Observations on Swedish Life

It is difficult to imagine a place where people have a general ‘laidback attitude’ yet at the same time, follow the rules by the book. My previous cultural experiences relate to 2 polar opposites: England and Italy.

In Italy the rules are many, detailed, and hard to understand and although some based on great principles many are unpractical and over complicated almost as if there was a need to guarantee a salary to ‘interpreters of the rules’ such as lawyers, accountants, advisors and so on. The rules in Italy exist but nobody follows them, or at least, people follow them only when they are forced as public opinion believes certain rules as being pointless; a perfect example is the law that enforces cars to use headlights 24/7 even at mid-day in the middle of the summer if you are outside the urban area.

In England on the other hand rules are followed not so much to follow principle ‘fair is fair’ or because of agreeing with the idea behind the rule but to avoid consequences such as hefty fines, lawsuits, getting fired and so on. One just needs to watch half an hour of independant television to realise how most adverts concern claiming money for many different reasons and others are focused on selling or comparing insurance policies (that will also sue people on your behalf). An example of Health and Safety obesession can be found in Manchester’s student union, fair in some ways (you may say), but here is the extent of it:

  • For cooking food (even just cupcakes) you need to undergo an online common sense based ‘health and safety certification’ that will cost you round about £25.
  • Each society needs to do a health and safety assessment of all the activities they do during the year. This is an example of what I had to fill in for the Italian society: activity: society dinner- hazard: over eating – possible consequences: saw tummy, excessive burping and farting… – measures to avoid it: telling people to eat less and carefully policing quantity of food per portion).
  • On top of the general assessment one needs to fill in a similar form each time one has an activity.

In Sweden the general attitude seems to be different. There are less ridiculous laws that people would not follow and there is a sense in the population of fairness, respect and common sense that is the principle that ensures everything works efficiently. Talking about the principals of Swedish standards of fairness and respect is always a good ice-breaker when talking to Swedes; you can notice a twinkle in their eyes as they proudly describe everyday situations and compare them to other parts of the world. A girl was telling me how she put a packet of pasta in her shopping bag and forgot to pay for it so had to go back to the shop to pay before she could cook as she would have been too guilty to eat it otherwise (something that people in other countries would rarely do). Beyond examples from people’s routines a general relaxed no-stress attitude is prevalent across society. The way in which the university staff works reflect this anti-stress approach this can be seen by observing ‘the work place’ for both academic and administrational staff, with: comfortable chairs, big windows, individual office spaces (as opposed to cost-efficient open plan ones) and fully furnished kitchenettes.  This picture is summed-up by when I once went to see a professor in his office: he was replying to emails whilst listening to the radio in the background, lying back on his chair, feet on the desk and facing the big window. It appeared that he worked hard judging by what he said and the fact that many people went by the office, the phone often rung and he had many papers on the desk, but still gave the impression that he was not too stressed by it all and when thanking him for the half-hour he dedicated to me, he remarked in all-honesty: ‘don’t worry,   I’m paid good money for this’. In the nations, the student-run social clubs, the bouncers are scarce, possibly 2 or 3 even during a crowded club-night, at the bar they often serve drinks in glass bottles or glasses as opposed to plastic cups, this could lead to potential hazards (alcohol + crowds + glass) and the Health and Safety Regulation loving Brits would never allow this to happen for fear of getting sued. Many more examples could be made but in general the Swedish people tend to strictly conform to the rules but the rules themselves seam suited for the people. This could be because Sweden has a longer democratic tradition (although they have always had a monarchy) as even the peasants had their own house in parliament since the 17th century. The fact that so many liberties are given is because common sense rules and a shared sense of honesty and fairness prevails in guaranteeing that everything works in an efficient way.

And now I’m done with my first assignment for ‘Swedish Culture and Everyday Life’.

Leave a Reply