Over the summer break, the family and I enjoyed an excellent week’s holiday in Sweden. Don’t worry – I have no intention of regaling you with tedious descriptions of places visited and smug tales of family frippery. It is always interesting, however, to reflect upon time spent in another culture, especially one ‘similar but different’ from our own. And as we approach the Christmas break this seems more appropriate than ever for reasons that will become clear.
As Brits we have a lot in common with the Swedish. We all speak English for starters (them embarrassingly well), share similar tastes in food and drink and appear to have a similar sense of humour. Football is the most popular sport by some stretch in both countries, Protestant Christianity is the main religion and we both have monarchies. With my blond hair (or what’s left of it), Volvo and weakness for Ikea meatballs, I think I could happily live in Sweden though I’d need opportunities to escape their rather murky winters and re-mortgage my house to enjoy the occasional night out.
Staying with a family of Swedish chums in Gothenberg, we did notice a few interesting differences, however, in the way that Swedish and English people relate to each other. At the risk of sounding patronising, I found that the Swedes have more successfully hung on to those traditional values that are important to the maintenance of strong and unified communities. I fear such values and associated attitudes have not been so apparent in the UK over recent years and perhaps this is something we should reflect upon over Christmas. Here are some examples of what I am referring to:
1. The Swedish concept of Jantelagen roughly means ‘do not think that you are better than anyone else’. I love the staunchly egalitarian nature of Sweden which is reflected in its culture, economy and politics and it was refreshing to see one or two individuals on our trip rapidly brought down to size when they got too big for their boots. My favourite vignette was the way a waiter dealt with a rather noisy tourist from another northern European country; arriving at his table to take his order with a loud inhaler.
2. Neighbourliness. As in many American towns and cities I’ve visited there seemed to be a distinct lack of hedges and fences between properties in Sweden. Neighbours greeted each other cordially on a daily basis and any worries were shared and resolved collaboratively. It’s perhaps an unfair example but when we went to stay at our friends’ holiday house they had stocked the kitchen with food for our trip, mown the lawns and even stocked up on BBQ coals. They even drove over for the day to help us clean and pack up when we left.
3. Fika. Not really a value, in fact it’s basically a coffee break with cinnamon buns, but a tradition that says so much about the Swedish attitude to work-life balance and both family and work colleagues. The Swedes take their breaks (usually mid-morning and mid-afternoon) religiously and rightly so; such breaks have been shown to not just improve productivity and well-being but also emphasise the importance of collegiality, mutual respect and sharing.
4. Listening. Again, not a value but a much-underrated habit and skill that’s often forgotten in today’s hurly-burly world of grandstanding and social media proclamations. The Swedes have an unnerving habit of listening patiently to what you have to say before summarising and/or dissecting it with clinical precision, often throwing in a bit of Jantelagen in for good measure. The grandfather of the family we stayed with sat quietly for almost a whole dinner, before announcing softly over pudding ‘I do not think the British appreciate enough the importance of their role in Europe and they have no respect whatsoever for the Eurovision song contest’. We ended up good pals by the end of the evening.
5. Family and friends. The Swedes are not as ostentatious in their affection for each other nor as tactile as our southern European counterparts but what they lack in visible displays of love and fondness they make up in heartfelt gestures, kind words and simply conveying a sense that you are important to them. In my view such things often go a lot further than any number of frivolous hugs or saying ‘love you’ every time you say goodbye to someone. The Swedes we spent time with made you feel loved, valued and respected as an individual. I’m not sure there’s anything more important in life than that.
Dickens memorably ends The Christmas Carol with the revitalised Ebenezer Scrooge saying ‘I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year’. Perhaps it would be a good idea for us all to honour some of these Swedish traditions in our hearts, and try to keep them for Christmas and all the new year too.