Do Swedes have no heart?

Working recently in India, one question I received was ‘why don’t Swedes greet us with heart?’ This was referring to when Indians visit colleagues in Sweden, or when they start working together in new constellations.

It is an interesting perception, and maybe not a new one. The experience of Swedes as cold, unfriendly and disengaged seems common, and genuinely baffles a lot of non-Swedish people.

Firstly, I would like to say that in general this is not true. It is just a perception. Many of the Swedes I know are kind, generous and affectionate. However, I do have a few theories as to why this perception prevails.

Expressiveness – how much it is appropriate to express emotion is something that we are trained in from childhood. Some cultures train their children to use their entire bodies when they communicate, others train their children to be more reserved. Generally Swedes are trained to be emotionally inexpressive. What they mean is clearly in their words, and not so much their bodies or faces. And this can lead more physically expressive cultures to presume they are cold. So it is important to understand that lack of expression should not be confused with lack of feeling.

Importance of relationships. Swedes do have many close friendships and family ties. However, this doesn’t necessarily extend to neighbors or colleagues. While in other cultures, strong close relationships with colleagues are essential for getting the job done, in Sweden isn’t the case. Relationships help, but they are not essential for carrying out the task. This means Swedes can go to work and be friendly towards each other, but don’t necessarily need to make friends or show a great deal if interest in each others private lives. This can be frustrating for people who come from strongly relationship-oriented cultures.

Independence. Swedish culture is amongst the most individualistic cultures in the world. In Swedish society, this manifests itself in the attitude that every able-bodied person can take care of themselves. This means that the Swedish attitude is generally if you want help you will ask for it. And you usually get it. The fact that help is rarely offered was a hard lesson for me to learn when moving to ‘unhelpful’ Sweden.

The peach and the coconut. Some cultures are like peaches – soft on the outside, easy to get into, open in communication, overtly friendly. Other cultures are like coconuts – hard shelled, difficult to get into and less open to people outside the group. Typically, but not exclusively, Swedish culture is ‘coconutty’ and Indian is peachy. This can mean it’s a challenge for people from peachy cultures to break into Swedish society and easy for them to form the perception that Swedes are cold and unwelcoming. My experience tells me, however, that once you break through the shell, the friendships that you make are very close and lasting. It is easy to assume when you meet a Swede that he or she is shy or introvert. This might be the case, but not necessarily. He or she might just be a coconut.

Great Swedish Women -Part 5 – The Legend 

Since March 8th was International Women’s Day, I  am writing a series on Great Swedish Women, past and present: women with strength and passion, women who create change. For seven days, I am writing about these women, one per day. I hope you want to join me in celebrating them.

Part 5 – the vengeful Viking Blenda.

In the county of Småland in Southern Sweden, there is a legend about a brave Viking woman named Blenda. According to legend, the menfolk of Småland were at war in Norway, leaving the women and children alone and defenceless. The Danes learned of this and chose this moment to invade and attacked the region.  Blenda was a woman of noble descent and she decided to rally all the womenfolk in the hundreds of Konga, Albo, Kinnevald, Norrvidinge and Uppvidinge. The women armies assembled on the Brávellir, which according to Smålandish tradition is located in Värend.

The women approached the Danes and told them how much they were impressed with Danish men. They invited the men to a banquet where they were provided with food and drink. After a long evening, the Danish warriors fell asleep and the women killed every single one of them with axes and staffs.

When the king returned, he bestowed new rights on the women. They acquired equal inheritance with their brothers and husbands, the right always to wear a belt around their waists as a sign of eternal vigilance and the right to beat the drum at weddings amd wear armour.

There have been various disputes about the validity of this legend, if and when it happened. One theory is that it happened around the year 500. At this time, female soldiers existed in Sweden. Called Shieldmaidens, three hundred are known to have fought during the great Battle of Bråvalla in 750.

Blenda is perhaps the first known woman in a long line of strong Swedish women who defend themselves from aggressors and contribute to better equal rights between the sexes.

Riddusola the Gorgon and the stone statues

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Long, long ago, in Stockholm there was a very grand building which stood alone on its own private island.

This grand building was the place where all the decisions were made. The King, the Prime Minister, the Mayor and the other dignitaries used to meet there to discuss the problems of their times. To get to the building, they had to take a small boat from the town and cross the choppy waters of lake Mälaren. 

Around the same time, slightly to the North of the town, there was a deep grotto and inside lived a gorgon that went by the name of Riddusola. Riddusola was a terrible, terrible gorgon. She had the head of a black goat and the slimy body of a snake. Attached to her back, she had huge wings which were covered in sharp spikes. Riddusola could travel fast over land and water, and she had a terrifying stare. With one look into her eyes, a person would be immediately turned to stone.

Now and again Riddusola would appear from her grotto and descend upon the town. She would slither down streets and across squares, she would glide through the canals and lakes and she would hunt her prey. She wasn’t so fussy. She would eat anything as long as it was alive. But what she liked best was the taste of human flesh. On regular occasions, pigs would go missing, or even children, and their dull cries would be heard from the deepest depths of the gorgon’s grotto.

Early one autumn evening, Riddusola was out in the town hunting for pray when she saw the little boat carrying passengers across to the grand buidling which stood on its own island. Quickly, she jumped into the water and eeled her way towards the boat. As she neared, she saw the boat arrive at the island and the passengers disembarked. There were some lovely, juicy fat people in that boat she thought as she ploughed closer. Suddenly a soldier looked into the water and saw the gorgon approaching. He urgently ushered the dignitaries into the building and slammed the door. But that pathetic door was nothing for a gorgon and Riddusola crashed into the building sending its occupants fleeing in all directions. Oh how she feasted that day! And those she didn’t eat had looked her in the eyes and were immediately turned to stone.

Then Riddusola had an idea. The grand building was rather comfortable she thought – the perfect place for her to live. It was close to the town and also on the edge of the lake. But how could she live here undisturbed? She knew if she was so close then the townspeople would try to kill her in her sleep. So she had another idea – she would have to terrify them!

The next morning, the townspeople of Stockholm awoke and went about their daily business. Down by the waterside, they were doing their laundry when they noticed something strange about the grand building on the ísland. They approached it and looked from the other side of the water. No! Could it be true? They witnessed a horrific sight and they ran as fast as they could back to the safety of their homes. There, on the grand building, Riddusola had made a change. Stone figures now ordaned the roof. The stone figures were facing different directions and were clearly the putrified remains of the King, the Prime Minister, the Mayor and other dignitaries,

The grand building is still there, although no longer on an island. It is surrounded by roads and is today called Riddarhuset, Thankfully, the gorgon is long gone. But if you look to the roof, you will see them. The stone remains of the people who looked Riddusola in the eyes.