Swedish Mentality by
Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest
in what may be termed the Swedish national character. This has its origin
in several factors. One is the internationalization of the world. In Sweden
about 10 percent of the total population is immigrants. The repeated encounters
between Swedes and non-Swedes have actualized the question of national
identity, i e what it means to be a Swede, in terms of thinking and behaving.
Only through contrast is it possible to perceive "Swedish-, ness"
as something particular.
Our interest in Swedish culture has been further strengthened by more
practical needs for knowledge about how different cultures communicate
with each other and about relationships between various ethnic groups.
What are the basic Swedish values that may make many Swedes ignore immigrants,
or look down on them, or even discriminate against them?
The hardening market for Sweden in international business also explains
the renaissance in the 80's of thinking about national character in Sweden.
Yet another reason for our interest in national character and national
identity is a psychological "inward trend" in the 1980's i e
greater interest in one's roots, not only individually but culturally.
According to many observers social relationships are particularly problematic
among Swedes. This may manifest itself as communication apprehension,
reservedness, desire for social autonomy, positive attitudes towards loneliness
and strict boundaries between private and public life.
A comparative study of American and Swedish university students with regards
to communication apprehension revealed that the general attitude in America
towards shyness is negative. Shy people are thought of as being both less
competent and less intelligent. Therefore, Americans try to hide or overcome
their shyness. This is not the case in Sweden. Shyness is a positive trait.
Shy people in Sweden are often looked upon positively and may be regarded
as sensitive and reflective, and therefore non-pushy. This means that
Swedes who are apprehensive when it comes to communication are often free
to express this, in contrast to their counterparts in America.
Swedes may be more reserved than some other nationalities, possibly because
they have been found to be highly introverted.
The high degree of quietness in Sweden Tnay be explained by a number of
circum stances. The relatively high rate of introversion among Swedes
has already been mentioned. This would also account for the indifferent
attitude of many Swedes. Swedes do not seem prone to ask questions in
a conversation and tend to avoid deep and elaborate discussions outside
their family and circle of close friends.
Another side of the same phenomenon is the strict borderline between private
and public. Swedes entertain mainly family members and close friends.
They are relatively passive in conversing outside their private sphere.
One important exception to this is professional talk: many
Swedes like to speak about matters where they feel safe and competent.
A peculiar value among Swedes is the concept "duktig" (which
literally means competent but also contains a moral obligation to be such
a person). To some extent, this also seems to include performing in certain
situations, e g when one has to give a speech. To do so is an established
custom among the Swedish middle-class. A man is expected to give a speech
if he has the seat of honor next to the hostess at a dinner party, for
example. Although many Swedes have found themselves in this situation
several times they always tend to feel more or less uncomfortable: they
feel the social pressure to be "duktig" - i e be witty, charming
and generally able to come up with the "right words".
This phenomenon is probably part of a more general cultural complex: a
tendency among Swedes to interpret all behavioral elements (what to do
and say, how to look and dress, etc) as true signs of their social identity.
Therefore, a Swede has to be careful about what he says, so that he (or
she) will be judged as he would like to be. This is a sign of a low-context
culture in which people tend to think that everything is interrelated
and that most other people express their ideas and feelings in the same
way as they do themselves. In a lowcontext culture the individual believes
that he generally knows other people. By the same token, he is convinced
that he himself can be judged. Consequently, Swedes seem to reflect a
great deal on what they would like to say, how to say it and when, how
other people may react, etc, before they actually say it - if they decide
to do so at all. All this thinking accounts for a certain kind of slow
pace in talking, with frequent pauses while the next step in the conversation
is being prepared.
Personal independence is highly valued in Swedish culture, significantly
more so than, for example, in Finland, Italy and the US.
The need for independence among Swedes may explain their generally positive
attitude towards being alone: to take walks alone, even to live alone.
Swedish university students strongly prefer to live by themselves. This
contrasts with most American students who prefer to have a roommate. Independence
and self-sufficiency are also favored in Swedish child rearing.
Swedes typically avoid face-to-face conflicts. Like the Japanese, Swedes
tend to be in strong favor of agreement and consensus. This same desire
to avoid confrontation is also put to good use in mediation and negotiations
and Swedish management style.
Swedes describe themselves as honest, although this notion has been considerably
challenged in recent years: income tax evasion is frequently mentioned
as one of several exceptions to the rule.
It seems to be a tendency among Swedes to tell the truth in a very precise
way, i e not to exaggerate, but rather to present all the details. But
honesty is also praised in a more traditional way - lying is considered
bad by a majority of Swedes (60%), compared with only 13% of Danes and
26% for Mediterranean Europe.
Swedish culture may be described as a low-context culture. This may account
for the behavioral pattern among Swedes not to manipulate their fellow
beings by giving false impressions, lying, pretending etc. Normally they
do not question the statement of other Swedes, in the sense that they
do not suspect a hidden message. Several observers have claimed that Swedes
have not generally developed any psychological interest.
Among Swedes there are relatively few kisses, hugs and verbal emotional
expressions. In child rearing, even Swedish-Americans report that the
importance of retaining control over feelings was often impressed upon
them in early childhood.
Swedes often react less intensely: i e their feelings are actually "cooler",
which may also be an effect of cultural learning. A comparative study
of popular reaction to the murders of John F Kennedy and Olof Palme show
that twice as many Americans as Swedes cried upon hearing the news. The
cultural difference is further illuminated by the fact that the percentage
of first generation immigrants to Sweden who cried was roughly double
that of native-born Swedes.
In Sweden, rationalism has long dominated the climate of opinion. A pious
Swede is often ashamed of admitting his allegiance to God, while a rationalist
Swede is not at all shy about admitting his to Reason. One Swedish translator
points out that French readers of Swedish poetry are often immensely surprised
to find the language so concrete, the observations so precise.
There is a strong preference for rational arguments, facts and concreteness,
as opposed to emotional and speculative imagination. The effectiveness
of planning and ability for willingness among Swedes to negotiate and
to agree on compromises has also been attributed to this rational argumentation.
There are also negative implications: problems of personal integrity in
a country generally characterized by centralized government and social
intervention through detailed regulations of the individuals' life and
The same stress on rationality and related aspects of this personality
trait would also account for a certain kind of seriousness as opposed
to cheerfulness. Swedes are described as earnest; they do not laugh and
make jokes as much as, for example, Americans. This observation by many
foreigners contrasts paradoxically with the common notion held by Swedes
who perceive themselves as cheerful ("glad").
In the eyes of many foreigners Swedes seem to be gloomy and joyless. The
gloom in Swedish character is traditionally explained with reference to
two factors: the Nordic climate and the Lutheran Church. The climate issue
concerns the impact of light, temperature, winds, etc. on the human biological
system and thereby on psychological status.
The puritan Lutheran world view is restrictive. Pleasure is allowed but
mainly in forms of short breaks or ways of regaining strength needed for
work. "Too much" pleasure gives rise to guilt feelings. Comfort
is basically sinful.
THE SWEDISHNESS WITHIN US
How do Swedes view themselves? Here are some of the self-stereotypes named
by different groups: school children (aged 15 16), a representative sample
of Swedes (aged 16-74) and a small sample of Swedish businessmen. The
school children perceived Swedes to be mainly "stressed", "sporty",
"well-dressed" and "modern"; 'the respondents of the
general sample mentioned "envious", "stiff", "hardworking"
and "natureloving"; the Swedish businessmen mentioned "well
organized'", "trustworthy", "rational" and "efficient".
THE R00TS OF SWEDISHNESS
One researcher talks in terms of psychological adaptation throughout the
centuries to fight a hostile nature in this wide, wet and sparsely populated
land. In order to survive, Swedes have been forced to find practical solutions.
Basic, continuous activity in old rural Sweden gave little room for relaxation,
pleasure, joyful conversation, emotional extravagances etc.
There were no institutions like the English pub, or the South European
taverna in the Swedish village. The popular movements of the late 19th
century - the dissenting evangelistic chapels, the temperance movement
and the labor movement - included a strong social element with declamation,
music, pageants etc. However, these institutions mainly served practical
or pragmatic goals.
It was people with those experiences and raised according to the rules
and attitudes of the puritan Lutheran church, who began to move to urbanized
areas. The urbanization and industrialization processes were late in Sweden,
but since the 1950's the transformation has been extremely rapid.
In order to explain the relative shyness, reservedness, silence, seriousness,
etc., among Swedes today, the history of Sweden undoubtedly has to be
considered. The rural personality type is still remarkably prevalent among
Another explanation of Swedish shyness can be attributed to novelty. New
situations and new kinds of encounter in a fast changing society give
rise to communication anxiety.
Americans have traditionally strongly favored such personality characteristics
as "go-getting" and "drive". The political and social
history of Sweden is different. Worldly and spiritual authorities have
asked for moderation and retiring manners: remember your insignificance!
Swedish administrative organization is more technically formalized than
in most countries beacuse of a centralized state administration which
goes back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This formalized system of society
implies equal treatment of all citizens; you stand in line, you fill out
a form. These procedures demand a minimum of social contact. A consequence
of this is that a shy and socially inactive person in Sweden is not particularly
handicapped in his contacts with the bureaucracy, compared to, for example,
a Frenchman. In Sweden one is seldom helped by friendships, ties, charm,
aggressiveness, talent in arguing, etc.
Generally the Swedish system does little to contribute to the development
of a socially active and energetic way of approaching people outside the
The strict borderline between the private and public spheres in Swedish
culture is a striking feature for many immigrants who find out that being
a good co-worker does not necessarily bring about or promote informal
contacts outside work.
The main psychological stress factor in rural Sweden was the capriciousness
of nature. The psychological stress on the people from societal factors
has been comparatively limited in Sweden. The absence of wars, revolutions
and political turbulence has had an impact on the Swedish mentality. The
development of the Swedish welfare state has further established a societal
basis for a "low anxiety country".
Swedish society is continuously changing - consequently also Swedish mentality.
The informality of present day Sweden has become a national characteristic.
To what extend this trend, including the cultural influences from the
ten percent immigrants, will change the model Swedish mentality is a question
which remains to be answered.
Åke Daun is Professor of Etnology at the University of Stockholm. The
article is a summary of his book, Svensk Mentalitet (Raben & Sjögren,1989).
© and all rights reserved from Swedish Press February 1990