Xenophobe's Guide to the Swedes

Xenophobe's Guide to the Swedes

by Peter Berlin

ISBN: 9781906042493

Publisher Oval Books

Published in Humor & Entertainment

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Sample Chapter


Nationalism & Identity


The Swedes are an enterprising, fair-minded people who suffer from a mild case of megalomania. For example, they think it entirely appropriate that the cartographer Mercator magnanimously drew Sweden roughly the size of India. They object to being lumped in with other Scandinavians, aas if they had no identity of their own.

From a Swedish perspective the differences between the Nordic countries are stark. Denmark is horizontal, Norway is vertical, Iceland is melting, Finland is labyrinthian, and Sweden is stunningly pastoral.

There is also the language difference. Every Finnish sentence starts in falsetto and ends in baritone. Norwegian sounds like Finnish intoned backwards, but is actually a provincial Swedish dialect. The Danes with their diphthongs and glottal stops sound as if they are caught between swallowing and spitting out a very hot potato. Only the Swedish language has evolved from grunted Icelandic gobbledygook to become the familiar and beloved singsong sounds of the Swedish Chef in The Muppet Show. Swedes find colliding consonants tricky. A modern Professor Higgins might offer the following challenge to a Swedish Eliza Doolittle: "Say after me – the Japanese jackass cheated on the Chinese chick" and be rewarded with "The Yapanese yackass sheeted on the Shinese shick."

The contrasts in national culture and character are equally glaring. The Norwegians are simple, plain-spoken folk, the Danes cheerful and fun-loving. The Finns are a taciturn lot whose mosquito bites occasionally make them holler and gyrate in what the guide books mistakenly call folk dancing. The Swedes have combined all these qualities and taken them to new heights by finding humour in plain talk, replacing silence with small talk, and eliminating body language altogether.

Swedes are always surprised to discover that foreigners do not keep a framed map of Sweden above their beds. They are amazed to encounter people who think the capital of Sweden is Oslo, or that Sweden is the home of Swatch. Such manifestations of ignorance can only be combated with a concerted campaign of enlightenment which is why they never tire of lecturing others about Sweden.

There is hardly anything in any other country with which the Swedes do not compare themselves and their country favourably, be it the length of an argument, the breadth of a generalisation or the height of an audacity. To add credibility, comparisons are usually given a thin patina of self-deprecation but this fails to conceal their underlying national pride.


The Swedes sniff at public manifestations of patriotism, conveniently forgetting that the blue and yellow Swedish flag is everywhere to be seen – at the top of garden flagpoles, on postcards, on birthday cakes, on the branches of Christmas trees. The colours of the flag are echoed on candles and napkins, on bottle labels and biscuit tins, even on Swedish company logos.

Swedes are not patriots in the usual sense. Victory monuments come in the form of rune stones rather than bronze statues. Ask them what links them to their native country, and they will hold forth, not about government, history or culture, but about deep forests, smiling archipelagos, crayfish served with aquavit, and flower-wrapped maypoles.

Their flag features a yellow cross aagainst a blue background and symbolises the nation's Christian heritage. The flag's colours are meant to bring back memories of childhood summers when the sky was bluer and the sun more golden than today. For Swedes the national flag is primarily an eye-pleasing backdrop. Rather than rallying people to action, it invites them to a picnic in the meadow.

How they see themselves

The Swedish national anthem says it all: 'We thrive on the memories of our glorious past', a reference to the Storhetstid, or 'Era of Greatness', when Sweden ruled most of Northern Europe (see map). Even earlier, the Vikings had given the peoples around the Mediterranean, on the British Isles and in North America a taste of Swedish brawn. Today's schoolchildren are exhorted to sträcka på sig – keep their heads high – when the subject of the Vikings is raised in history class.

Since those heady days, however, the Swedes have made a spectacular about-turn from Rambo to Rimbaud, crusading for a world of innocence while doing a little gun-running on the side. In the 20th century, as nations were tearing themselves apart, the Swedes tried to mend the broken pieces. Raoul Wallenberg, Folke Bernadotte, Dag Hammarskjöld and Olof Palme have gone down in history as dauntless mediators who paid for their audacity with their lives. Inspired by their famous compatriots, the Swedes now see themselves universally as the World's Conscience.

They also see themselves as honesty personified. With unfailing regularity, Swedish cabinet ministers admit to sleaze and promptly resign. Honesty doesn't get much better than that.

How others see them

The Norwegians find the Swedes insufferably puffed up, while the Danes consider them to be party poopers. The British see them as sexy but cold, and the Americans think they are Swiss.

The Swedes' worldwide reputation for being a bit square is misleading – they are positively quadratic. Author Herman Lindquist summed it up thus: the Swedes look at the world through a square frame nailed together by Martin Luther, Gustav Vasa (the founder of the Swedish State), the Temperance Movement, and 100 years of Socialism. Luther contributed the Swedish taste for simplicity, Vasa the national identity, the Temperance Movement gave rise to the tendency towards sanctimoniousness, and Socialism the work-shyness.

Many foreigners living in Sweden find the natives socially impenetrable. Neighbours mind their own business, and colleagues go straight home after work. Some new arrivals have been known to invite their Swedish neighbours over for coffee, or to urge a colleague to come along for a drink at the pub. The initiative is usually met with pleasant surprise.

How they see others

The Swedes are unique in that they do not actually dislike any nation in particular. The patronising posture they adopt vis-à-vis their Nordic neighbours stems not from dislike but simply from the confident belief that Sweden is superior.

Of course they don't appreciate Germans using towels to reserve scarce sun chairs around the swimming pool before breakfast; or Americans asking how much the Swedish krona is worth in real money (meaning U.S. dollars); or Italians jumping the queue for the ski-lift. But these are considered minor aberrations from the Swedish behavioural norm which is based on conformity.

When travelling, the Swedes prefer to keep the natives at a safe distance by peering at them through the lens of their video cameras. But basically foreigners are good news: their funny faces and foibles help remind the Swedes how wonderful it is to be Swedish and normal.




The Swedes' culture evolved over time as a means to survive their environment and get along with each other. The harsh climate turned the Swedish Vikings into tough hunters who preferred to use their spare time for resting rather than socialising with their neighbours. Besides, neighbours were few and far between. The result is a nation of introverts who still treasure their independence and crave a large amount of elbow-room. As a Swedish saying would go (if there was one, which there isn't): One is company, two is a crowd.

Dark melancholy

A common trait among Swedish people is a deeply felt svårmod, a dark melancholy born out of long winters, high taxes and a sense of being stuck far out on a geo-political and socio-economic limb. They brood a lot over the meaning of life in a self-absorbed sort of way without ever arriving at satisfactory answers. The stark images and unresolved plots in many of Ingmar Bergman's films are accurate snapshots of the Swedish psyche.

All this svårmod makes the Swedes self-conscious and socially awkward. When two Swedish individuals meet for the first time, there are actually four people present: the two visible persons, plus their invisible alter egos who stand close by and criticise every word and every gesture. Only when the acquaintance is well established do the alter egos move to the sidelines, albeit still shaking their heads.

No wonder then that the Swedes seem aloof, even a little cold, at the first encounter: they are so busy arguing with their alter egos that they cannot focus properly on the company standing before them.

But once they emerge from their internal battles, they are capable of friendliness and hospitality to a degree almost bordering on warmth.


Another common trait is undfallenhet – acquiescence, or a tendency to yield under pressure. While their Viking ancestors used confrontation to settle even the most trivial of scores, modern-day Swedes avoid conflict whenever possible. They believe undfallenhet makes for a smarter strategy. After all, it has kept the country out of war for nearly two centuries and helped it attain one of the highest living standards in the world.

In most countries if a consumer complains about a defect in a product or service he has just bought, the salesperson will try to fob him off with excuses. Not so in the Land of Undfallenhet. Here the vendor disarms the customer by adding ammunition to his complaints. For example, you may call a car rental firm to say the studs are missing from the winter tyres and that, as a consequence, you are unfairly exposed to the risk of having to pay for any collision damage. To this the rental agent is likely to reply: "Never mind having to pay for collision damage. What about your personal health and safety?" It's the kind of response that takes all the fun out of complaining.

Being aggressive is considered a macho thing in many Western cultures. In Sweden it is viewed as a serious handicap. In World War II, the Swedish government succumbed to Hitler's demands that German troops be allowed to transit through neutral Sweden to sustain the occupation of Norway. To this day, the memory chokes the Norwegians with emotion.

Another consequence of undfallenhet is the reluctance of people in power to exercise it. In the name of consensus, managers prefer to leave all important decision-making to committees. The same goes for politicians. Swedish politicians promise swift and firm action against whatever cases of social injustice are put before them, be they tax loopholes, gender inequality or impunity in crime. When asked what the action will entail, the answer is always the same: "Appoint a committee."

Then there are the 'Citizens' Associations'. These are established by law to allow local residents to influence the management of communal concerns such as water supplies, road maintenance and recreation facilities. But they do not necessarily lead to harmony.

Once upon a time there were three friendly neighbours who lived on a hillside. They formed a committee and purchased a £L1,000 snow-blower with a view to the members taking it in turns to clear their shared 50-metre driveway. The neighbour at the bottom of the hill soon got tired of the chore since he only used the first 5 metres anyway; the neighbour at the top who had a garage big enough to house the blower kept forgetting to hand over the key when he left for milder climes. The neighbour in the middle finally stationed the blower in his garden where it seized up from weather exposure, so that when the sun-tanned neighbour returned he was unable to scale the snow-bound driveway. Bitter arguments ensued. And all the time the local authority would have done the job for a mere £30 a year.

Undfallenhet is not to be confused with cowardice. Sweden has long stood firm on its convictions regarding matters like apartheid and dictatorship, and has not hesitated to lay down the law to distant countries like South Africa and Chile. But craning one's neck and straining one's eyes to stare down racism and fascism at the other end of the globe is hard work. The Swedes must therefore be forgiven for having overlooked the very same sins being committed for several generations in neighbouring Russia.


In times of trouble, the Swedes always land on their feet. When the world goes to war, Sweden stays clear of the antagonists through a blend of diplomacy and concessions. When the bottom falls out of the economy, the nation's Central Bank raises the interest rate to 500%, devalues the krona by 30%, and re-enters the world market with a smile on its face.

When the flagships of Swedish industry feel the pinch of international competition, they merge with their competitors and move their headquarters abroad. In the battle between idealism, heroism and common sense, the latter always wins.

With pragmatism comes a willingness to compromise in matters big and small. However, the give-and-take is of a singularly Swedish brand. For example, having fought for total abolition of poultry sheds within the E.U., Sweden settled for a compromise whereby the statutory shed size was increased, and the provision of a nest, a sand bath and a perch became mandatory. (Well, somebody has to look out for the 'shickens'.)


Beliefs & Values

Lagom – "moderation"

When the Vikings took time off from burning and pillaging, they used to gather around the campfire to down a horn of mead. Though their thirst was great after all their exertions, it became a matter of honour for each warrior to ration his intake so that the horn didn't run dry before everyone had had a swig. In other words, one had to drink team-wise, or laget om, later shortened to lagom. Or so the legend goes. In modern Swedish the word lagom has taken on the meaning of 'just enough' or 'with moderation'.

Lagom permeates Swedish life. Economically, it has enabled the nation to find the middle ground between Capitalism and Socialism, i.e. between Progress and Humanity. In manufacturing, lagom discards goldplated designs in favour of optimum solutions. Socially, lagom puts conformity before excellence, tempers extreme personal wealth and poverty, and leaves the Swedes supremely at peace with themselves. In short, lagom underpins the renowned Swedish Model – not the curvaceous Playboy centrefold variety but a contourless nirvana of uniform bliss.

However, the word lagom expresses more than just a measure of moderation: it also serves to glorify through understatement. When something is said to be 'lagom good', it actually means it's the best.

The Swedes firmly believe their country is lagom in a variety of skills ranging from invention and training to quality, performance and safety. This strong sense of national invincibility goes back to medieval times when bishops from the European continent were commissioned to invent the history of Sweden. Citing Plato and ancient Icelandic sagas, they proved that Sweden was nothing less than the 'Island of the Gods', that Swedish was the Mother of All Languages, and that the runes (ancient carved letters) constituted the very first alphabet.

In the 17th century, the Swedish Crown ruled the whole of Northern Europe and established dependencies here and there in the Americas. Alas, while throwing their weight around abroad, the kings of the time neglected the welfare of their own subjects at home, mostly illiterate farmers who doubled as battlefield gun fodder. With the economy too stagnant to support the war effort, the kings invited Belgians from Vallonia to mine the country's copper ore, Germans from the Hansa League to stimulate commerce, and eventually a Frenchman called Bernadotte to take over their own royal duties – an influx of foreign talent that left an indelible mark on the nation.

Between 1840 and 1920 things became so wonderful in Sweden that most able-bodied people could stand it no longer and emigrated to America. Those left behind proceeded, by hook and by crook, to build today's cradle-to-grave welfare paradise. No challenge is too great for the lagom perfect people.


The Swede's trademark sanctimoniousness grew out of a habit among the Vikings to feign Christian piety every time Bishop Ansgar of Bremen came for a visit. Ansgar devoted much of his missionary zeal to converting the Swedes from cloud worship to something loftier, and during his regular spot-checks they didn't want to let him down.

Until 1996, all Swedes were born into the Lutheran faith – the doctrine of the Church of Sweden – whether they liked it or not. These days they are allowed to choose, and an ever-increasing number adopt an agnostic outlook. Those who have not opted out altogether show their Lutheran piety by attending church on at least four occasions, namely for their baptism, confirmation, wedding(s) and funeral.

In an effort to meet the spiritual needs of the increasingly pagan population, the clergy are becoming inventive. Married couples may receive the blessing of the Church not only at the wedding ceremony, but also before an impending divorce. The ritual takes the form of a prayer for forgiveness, during which the couple can thank each other for the good times they spent together.

Excerpted from "Xenophobe's Guide to the Swedes" by Peter Berlin. Copyright © 2013 by Peter Berlin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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