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.

How Swedes reflect on their mortality

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Thankfully, it isn’t every day that you are faced with death. It is isn’t every day we contemplate our own mortality. Probably a good thing. Imagine what life would be like if we thought about death all the time.

But this weekend is an opportunity to do just that. Tomorrow is All Saints’ Eve. Well, not technically. All Saints’ Eve is actually October 31st. But in Sweden, they are practical and, since 1953, they round it up to the nearest weekend and call it a public holiday.

Legislation aside, tomorrow is the day in Sweden when people reflect over life, death and those who have passed away. It is a peaceful time. It is a beautiful time.

Graveyards around the country twinkle with candle light. Relatives flock to the burial grounds and light candles and lanterns and place them by the graves of their loved ones. It is a miraculous sight to see the dark cemetries twinkling and glowing with bright white lights. It brings scerenity and majesty to an otherwise intensive and dark time of the year.

On Österlen in the rural south of Sweden, they have taken it a step further. A festival called ‘Österlen Lyser’ – Österlen shines – happens this weekend. The dark villages and fields are lit up with candles, flares, lanterns and torches. People play lantern-illuminated night time boule by the edge of the sea. Choirs sing, windows glow and open bonfires celebrate this dark time of the year.

It isn’t every day that you are faced with death. Full respect to Halloween, which is also taking hold in Sweden, but I don’t need to be reminded of witches, vampires and zombies. The less commercial traditional Swedish approach provides a more reflective vehicle for us to contemplate our own mortality and remember those we loved.

Swedish life balance

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It’s said that Swedes have an enviable work life balance and this festive season has been no exception. Similar to many countries, Christmas and New Year are both bank holidays in Sweden. Similar to a few countries, today is also a bank holiday – kings’ day, epiphany or the twelfth day of Christmas. Biblically it signifies the arrival of the three wise men and the baptism of Jesus. Secularly, it means another day off for most people.

This festive season has been a great opportunity for time off. By taking only 5 days’ holiday, workers have been able to be off for two and a half weeks. And with 8 days’ holiday – 3 weeks off was the reward.

A strong belief in work life balance is behind this. In general, Swedes work really hard and are dedicated. Coupled with the darkness at this time of the year, many people are exhausted by the time Christmas comes around. A long break is seen as a necessary way to recharge batteries, and regain motivation. There’s a great Swedish word that you frequently hear after these long breaks – people describe themselves as ‘utvilade’. This translates as ‘thoroughly rested’, and is essential to survive the long, dingy winter season.