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10 Swedish myths uncovered

The myths surrounding Swedes are many and you’re bound to have heard a few of them. In the Land of the Midnight Sun, everyone is blonde and depressive, walking the streets alongside polar bears – right? What’s true and what’s not? David Wiles, an Englishman who’s lived in Sweden for 12 years, gives his perspective on ten of the most common stereotypes.

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Photo: Tomas Utsi/
imagebank.sweden.se

#1 Swedes are reserved

It’s true that the Swedes aren’t the world’s most outgoing people, but I do feel their reclusiveness has been… mythified. I remember my Swedish teacher telling our class of newly arrived immigrants that Swedes living in flats often look through the peephole in their front door before stepping out into the hallway. This was out of fear of running into a neighbour and having to talk to them.

Exaggerations aside, the average Swede is less likely to talk to a stranger, unless being asked for directions. I think it could be something to do with the weather: if it’s cold and wet you’re less likely to take the time to stop and chat to people in the street, and that behaviour becomes ingrained.

A word of advice: Many Swedes think it’s rude to pry and ask personal questions, so don’t be offended if your new Swedish friend doesn’t ask for your life history. This aloofness shouldn’t be mistaken for rudeness. Once you’ve got past that ‘obstacle’, the Swede is as friendly and warm as anyone else.

#2 Swedish women are blonde and beautiful

When I talk with men from elsewhere in the world and tell them I live in Sweden, I often get the question: ‘Are Swedish women as beautiful as they say?’ And I have to say the answer is a resounding yes – but don’t expect them all to be tall, blonde and blue-eyed. Do, however, expect them to be strong-minded and independent. After all, Sweden is one of the world’s most gender-egalitarian countries.

#3 Swedes spend their working lives in meetings

Kind of ironic considering the whole ‘Swedes are reserved’ thing, but this is so true. I recently had a meeting to plan for another meeting, which was itself preparation for the main meeting. I kid you not.

All these meetings may seem unnecessary and inefficient to the outsider, but they are part of Sweden’s consensus culture. Everyone is welcome to give his or her opinion, and those opinions are listened to.

This non-hierarchical approach to decision-making obviously doesn’t work everywhere. I recently spoke with a Swedish manager who has tried to bring in an open-door policy at his office at an Asian car company, actively encouraging his employees to share their opinions or raise problems. But his employees won’t speak up because in their company culture pointing out mistakes is taboo. In Sweden, the open-door policy usually isn’t needed because managers share an open-plan office with their employees.

‘I set up this meeting because I want us to discuss the idea of having fewer meetings.’

Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/
imagebank.sweden.se

#4 Swedes are green

Yes, Swedes are generally very aware of their impact on the environment, and act accordingly. Recycling seems to be something of a national pastime. In 2012, 88 per cent of all aluminium cans and PET bottles in Sweden were included in the recycling system – not far off the 90 per cent target set by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

Today, one per cent of municipal solid waste goes to landfill in Sweden, obviously a very strong figure by international standards. In my town of Ystad on the south coast, domestic food waste is rotted and made into biogas, which is what fuels my car.

Maybe it all has something to do with the exalted position in which Swedes hold Mother Nature. Of course there are exceptions, such as my neighbours who insist on dumping their takeaway litter by the side of the road every Friday night.

Swedish recycling bins are usually green, the Swede’s favourite colour.

Photo: Cecilia Larsson/
imagebank.sweden.se

#5 Alcohol is expensive and hard to get hold of

By international comparisons this is true. Sweden’s state alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, has as its stated mission ‘to minimise alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive’. So its stores are in the bizarre position of not really wanting you to buy their products.

There are no special offers, no promotions, and limited opening hours. But it’s all for our own good, they say. According to a report by a panel of international experts, if the monopoly was abolished and booze was sold in supermarkets, the estimated annual toll in Sweden would be 1,580 extra deaths, 14,200 more assaults, and 16.1 million extra days of sick leave – a 40 per cent increase. A sobering thought.

For the record, Swedes rank forty-second in the world when it comes to pure alcohol consumption per adult.

#6 It’s cold and dark

This kind of depends where you are, because after all Sweden is a long country. But yes, the winters are too long even right down here at the southern tip. It is my number one – and really only – gripe with Sweden.

But then the first real day of spring comes around and it somehow all seems worth it. Plus summers in Sweden can be glorious – summer nights are long throughout the country and you even get the midnight sun up north – and many of the beaches are fantastic. Even the far north, where the mercury can plummet to -40°C in the winter, can get hot. Often in the early summer we in the south shiver and splash about in puddles while Arctic Lapland basks in sunshine and temperatures in the +20s.

#7 Everyone drives Volvos

True. Volvos are safe, understated, and they drink too much. Like a true Swede, you could joke. Despite now being under Chinese ownership, Volvos remain very much in the hearts – and on the driveways – of the average Swede. They even have a place in the aspirational ‘Swedish dream’ of ‘villa, Volvo, vovve’ (a house, a Volvo and a dog).

Volvo remains Sweden’s favourite car, making up three of the top six models among newly registered passenger cars in 2012.

Saab, the other brand that once accounted for similarly large percentage of car sales, has disappeared from the list altogether, having collapsed despite frantic efforts to save it in 2011. Considering that old Saabs are known to run for 1 million-plus kilometres, they should be on the roads for a while yet, anyway.

The Volvo – an integral part of the Swedish Dream.

Photo: Volvo personvagnar

#8 Sweden is expensive

When I moved here in 2001 it was a shock to find that most things cost about the same as in the UK. But the value of the Swedish krona (SEK) has risen again in recent years, so yes Sweden is expensive to the average visitor.

A cup of coffee in my little town will probably cost you more than one in the most touristy part of London, and it’s often cheaper to buy clothes online from the UK or US and import them than it is to go to the local shops.

But for those of us earning Sweden’s relatively high wages, prices aren’t so bad.

#9 Swedes pay high taxes

They do indeed. Sweden’s personal income tax rates are among the world’s highest. When I set up as a sole trader, I nearly choked on my crispbread when I found out that the taxman would take about 50 per cent of my hard-earned cash.

But I have to admit that I am a big fan of high taxation – because I think I get value for my money. The streets are clean, healthcare and higher education are essentially free, and childcare is reasonably priced. Like they say, you get what you pay for. Sweden’s quality of life is worth every krona.

Also in defence of Sweden’s taxes, the system is very straightforward and reliable. Employers pay payroll taxes on top of your salary every month, income taxes are deducted directly from your monthly salary and every person is taxed individually, even when married. If everything appears correct on your mandatory annual tax declaration, reporting all your taxes can be as simple as sending a text message from your cell phone to the Swedish Tax Agency to confirm this.

#10 Swedes are suicidal

One of the more enduring myths surrounding Sweden is that the people here are particularly suicidal. This rumour is often traced back to a speech given by US President Dwight D Eisenhower in the 1960s. No fan of Sweden’s social democratic politics and neutrality, he blamed the country’s generous welfare system for ‘sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide’.

While admittedly the long, dark winters can get you down, I wouldn’t say it’s so bad that I’d want to end it all. In fact there is no truth whatsoever to the suicide myth.

Statistically, Sweden is nowhere near the world’s top in suicides per capita. And if further proof were needed, Swedes are among the most satisfied with their lives, according to the OECD Better Life Index.

All in all, I’d say the Swedes are a quite happy bunch.

Last updated: 26 November 2013

David Wiles

David Wiles

David Wiles is a British journalist living in Ystad in the south of Sweden.