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Sweden as a Monastery

Rick Wicks

Rick's cuke page

October 2012

Since the 1930s, Sweden – under the influence of the Social Democratic party – has seen itself as the “people’s home” (folkhemmet). That means that the government is expected to take care of its citizens – in other words, we all take care of each other – as with low-cost medical care, free or low-cost childcare, free university tuition, etc. This attitude permeates life here, I believe, though of course not everyone shares it to the same degree.

The roots of this attitude must be much deeper, of course. Sweden runs very much on consensus, and there are lots of unspoken rules. Immigrants (including refugees) are now presenting a challenge to Sweden’s cultural homogeneity, but even among them, the generation that grows up in Sweden often understands the rules.

Not all the rules are positive, in my opinion. Though I highly appreciate many, I chafe at others. For example, there’s a laundry room in our building (as is typical for apartment buildings here). One can sign up for 4-hour periods between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and there are 22 apartments in the building, so most periods are usually spoken for, and the machines get used a lot. Nevertheless, many people – after they’ve finished their laundry – turn off the emergency switch on the machines (which is only lighting a red indicator light, no great power draw). Do they think they’re saving electricity (during the hour, perhaps, before the next user arrives)? So when I arrive to do laundry, I have to turn on both laundry machines, the centrifuge, and the dryer – even though someone else just turned them off (okay, sometimes the evening before). Seems like a waste of effort to me – both mine and theirs – but it seems to reinforce their identity as rule-abiding Swedes. Although I asked the landlord about it once, and he said there’s no rule and it isn’t necessary. Go figure.

Besides that, sometimes the previous user has also turned off the water – which certainly isn’t using any power (or any water, when the machines aren’t running). It can happen that one loads one’s laundry; puts in detergent; sets the time, water-level, etc.; starts the machines – and comes back later to find out that the laundry never got wet, there was no water. And the point was? (It seems to be “practice” – being a good Swede – carried way to the extreme.)

Each apartment also has a storage locker in a special room in the basement. As a relic of the Cold War (I believe), there’s a small “bomb shelter” room – with heavy doors on each side – that one goes through in order to get into the room with storage lockers. (How residents of 22 apartments could survive – or even fit – in a bomb shelter about 12’ by 12’ is beyond me.) The front door to our building is locked (as is the back door, into the bicycle room). Then there’s a locked door into the basement. Then the first door to the storage room (which opens into the bomb shelter) is locked. Is there any reason to latch the back door of the bomb shelter, which opens into the storage room? Not that I can see. Yet residents of the building typically close and latch it when leaving the storage room – leaving it for the next person to unlatch and open it again. It annoys me. Once I posted a note asking why we’re keeping this door closed and latched. Someone responded, “to make it harder for thieves”. Well, yes, thieves can be a problem. But if they got past the locked front door, the locked basement door, and the locked door to the bomb shelter, a latched door into the storage area isn’t going to bother them very much. But people follow the rules – even if there is no rule. If there’s a door, close it – if there’s a switch, turn it off – regardless whether someone is going to come along soon and need to open it or turn it on again. Again, it seems to be practice, part of Swedish identity.

I first visited Sweden after meeting a Swedish woman (Ellinor, who is now my wife) while traveling in Bangladesh in early 1984 (having spent 1983 traveling in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal). Then I spent the rest of 1984 traveling around Europe – about half in Sweden with Ellinor. After we got married in Alaska in 1986 and moved to Washington DC, we visited Sweden at Christmas 1989, and yet again in May 1991. We moved to Sweden in 1992 (after our daughter Linnéa was born in DC in January 1991), and we’ve lived here since. (Our son Hendrik was born here in July 1994.)

At first we lived in Ellinor’s small old apartment, which had been sublet out for many years – because the rental market is difficult, so people hold onto their rental rights – but now we (very fortunately) live in the same building into which Ellinor’s parents moved before she was born, and where they’ve lived ever since. Her father died in 2006, but her mother continues to live in the apartment directly above ours – on top of a tall building on a high hill overlooking the city (Göteborg) with a view of the river valley all the way out to the ocean. Our apartment is still small (though considerably larger than the first one we moved into) – about 650 square feet. Of course we also have the storage locker in the basement, and there’s the common laundry room and the bike room. And we love our view, our balcony, and being near Mormor (mother’s mother – the Swedish language helpfully identifies maternal and paternal grandparents with single terms).

Swedes highly respect privacy – both their own and others’. When we moved into this building, I suggested to Ellinor that we could have an open house, perhaps on New Year’s Eve, to get to know our neighbors. She said she didn’t want to get to know our neighbors (which sounded un-American to me!) – and certainly didn’t want them in our apartment. (We could have a barbeque outdoors in the summer if we wanted to meet our neighbors.) Among other things, there’s widespread small-mindedness, I believe – a fear that others will criticize of be jealous – which may be a remnant of farm culture.

People often don’t meet my eyes on the street, because they’re respecting my privacy – and they would be very surprised if I violated theirs by speaking to them (unless it were an emergency, in which case they’d probably be happy to help). When my mother was here to visit, and we went down to the bus stop to catch a bus, she said “hello” to people waiting there just like she might do in the States – and they looked at her like, “Who do you think you are, the queen or something? Why are you speaking to me?” But – being American – she was just being friendly.

Despite all this concern with privacy, Swedes’ tax returns – their incomes – are public information. But, even if the house phone is listed in my name (and I’m paying the bills), it used to be that the phone company didn’t print the phone numbers to which calls were made, because that would violate the privacy of others in my household who might have made calls they didn’t want me to know about.

On the other hand, of course, we were expected to trust the authority of the phone company. If they said I owed so many kronor, I should just pay it. They must be right, because they’re the authority, right?

People arrested for a crime are not publicly identified (in newspapers or TV) except perhaps by gender and age – after all, they might be innocent. Sometimes there are hints that the perpetrator was an immigrant, which is controversial to mention. Sweden has accepted a far larger proportion of refugees than most other countries, many of whom are uneducated, have suffered severe traumas, etc., so it’s not easy for them to integrate into Swedish society. On the one hand, there’s concern about problems brought by immigrants (rape, theft, general hooliganism – which of course weren’t unknown before immigrants came, either). On the other hand, being fair-minded, most Swedes don’t want immigrants to be stereotyped either.

In the U.S., I generally feel that I can do what I want unless it’s made explicit that it’s disallowed. For example, generally one can park one’s car anywhere reasonable unless it’s posted “no parking”. In Sweden, however, one would hesitate to park unless it’s clearly posted that parking is allowed – otherwise it might not be allowed.

People wait their turns. We were in Santa Fe one summer when our kids were young, and we signed them up for swimming lessons. Before our kids were finished with their class, some kids in the next class entered the water, interfering with and detracting from our kids’ lesson. I was incensed, demanding that the mother keep her kids out of the water. But to her it was totally natural, as her kids were cold waiting, and they were warmer in the water. Ellinor (who also thought their behavior inappropriate) suggested that I’d been in Sweden “too long”: I’d adopted Swedish standards – people should wait their turns – though more likely I was just feeling possessive of my kids’ opportunities and wanted them to get the most out of their class.

People don’t arrive early, for a party or whatever. I went to a formal occasion once at a convention hall, got there 10 minutes early, and was amazed that the place was totally empty, I couldn’t find anyone. The door was open so I went in to look around to try to figure out if I was at the right place, becoming convinced that I was not. But one minute before the scheduled time, the “presiding couple” made a fast walk-through to make sure everything was ready, and then, precisely at the scheduled time (and within a few minutes thereafter), hundreds of people showed up.

People customarily take off their shoes when they enter someone else’s residence (or their own) – and often use shoe-covers during the rainy season even in public places (e.g., at the doctor’s office). Apparently taking off one’s shoes is actually a new custom – people who left, say, during the 1950s, and returned during the 1990s, don’t remember the custom and are surprised. But the custom seems to have taken over very thoroughly, universally.

I mentioned deciding by consensus, which I’ve learned to wait for in my own family. In my birth family, it was much more the case that one person would drive a decision, making things happen – sometimes by riding over other people’s feelings or concerns. But while I can push for a decision, I’ve learned that I make decisions (without waiting for consensus) at my peril, because problems are sure to crop up later. We can spend a long time coming to consensus – and the process can be gamed by one person who sees what everyone else wants, and holds out for concessions. But the process feels better – once decisions are made – than the steamroller process I’m more used to. (On the other hand, it can be quite frustrating when nothing gets decided.)

I’m no expert on the Swedish political process, but I believe there’s a large element of consensus there too. Everyone should be heard, even those we most strongly disagree with, such as the right-wing (highly nationalist) Sverige Demokraterna (Sweden Democrats – who, of course, are not the same as the Social Democrats). When they managed to elect a member to parliament, the other parties froze that person out of committee assignments, etc., but it didn’t really feel right to many Swedes. After all – even if we dislike that person’s views – they’ve been elected by a segment of the electorate, and they deserve to be heard. (One of the Sweden Democrats’ issues is dealing better with the problems caused by immigrants – problems which the other parties generally prefer not to discuss, burying their heads in the sand.)

Swedes are generally quite law-abiding. This isn’t to say there’s no corruption. In fact, a spate of cases of corruption in the municipal government has recently been reported in the local newspaper. But, overall, Sweden ranks low on the corruption index.

Bicyclists often wait for a green light, even if there’s no traffic around, no danger. And I’ve learned why, because twice I’ve been fined (rather stiffly – first about $100, then about $250) for riding against a red light when there was absolutely no danger – there were no moving vehicles around! The second time, I pointed this out to the policeman, saying, “It doesn’t really make sense, does it?” He responded, “It does in Sweden”! One learns to follow the rules.

We had sleds (for the kids in winter), a barbeque, some gardening tools, etc., stored in an unused corner of the bike room – a section that used to be used for baby carriages and such (back in the day when families lived in our building – now young couples move out very early to more spacious quarters). Our storage locker was overflowing (since there’s two kids in our family), but we weren’t the only ones with extra stuff in that corner of the “bike room” (e.g., someone had four tires there). But recently the building owner decided that he’d like all that stuff gone. The fire department happened to come out one day to use our tall building for practice with their ladder truck, so the owner used that as a pretext – “fire danger” – to say that we had to get our stuff out of that corner. That was absurd, and I was insulted by such stupidity. (Of course I also didn’t want to have to move the stuff – though we ended up cleaning out our storage cubicle and making plenty of space for extra stuff.) But the point is, my wife accepted without question that of course we should follow authority – we shouldn’t have been drawing attention to ourselves in that way in the first place.

A general rule is not to stick out, not to attract attention. Our kids learned this early on. Even at a rather young age, our daughter would hush me on the tram (public transportation), lest someone hear us talking. She might have been especially concerned since I was speaking English, but probably she also just thought I wasn’t speaking quietly enough, I wasn’t sufficiently subdued.

Once when Hendrik was about 4 – and Linnéa about 7 – the three of us walked down to the local store to get ice cream cones. Hendrik proudly reported our mission to an elderly woman we passed on the sidewalk, but Linnéa shushed him. She already knew the rule: One shouldn’t speak to strangers.

Many people wear sweaters or jackets with an insignia of one sort or another on them – but they’re not really marks of individuality, because one will find very many people wearing the same few popular insignias. One doesn’t see bumper stickers or political buttons – one doesn’t attract attention, doesn’t stick out in any way. (Incidentally, though the U.S. is far from universally popular, for a variety of reasons – though American TV programs and movies are pervasive – one of the insignias that one often sees on sweaters or whatever is a U.S. flag.)

Many of these “rules” may seem (and are, in my opinion) negative, but my point is just that the rules are more widely known and followed than any similar norms in the States.

There’s also a big positive in personal friendships. It’s true that one doesn’t have personal interactions with strangers – for example, while waiting in line at the grocery store – because that would be an invasion of privacy which almost no Swede would risk. So you don’t get the insincere but seemingly very friendly “have a nice day” you might get when checking out in the States. My wife was quite confused by that because she might come along the next day, only to find out that the person who seemed so friendly the day before didn’t even remember her now. But in Sweden, if someone does accept you as a friend, you’re a friend for life. Quality, not quantity, is what counts.

All of these things frequently make me think of Sweden as a monastery, where the rules of practice are widely known, though not always spoken.