A Conversation with a Native Swede
Native Swedes keep asking me one question: why Sweden? Why did I choose to study here? What brought me to their Nordic country? I never really know quite what to tell them, because the truth is that I’m really not sure why I chose it, and any reasons that I do have probably won’t satisfy their question. In reality, I suppose that I chose Sweden because the study abroad program (DIS) had a table at Colby and they gave me a keychain. They seemed well put together and I had heard of some other people who had studied with this program and had had a good experience. Ultimately, what sold me was that there was a class to study Forensic Psychology, something that Colby doesn’t offer, and it was in English (there was also a part of me that didn’t want to conform and be one of the 1,000,000 psychology majors going to Copenhagen).
My true reasons (keychain and all) seemed enough to answer the question, but it often leaves the native Swedes who asked it feeling unsatisfied. They then ask me what my perception of Sweden was growing up in America, and I usually have to dance around the fact that I actually never really thought anything of it. I knew Sweden was a country, I could probably locate it on a map (or at least be close, I probably would’ve gotten it mixed up with Norway), and I knew that it was what IKEA and H&M were from. And there was something about meatballs too. Other than that, Sweden never really crossed my mind. It was lumped into the category of “not America” and therefore was none of my concern.
Upon first coming to Sweden, I would say that I was pleasantly surprised. Sweden was clean and the people appeared decent. People spoke Swedish, but all I had to do was say “Sorry?” or “What?” and they would instantly switch to English (I’m supposed to be trying to speak Swedish with people, don’t tell my Swedish teacher that I’m not). However, there were some things that I instantly noticed were quite different. So, after the Native Swedes ask me my original perception of Sweden (and are subsequently disappointed by my answer), they usually ask me what I think about it now. What is “konstig”, or weird, for me about Swedish culture as opposed to what I’m used to in The States. So, I present to you a list of my usual answers about what I, a native Coloradoan who, before coming to Colby, had never even been to the east coast, finds “konstig” about Sweden:
- Every day at work they have “fika” breaks, or short time blocks where coworkers sit down with each other, eat a pastry, have tea/coffee, and don’t talk about work. Crazy, right?
- You have to apply to get into high school- Your only grades in early education are the from the years leading up to high school, and these determine whether or not you get accepted. Kids can apply to specialty high schools or more prestigious high schools (all of which are free- no one pays anything for education in Sweden) and it all depends on the grades they have. Similarly, extracurriculars are not a thing that schools care about, so kids are free to do what they want. You’re not expected to be in school all day and then stay after for the 1,000 activities you have to be involved in for colleges to even look at you. America needs to take notes.
- Smiling at someone when you walk down the street or talking to someone at the bus stop is seen as extremely odd. Initially, I saw this as weird and rude. In reality, they intend it as being kind to one another, or that you don’t want to interrupt another’s private time with small talk. I actually wouldn’t mind this existing back home.
- The table manners here are extreme (or at least extreme to me, someone who uses a spoon to eat basically everything). You keep your knife in your dominant hand and your fork in your non-dominant hand, and you don’t set them down at any point in the meal. I was having dinner with a Swedish family and actually had to apologize in advance for my lack of proper Swedish d
- Everybody here is so nice. If you can get past the “no small talk” thing, that is (but even their lack of small talk is with the intention of being nice).
- Everything is so clean! New York subways are quaking.
- Their cinnamon rolls (kanelbulle) are no match for American cinnamon rolls (sorry, Sweden).
- There is something called “The Law of Jante”, which is modeled after the ten commandments and is basically a societally enforced concept of behavior. Some interesting lines from it are “thou shalt not presume that thou art someone”, “thou shalt not presume that thou art going to amount to anything”, and “thou shalt never imagine that anyone cares about thee”. When I first read this, I had to assume that it was satire, because my American brain could never imagine telling anyone to follow these rules. It is the exact opposite of the American Dream, which says that you are someone, that you can do anything you want, and you are supported. However, it is not satire, it’s what people actually follow. While it seems cruel when you first read it with American eyes, it actually makes sense when you look at it as a Swede. It is based on the social democratic idea that everyone shall have equal opportunities and worth, and that no one will rise up at the expense of others. That doesn’t stop it from seeming a bit harsh to me, but I do see where it’s coming from.
- Similar to “The Law of Jante” is the idea of “lagom”, a more neutral term that means not too little but not too much. It is based on modesty and self-restraint, and essentially says that you should blend in with the people around you. This is something that is clearly visible in everyday Swedish life. People don’t dress too flamboyant or too casual (neither of which are odd to see in the US), people go above and beyond to disguise wealth and anything that will make them stand out (the exact opposite of what people do in the US), and people don’t show off schooling or accolades that make them stand out, such as what degrees they have or what title they have (also the exact opposite of America, where people tend to decorate even their Instagram bios with their resumes).
- They eat pasta with ketchup. Enough said.