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.

Swedish expressions: to shit in the blue cupboard

In Swedish, when you have landed yourself in trouble, or made a fool of yourself, you can use the delightful expression ‘shit in the blue cupboard’.

Example: ‘oh no, Edward really has shit in the blue cupboard now’.

So where does this originate? After some exploration, I have discovered what is recognised as the most likely explanation.

Centuries ago in Sweden, furniture was painted red and okra as this colour was cheap and easy to produce. Around the 1800’s new production methods enabled the production of blue paint – Berlin blue – and this was more expensive and seen as more exclusive. Consequently, people used this colour to paint the cupboard where they kept their finer pieces of porcelain, silver and linens.

In these times, the population used potties to go to the toilet in. Putting the potty into the blue cupboard, amongst the finer articles, was seen as a really stupid thing to do. And so the expression developed in relation to foolish acts.

My helpful guide to how you can survive Midsummer in Sweden.

With Midsummer rapidly approaching tomorrow, it is worth planning for your survival.

Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers.

As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself. And follow this simple survival guide to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.

Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way is as follows, shake hands and look direct in eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. If you are feeling adventurous, follow it up with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.

Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps  With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the dessert has even been put on the table.

Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs

If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of showing a bit of genital when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.

Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. To survive this, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.

Rubbers will save the day. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. If you don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.

Throw in the thermals. Perhaps you think it’s going to be sunny and warm on Midsummer’s Eve? Well, think again. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.

Same, but different. Don’t expect culinary excesses on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small exceptions – strawberries and new potatoes.

Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs.  Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time

Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.

Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…

That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden. Glad Midsommar!

Swedish ways to die #3 Death by cyclist

In this short series, I explore how death can also be cultural. Here is number 3.

The summer season is well and truly here. It brings with it wonderful things such as picnics, batheable water, barbecues, sun tans and crispy pink wine.

However, there is a downside. The summer also presents some horrors such as disease-spreading ticks, pollen explosions, forest fires and demons on two wheels. Yes, cyclists. Of all the plagues to tarnish the summer, the cyclists are probably the worst. They can be the harbingers of death.

In Stockholm, cyclists often move in swarms. Like a disturbed hive, they flourish over the horizon and zoom down the streets, mercilessly crushing everything in their path. God help the poor pedestrian who gets in the way. In the best case, you receive abuse, in the worst case a collision occurs which causes the pedestrian to literally and metaphorically, bite the dust.

Most accidents and deaths happen on crossings. Arrogant, egocentric Swedish cyclists don’t seem to think that traffic rules apply to them. So a red stop light only applies to cars. For the cyclist it means ‘no, not you, please keep cycling, and preferably really fast’.

The morbid scenario is easy to envisage. The pedestrian stands patiently and waits to cross the street. Finally, he or she receives the signal from the green man. He or she steps confidently onto the crossing and BAAM! Death by cyclist! A rather Swedish way to die.

The Nobel Prize of SHAME

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In egalitarian Sweden, there is an elitist, powerful, elected-for-life committee called The Swedish Academy. This (royal) Academy is an appointed committee of 18 members whose purpose is to further the ‘purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language.’ To this aim, they are guardians of the Swedish dictionary, and they award many prizes and scholarships to domestic authors. A mostly dusty, bourgeois old bunch, they also are responsible for awarding the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature every year.

But not this year. Sex and shame has stopped them.

Today, the Academy announced they will not be awarding a 2018 prize. This has only happened 6 times since its beginnings in 1901  – during the world wars and in 1935, when no worthy winner was identified.

On its website, the academy writes ‘The present decision was arrived at in view of the currently diminished Academy and the reduced public confidence in the Academy.”

The ‘reduced confidence’ they are referring to is the rampaging sexual assault scandal that has engulfed the organisation. Several members of the academy have been slandered, scapegoated and forced out, or left at the own volition.

So no prize in literature this year, but most certainly a prize in shame.

It all started last November in regard to the husband of author Katarina Frostenson who is a member of the Academy. Her husband, photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, who ran a cultural project, with funding from the Swedish Academy itself, was accused by 18 women of sexual assault and harassment. Some of this allegedly happened in Academy premises. It has later been suggested that he even groped Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria at a formal event.  Naturally, Mr Arnault denies the allegations.

This threw the Academy into turmoil. What unfolded in front of us was a drama of betrayal, sexism, power struggle, internal conflict, dishonesty and manipulation. It was like ‘Culture News’ meets ‘Downton Abbey’. Subsequently, a wave of resignations followed, including Ms Frostenson and the head of the academy, Sara Danius.

Today, there are only 11 members in place but the diminished academy requires a quorum of 12 to vote in any new members.

Since its beginning in 1786, the Academy has only ever allowed 9 women to sit in the committee. 9 women! It is clearly yet another example of a white, male-dominated, middle-class organisation. Can it change? Maybe the only way is to rip down this tower and build it up again in a more egalitarian spirit? Surely, the Academy should represent the population in ethnicity and gender at the very least?

The Academy’s slogan is ‘snille och smak’ – which translates as ‘talent and taste’.

Ironic isn’t it, that they are currently demonstrating neither of them.

Sweden’s Easter tree – wiping, witching or whipping?

In Sweden, they don’t only have Christmas trees, they also have Easter trees.

This Easter tree, known as ‘påskris’, is a handful of twigs and sticks (usually birch) installed in a vase with coloured feathers attached to the ends. People often hang painted eggs and other decorations such as chickens in their installation. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country at this time of year: outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, in gardens, in the middle of roundabouts.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena – but where does it originate?

Wiping: 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.

Witching: 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.

Whipping: But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. Swedish people, in the 1600’s, used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with them 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?