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.

Medieval Visby - UNESCO Heritage Site, Sweden
Medieval Visby, in Sweden. The Swedes' dignified code of conduct may go as far back as the Vikings.

Photo by Lola Akinmade Åkerström

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STOCKHOLM, Sweden—Eight of us—six Swedes, one Finn, and me, the Nigerian-American—are gathered in a modest city-center studio apartment in Stockholm’s eclectic Södermalm district. Next to our dinner table is a small window with a gorgeous view of Stockholm’s history-rich old town, Gamla stan, with its narrow red clay, melon, and burnt-sienna-colored structures. The location alone makes this modest studio as coveted as a New York penthouse with direct views of Central Park.

Jörgen is making single cups of coffee on a mini press as we each wait silently in turn. The silence leaves me unsettled, almost feeling obliged to fill it with random chit-chat, a few words about the weather. I glance from silent guest to silent guest. Surely I can’t be the only one struck by this odd stillness?

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When Jörgen hands someone a coffee, we each say a little something, and then revert back to silence as he presses the next cup.

I had noticed this silence before. Once at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, after flying in from Swedish Lapland, our group of passengers waited for delayed luggage for about 30 minutes, completely quiet. Back home in the United States, I would have nudged the nearest fellow passenger, shook my head, and we would have commiserated in voices meant to be overheard about the delay. In Sweden, stating the obvious seems unnecessary.

At Jörgen’s, instead of filling the emptiness, we wait patiently until everyone has their coffee before easing back into conversation. And even when we break the silence, there is a profoundly understated tone to our interactions. The guests at Jörgen’s studio are remarkably accomplished musicians who play in high-profile Swedish orchestras, but no one talks about that until asked. No one talks over someone else. Everyone speaks three or four languages fluently but dismisses their skill. Dressed in worn out jeans, single-color shirts or blouses and sock-clad feet, they could not look more ordinary.

I had heard of this unspoken custom before moving to Sweden a couple of years ago. This untranslatable ethos is called lagom (pronounced: law-gum) and it permeates all facets of the Swedish psyche. Often misconstrued as indifference, or the stereotypical Scandinavian "coldness," lagom is loosely translated from Swedish as “just the right amount,” “in moderation,” “appropriate,” and other such synonyms. For example, a common usage would be: The water is lagom hot, or the coffee is lagom strong.

Speaking of coffee, mellanbrygg—the medium type of coffee brew—dominates store shelves. Many Swedes have a hard time deciding between strong and light blends, so they gravitate toward the middle, the medium, the lagom brew. This same risk-aversive logic also applies to milk where mellanmjölk—medium milk—remains the popular choice, causing Swedes to call their country the “land of mellanmjölk.” It is a nation of Goldilocks, where the middle road is just right, and the goal is equality and moderation in all aspects of life.

The word lagom itself comes from a shortening of the phrase “laget om,” which literally means “around the team” and dates back to the Viking era between the eighth and 11th centuries. Communal horns filled with mjöd (fermented honey wine) would be passed around and everyone had to sip their own share and not a bit more. Sweden today might be known for cutting-edge design and fierce modernism, yet this Viking code of conduct remains ingrained in their mindset.

 “I love lagom!” says schoolteacher and native Swede Linda Henriksson, when I ask her what she thinks of it. “It could mean anything to anyone. Ironically, average could be many different things depending on who you’re talking to.” So the word itself is now being used in everyday settings to mean “average” or “just right.” 

And the concept is adapting to a changing society. The government agency Statistiska centralbyrån tracks nearly everything that can be counted, averaged, and summarized in Sweden, including how many people are called Svensson (101,027 to be exact). Their most recent count of the 9,606,522 people that call Sweden home found that nearly one in five residents has a foreign background. That’s peak diversity for the Scandinavian country, and one might assume that they are bringing new cultural beliefs and traditions with them, slowly diluting this intrinsic Swedish mentality.

Not so, says Henriksson. She thinks nonnative Swedes are drawn to this norm and pick it up pretty fast. Many of us outsiders might initially find lagom odd or even a little bit funny since it is such a nebulous concept. But once you realize you’re the only booming braggart in the room, you quickly learn how to appropriate the cultural nuance.

I come from two boisterously competitive cultures—Nigerian and American—where everyone grows talons and claws their way to survive, stand out, and succeed. The idea of lagom felt intensely foreign to me at first. Yet I have embraced it, too. To me, it meant a cool restraint, a certain self-confidence. It feels liberating not to have to wear your accomplishments on your sleeve. I didn’t need to boast or brag about my achievements, but actually let my work do the talking for me—as did everyone else.

My friend Fredrik Rydehäll, a lighting engineer whose job is to literally put actors, singers, and dancers in the spotlight, has worked with everyone from egocentric choreographers to outstanding yet humble ballerinas. “It is easier to stand out in Stockholm because it’s so multicultural,” Rydehäll tells me. He’s from Luleå (population 75,000), and there lagom rules supreme.

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