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’.
The train from Arlanda pulls into Uppsala Centralstation and from that moment I was lost, no clue where to go and could rely only on the stars, a Google map printout and the friendliness of Swedish people.
Ironically, on my way out of the station, a guy was playing ‘Fear of the dark’ on his acoustic guitar, whilst people shuffled by and went out into the icy darkness of the 5pm night.
After getting the right bus in the wrong direction, I doubled back and luckily heard some English speakers, I was overjoyed.
I found out that the guy I spoke to was also an exchange student, from Canada, but he had the good idea of signing up for the ‘buddy scheme’ something I had heard about but forgot to apply for.
Once signed the contract and picked up keys I was told that my accommodation was only 10 minutes’ walk away and that there were no buses I could have taken.
I got given a map and explained how to go, great.
Picture this: it had been a long day, with an early start and delays in Heathrow that did not help and I was expected to find my way at night (6pm) in -15 degrees in an unknown city/country? Surely not, but here are the instructions to get home:
‘Cross the road, pass the main library, then through the cemetery and it should be there. It takes 10 minutes, if you know the way…’
Oh yeah the main library of course, it’s all clear now..Cheers mate! That will help a lot…
In the end I found myself dragging 2 heavy suitcases down an icy path through the middle of a cemetery. Felt a bit eerie as nobody was there, or if they were they were tucked beneath a tomb stone. The scene reminded me of a horror film I saw quite a long time ago, luckily in this version the killer lost his way, can’t blame him, so managed to get to my student room safe and sound.
A cup of tea and an episode of ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys,’ was the perfect ending for the long day.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen good morning and welcome on board this SAS flight to Stockholm! We don’t want to stress you, but please take your seats as soon as possible as they are threatening to close the airport and we really want to get back to Sweden’.
There you have it. My first impact with Sweden was at London Heathrow. This was the announcement the stewardess kept repeating as passengers made their way onto the plane.
After months of miserable dull, grey, rainy days all of a sudden it started to snow heavily across the country, much to the joy of children and the British press (that once again narrowly avoided the chance of covering anything of actual importance).
The short announcement gives an idea of how negatively stress is perceived in the Swedish culture, much to the astonishment of many Americans and Europeans. Even with the imminent ‘snowstorm’, that threatened the closure of the airport, the stewardess still apologised for the inconvenience of having to rush. The note of urgency and almost desperation with which she ended the announcement ‘we really want to get back to Sweden’ is entirely understandable as the prospect of being stuck in England for days until the conditions improved was suicidal, especially for a Swede.
Next to speak was the captain that remarked how temperatures in Stockholm were even lower and the amount of snow and ice higher yet ‘in Sweden we don’t need to shut runways when it snows’. Heathrow is the busiest airport in the world, with over 59 million passengers that go through it every year one can’t help but thinking that if the provincial airport of Kiruna, in Swedish Lapland, works throughout the year why the hell can’t the best airport in the UK deal with a bit of snow.
In the end we managed to leave Heathrow (3 hours later than scheduled) after waiting for our slot on the only operative runway (as the one was shut). Flight was good, it lasted little over 2 hours, and they also gave me a free coffee and newspaper that is never to be sniffed at, although I was kind of regretting not choosing BA for the complementary sandwiches and open bar.
One further thing worth a mention: the cabin crew must have had an average age of 55, something unusual but interesting, as there appeared to be no pressure from the company to push them to wear loads of make-up and dress ‘provocatively’. Instead they wore a uniform that had a pattern and colours that echoed the marine tradition, a big part of Scandinavian heritage. This sea-loving tradition can also be found in the hats people wear during graduation ceremonies that look similar to a sea captain’s hat.
Easy part over, the biggest challenge was reaching Uppsala and finding were I was supposed to sign the contract and pick up the keys.