The Single Word that Tells You Everything You Need to Know About the Swedish

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Sept. 20 2013 9:45 AM

Why Are Swedes So Quiet?

It’s all because of lagom—the single word that sums up the Swedish psyche.

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In his view, Swedes can get away with not being so lagom in a bigger city like Stockholm with larger crowds. In smaller towns, they have to be lagom to blend in with their neighbors. “It really depends on why you want to stand out,” Rydehäll continues. “If you stand out because you just want to get attention, then it’s annoying.”

Mats Olsson, a well-known sports columnist for daily newspaper Expressen, saw lagom at work during the 2012 European Championship soccer games in Kiev, Ukraine. Sweden had just been kicked out of their group pool amid high expectations, but what might have caused anger and bitter recrimination in other countries was met with a collective “oh well, next time” and shoulder shrugs. Even Swedish athletes have been conditioned to temper their feelings: not too heated, not too lackadaisical. Olsson specifically recalls ice hockey legend Peter Forsberg and soccer star Henrik Larsson, both now retired, for their exemplary athleticism.

“After amazing performances, their replies during interviews were mostly along the lines of … ‘Well, I guess it was okay, it was the team that won,’ ‘If I was good, it’s for others to judge, I do my job for the team,’ or ‘As long as we win the games, it doesn't matter who scores,’ ” he says. That is, of course, what athletes in the United States are coached to say. But in Sweden, it’s strangely genuine.

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Lagom does have an ugly cousin of sorts: Jante. The Law of Jante (jantelagen in Swedish) is something like the strong-arming side of lagom. Instead of celebrating the virtues of modesty, it’s the part of you that says, “Don't think you're anyone special.” To the untrained eye in casual Swedish settings, you might not know which norm—lagom or Jante—is at work.

“A lot of Swedes hate lagom too,” Henriksson, the teacher, explains. “Mostly because of the Jantelagen aspect. Maybe you as a Swede want to be noticed, but you feel you can’t scream as loud as you’d want to because you can’t be too much or too little of anything.”

The Law of Jante is named after the fictional small town of Jante in Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose’s 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks. The town was a place where individual success and achievements were frowned upon, where individuality was seen as a threat to collective group unity. But it’s really all about deep-seated jealousy directed toward those who have found success.

Not that it would be spoken aloud, of course. “Swedes don’t openly talk about ‘Den svenska avundsjukan’—‘the Swedish Jealousy,’ ” my husband, a native Swede, tells me. Not to be confused with regular jealousy, which may motivate someone to act, Swedish jealousy seethes silently all the way to the grave.

Lagom can often feel like a national hindrance, and some of Sweden’s critics argue that it has increased people’s dependence on social welfare, stifles ambition, and is overly nonconfrontational—perhaps explaining why Sweden has stayed neutral in many world conflicts when other nations might have expected them to act.

Maybe. But for a true demonstration of the power of lagom, it sometimes helps to observe a bunch of Swedes—when they are outside of Sweden.

That’s because when Swedes cross international borders, they often seem hell bent on leaving lagom far behind. And this may be especially true of Swedish teenagers and young adults, whose natural narcissism and hormones can run afoul of lagom at home.

My husband and I recently took a weekend Baltic cruise—the easiest way to escape Sweden for a couple of days in Riga, Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, or elsewhere—hoping for a couple relaxing days. But instead we found ourselves in a taut booze cruise of sorts for young Swedes. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of girls in their early 20s sat in the pre-boarding waiting area, looking like nervous mannequins, with their piercing blue eyes and expectant, clipped laughter.

Behind them milled roughly the same number of boys, some holding open cans of half drunk Carlsberg beer, some with sleeked-back gelled dark hair, some with spiky short blond hair. They scanned the room, stealing glances, tagging, and marking, before boarding.

It all lent a certain air of tension to the noisy hall. The lagom that I had embraced since moving to Sweden seemed fragile, like it was about to break into a thousand pieces under the weight of all those hormones. And sure enough, once we set sail, the ship transformed into something more like a college fraternity party—constant noise through the night, a naked man walking through the breakfast buffet the next morning—than any typical Swedish gathering.

It stayed like that for the whole weekend. Floating on international waters, away from home and the unspoken rules that govern Swedish society, the passengers gladly threw lagom overboard.

But they knew, as I did, that it would have to be fished back up before we docked in Stockholm.

Lola Akinmade Åkerström is a Stockholm-based writer and photographer.