Friday, August 31, 2001

I realize I've been derelict in the whole Swedish bit and decided to mend my ways with a handy cultural lesson for all the millions of people who are surely interested in how exactly one lives in Sweden.

    1. Lines, queues, knowing your place. Don't be disturbed if, as you trot merrily up the sidewalk smiling stupidly and minding your own business, you actually are butted in the shoulder by a person. Or maybe 10 people. And then not a one of them says a word, or even turns around, leaving you wondering why everyone is picking on you, and since when did you become such a pariah, and finally, how can you get back at them?

    Two things are going on here.

    First, for some strange reason, there's a lot of confusion about personal space. That's why Swedes always, always use the take-a-number system (Swedish word for the day: nummerlapp. It means the piece of paper with a number on it that you take at every ticket booth, meat counter, bank, tax office... you get the picture.) because then you don't have to actually stand in a line where you might accidentally touch someone because you have no sense of personal space. Or maybe they have no sense of personal space because they never have to stand in line. Who knows.

    Alternatively, it's been explained to me that the switch from British-style left-side-of-the-road driving to American right-side-of-the-road driving in the late '60s (it was literally done in a day, apparently with no major mishaps) combined with a subway system with trains that don't consistently stick to one side or the other of a station from one subway station to the next, produce chaos when any single person is trying to decide where to walk on the sidewalk.

    What is ironic is that it is very important in Swedish culture to, er, know your place, and that place is exactly the same as everyone else, in other words, don't think too highly of yourself - there's nothing worse than thinking you're better, or being better for that matter. Jämnt is the concept. Which I mostly like, Swedes are wonderfully egalitarian, maddeningly egalitarian and consensus-driven - everyone needs to come to a consensus on what they want/should/need to do as a people/company/family, for example. Swedes themselves seem to bemoan the fact that they are like this, and yet they're proud of it.

    The second thing, the fact that no one apologizes, is something else altogether, I've decided. It's actually not rudeness, but a certain shyness and concern not to cause trouble. At least that's my generous take on it. By saying ''excuse me,'' you are causing even more of an imposition because the person you have accidentally butted on the shoulder then has to pause and respond. At least that's why I think people do it. Some Swedes have explained to me it's because Swedish culture is crude and boorish, but I like to think I'm right (who doesn't?).

- by Francis S. (who actually loves Sweden dearly.)

No comments: