club
Usain Bolt – fastest man in the world, a bolt of lightning from Jamaica.
Pernilla Wiberg- Swedish Alpine skier. ’Berg’ means mountain in Swedish.
I remember the first Swedish film I ever saw. I was living in London, and there was a film festival in a cinema on the South Bank. I’d never heard of the film, but had heard of the author who’s book it was based on – Astrid Lindgren. The film was called ‘Ronja, the robber’s daughter’, and it was a dramatic romp set in the Viking era. I loved it.
Since then, I’ve seen many Swedish films, of varying quality, from Christmas romcoms to Bergman. The Swedish film industry is alive and kicking, and many films are released in the Swedish language every year. Sweden even has its own center of film-making lovingly nick-named Trollywood.
If you’re self-isolated at home and you’d like to watch a Swedish film, here are some that I think are good, in no particular order:
1. ‘Monica Z’ – drama about Swedish jazz legend Monica Zetterlund, played amazingly by singer Edda Magnusson.
2. ‘Border’ (Gräns) – dark drama about a border guard who can smell fear
3. ‘As it is in heaven’ (Så som i himmelen) – drama about a famous conductor who retires to a remote village and takes over the local choir. Drama ensues.
4. ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (Män som hatar kvinnor) – a action thriller about legendary anti-hero Lisbet Salander and a twisted murder mystery plot. Starring Noomi Rapace.
5. ‘House of Angels’ (Änglagård) – a comedy drama about a modern young woman who inherits a house from her mother in a small rural village. But she is not welcomed by all.
6. ‘The Dalecarlians’ (Masjävlarna) – a comedy drama about a woman who visits her hometown to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. An urban-rural clash takes centre stage. Starring ‘The Bridge’s Sofia Helin.
7. ‘Fanny and Alexander’ – a long Bergman film about a wealthy family in Uppsala. A classic Christmas saga and probably the only Bergman film that everybody likes.
8. ‘Let the Right One in’ (Låt den rätte kommer in) – a drama horror film about a vampire child living in a dark Stockholm suburb
9. ’My life as a dog’ (Mitt liv som hund) – a drama about a young boy and his odd way of dealing with life’s set backs.
10. ’The Hunters’ (Jägarna) – a drama thriller about a wicked group of hunters in the north of Sweden.
11. ’A man called Ove’ (en man som heter Ove) – a drama comedy based on the best-selling novel about the adventures of a grumpy, old man in a Swedish small town.
12. ‘Show me Love’ (Fucking Åmål) – a drama comedy love story between two young girls in the conservative town of Åmål.
In his recent statement, Trump yet again criticized Sweden. This time it was about Sweden’s approach to the corona pandemic. Not only was his statement bizarre, but it was factually wrong. But, hey, who’s surprised?
What’s more intriguing is Trump’s interest in Sweden. This isn’t the first time he’s negatively commented on what’s happening in this relatively small country. From making false claims about everything from immigrants and refugees, to riots and rappers, the man seems obsessed. He even tried to interfere in Sweden’s legal system and accused the Swedish Prime Minister or ‘letting the USA’s African American community down’ when he didn’t get his way.
So why the obsessive focus on Sweden?
Film-maker Ami Horowitz, who made a documentary about Sweden, believes Trump periodically brings up the country in his speeches and tweets because it represents a “liberal bastion that in a lot ways is very different from the United States … Democratic socialism, open immigration policy, high taxes, welfare state, there’s no question Sweden is a paradigm of things the president doesn’t like.”
Although he claims to have a friendly relationship with Sweden, the country is a thorn in the President’s side. In other words, a constant reminder that there are other ways to run a country. It scares him. Sweden consistently trumps USA in research on quality of life, equality, opportunity, happiness, safety, entrepreneurship, education levels…..oh the list is long. This must really trample on Trump’s toes. In 2019, Sweden was ranked ‘the most reputable country’ in the world. USA came in at number 17. Ooh, that must sting someone with an enormous ego.
Part of Sweden’s reputability comes from the quality of its politicians. Here, we have a long line of Prime Ministers who behave in a dignified manner. While the USA is important to Sweden, Trump really isn’t. Like most politicians, he is temporary. His days are numbered. But Sweden’s positive relationship with America will continue long after the country has said goodbye to their presidential man child. And hopefully their next leader will be one who respects differences rather than one who fears them.
In the UK, Easter eggs are usually bought ready-made. The big egg is itself made of chocolate, and inside is a small bag of more chocolates. It is wrapped in colourful packaging, and marketed around a particular brand of chocolate such as Maltesers, or Buttons or Dairy Milk.
For me that was what an Easter egg liked like. Until I moved to Sweden. Here, Easter eggs look quite different. The Swedish egg is usually an inedible cardboard egg, emblazoned with colourful Easter motifs. It can also be made of tin or porcelain. So, the egg itself is also the packaging. Inside the egg, is pick ‘n’ mix, usually consisting of a few candied eggs and other well-chosen sweets such as cola bottles, sour dummies and fudge. This style of Easter egg was actually also popular in the UK around the reign of Queen Victoria.
This year, however, manufacturers of pick ‘n’ mix sweets have reported a huge decline in sales. This is probably due to the corona virus and people’s concern about hygiene.
Giving Easter eggs as gifts in Sweden became popular in the 1800’s and was facilitated by the paper-making industry. Although decorating eggs dates further back, to the 1600’s, when Swedes would paint eggs to celebrate the spring.
Whatever the type of egg the Easter bunny brings you this year, I hope you enjoy it!
There is an irony to the fact that we are socially distancing, quarantining and home working specifically during this week. In Swedish, this week is called ‘Stilla Veckan’ – which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’.
‘Stilla Veckan’ is a term in the Swedish church calendar to describe the week leading up to Easter – the last week of Lent. In English, we call it Holy Week.
Every day in ‘Stilla Veckan’ has a name. Holy Saturday is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish, which translates as Easter Eve. Do you know what the Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to Easter are called?
The Sunday before Easter is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday in English. According to scripture, it commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The crowds threw palm branches in front of him as he approached.
The Monday before Easter is called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday. It can also be called ‘Svart Måndag’, (Black Monday), ’Bullmåndag’ (Bun Monday), ’Fläskmåndag’ (Pork Monday) and ’Korvmåndag’ (Sausage Monday). It is called a predictable Holy Monday in English.
The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). This is called Holy Tuesday in English.
Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally used to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins in Ash Wednesday. At some point in history, they were moved colloquially to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, and probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.
The Wednesday before Easter is, unsurprisingly, called Holy Wednesday in English. However, in Swedish it had the fascinating name ‘Dymmelonsdag’. This literally translates as ‘Clapper Wednesday’. The clapper that this is referring to is a wooden clapper that was traditionally put inside the church bells on this day so that the chimes would have a more subdued sound during Easter weekend.
The Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. This translates as ‘Clean Thursday’ and refers to the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. In English, this day is called Maundy Thursday.
And finally, the Friday before Holy Saturday is called Good Friday in English. This is derived from an obsolete meaning of the word good as being holy. In Old English, this day was called Long Friday, which is the name that was adopted in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’.
Both Sweden and the UK have reigning monarchs. The UK’s has Queen Elisabeth II and Sweden has King Carl Gustaf XVI. Like most of the European monarchs, they are related to each other. King Carl Gustaf is a descendent of the UK’s Queen Victoria, making him and Queen Elisabeth third cousins.
The other evening, they both gave a speech to their respective nations in regards to the corona pandemic. And they were like chalk and cheese.
I first watched the Swedish King’s speech. This bumbling, friendly man stumbled his way through his speech. Heavily dependent on his paper notes, he sounded a bit robotic to me. A friend of mine said it was like watching a trained chimp. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Swedish King. He seems like a nice man. But as a father of the nation in times of crisis, he missed the mark for me.
Then I watched the British Queen. This imperturbable woman, looking straight into that camera, embodied calm and credibility. In her typical restrained manner, her speech had depth and meaning, and her words were truly comforting in a crisis – from the nation’s mother.
I reflected over the two speeches, and why my reaction was so different. Part of it was definitely influenced by the delivery of the speech. The Queen used an auto prompt which enabled her to look into the camera, straight into the living rooms of her subjects. The King also looked into the camera but read from paper notes, meaning he frequently lost vital connection with his audience. The Queen spoke fluently, the King, who has dyslexia, struggled through his speech. The Queen looked dignified and prepared. The King looked like a stunned uncle who has unexpectedly been called upon to deliver a speech at a funeral.
However, I think the main difference for me lies in the cultural value of language. Even though I can speak Swedish, King Carl Gustaf’s words did not resonate with me. I understood him but was not moved by him. His words hit me in the brain, but not the heart. In comparison, English is my mother tongue, my native language. I have a more emotional relationship to English. When words of gravitas are spoken in my native language, I experience them with depth and fullness.
This really surprises me. I’ve been in Sweden over 25 years, I speak Swedish on a daily basis, and many of my relationships are in Swedish only. Yet in times of crisis and seriousness, words in my first language cut through Swedish like a knife through butter. It goes to show the mark that our first language leaves on us – our language of feeling. This is the language that indelibly forms our emotional cultural identity.
In the wake of covid-19, the National Agency of Public Health has provided the Swedish population with recommendations and advice. However, it seems that these very words ‘recommendation’ (rekommendation) and ‘advice’ (råd) are causing problems for many people.
How do you understand the word ‘recommendation’? Maybe it’s a friend who is making a suggestion to you? Or a family member who is promoting a certain behaviour? Or a respected critic who is letting you know what restaurant you should eat at? For most of us, the words ‘recommendation’ and ‘advice’ imply a suggestion that we can decide to listen to or not, act on or not. This is how we understand it.
But it doesn’t always mean this and this is where linguistic confusion is arising. As I understand it in Swedish, when ‘recommendation’ or ‘advice’ is used by a government authority it is not something to be taken as a suggestion – it is a serious instruction that has to be followed. It is the strongest action an authority can take. The next step is a law change decided by the parliament.
So when the Swedish Agency for Public Health recommends that we stand 2 meters apart, it is not a recommendation as we might understand it, it is a strict instruction, and does not include a high level of individual choice. It is the step before criminalising something.
In his press briefing today, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said ‘allmänna råd från myndigheter är ingen lösa tips. Det förväntas att (alla) som omfattas av råden följer dem. Inte ibland, utan varje dag och varje minut.’ This translates roughly as ’general advice from an authority is not just a tip. Everybody who is covered by this advice is expected to follow it. Not just sometimes, but every day and every minute.’
This confusion between colloquial terminology and governmental terminology can explain a lot of the behaviour and attitudes we see around us. People are not defying the authorities, they just think that recommendations are elective.
But the bottom line is this – we do not have a choice, even though we might interpret it so. We are obliged to all follow the instructions we are provided with. Zealously.
If we do this, we avoid criminalization and curfew and hopefully can together quickly crush corona.
With Easter approaching, Swedes start pimping their homes. Yellow table cloths, yellow curtains and yellow tulips are common, as is something called a ‘påskris’. Pronounced ‘poskrees’, this is a Swedish Easter tree.
The Easter tree is a bunch of twigs and sticks (usually birch) in a vase with brightly coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people also hang decorated eggs, colourful ribbons or festive chickens. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours’ gardens. It is a very popular decoration, probably because it brings colour at a time of the year when most flowers haven’t yet bloomed in Sweden.
The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena. In fact, all products of a society are. This is because they originate somewhere and, often, we have forgotten the origin but still maintain the product or behaviour.
What’s the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then?
Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.
Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.
But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. It dates from the 1600’s. Swedish people at this time were more pious, and used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with on Good Friday – to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.
So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?
The word ‘’svennigt’ is a slang term to refer to the typical, middle of the road Swede. Derived from the common surname Svensson, ‘svennig’ describes the lifestyle preferences and attitudes of the mainstream Swede.
Depending on the intention, the word ‘’svennig’ can be used endearingly, or even proudly, to refer to the ‘typical Swede’ or the typical Swedish. It can also be used as an insult. I often hear the word, laced with contempt, to undermine or criticize other people’s behaviours and choices. There is a definite class element to the term, where ‘svennigt’ implies lack of sophistication.
In American English, the closest comparison is ‘Average Joe’. In British English, there’s no real equivalent but ‘Joe Bloggs’ comes closest. However, in both of these, there is no element of ridicule, and they aren’t used as an insult; they are used just to describe an average person in the population.
Since ‘svennigt’ can have many different interpretations, I went onto social media and carried out some informal research. I asked people what was ‘svennigt’ for them. My hope was to get closer to an understanding. While there were some overlaps, I received a lot of differing inputs – positive, negative, and neutral. Most of the people who answered were themselves Swedish. Here are some of the perspectives:
Being afraid of conflict but still whingeing
Being politically correct, but harbouring other opinions under the surface
Binge drinking at the weekends
Eating pickled herring at every national celebration
Eating Salty licorice
Eating TexMex on a Friday evening
Going to ‘After work’ on Fridays
Going to Golden Hits nightclub
Going on holiday in a Caravan/ Trailer
Going to the Canary Islands
Having a ‘Poodle’ hair-do
Liking Swedish dance band music
Loving the singer Carola and wondering why she hasn’t succeeded internationally
Playing car bingo
Quoting and laughing at lines from Swedish film Sällskapsresan
Reading Camilla Läckberg, author of crime fiction
Saying the vague, non-committal words ‘Jaha’ and ‘Nja’ when you actually disagree
Shopping at Ullared
Sweet loaves of bread
Talking about the weather
Talking about what is ‘typically Swedish’
Taking Löfbergs Lila coffee och Kalles kaviar fish paste when you travel abroad
Watching Lets dance/Strictly Dancing
Watching Melody festival
Wearing matching tracksuits
Working 9-5 and saying ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ at the end of the week
Worrying what other people think
As you see, these descriptions are very wide-ranging. It seems hard to nail down one particular attribute, attitude or behaviour that makes somebody ‘svennig’; it depends very much on the perception. Being ‘svennig’ is in the eye of the beholder. That said, judging by the responses above, it seems like we are all a bit ‘svennig’ now and again.
Please share this article and feel free to add your perspective on it.