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Swedish Mentality by Åke Daun

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 living conditions.
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.

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".

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 Swedes.
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 social sphere.
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