Beneath the cool, sophisticated exterior, the Swede harbors a deep and heartfelt passion for the nature, tradition and schnapps.
Swedes have a reputation for being dry, somber and painfully serious. It is true that the average Swede is quite quiet and reserved, and that instant gushing friendliness is not commonly witnessed. But contrary to popular opinion, Swedes do have a sense of humor – one that is as elusive as Garbo and as fleeting as a Swedish summer. Swedes may seem calm and collected on the outside, but they’re every bit as prone to ribald fits of laughter as the next person, even if they do recover their solemn faces much more quickly. So remember that appearances can be deceptive: underneath that composed exterior, you’ll usually find a warm, friendly individual. And once a Swede has decided to let their guard down and befriend you, they will be a friend for life.
Blond or blue-eyed?
When it comes to Sweden, popular misconceptions are rife. Think “Swede” and an image of a blue-eyed bond, no doubt sitting at the wheel of a Volvo, may well spring to mind. But only a proportion of native Swedes fit the old stereotype: Sweden today is a country of growing cultural and social diversity. In 2010 over one million of Sweden’s 9.4 million inhabitants were born abroad, the majority in Finland, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq.
However, Sweden’s traditionally tolerant outlook has been called into questions recently. The high standard of living, strong economy and cradle-to-grave welfare system enjoyed by the Swedes has come under increasing pressure, particularly following the 2008 global financial crash. Far-right groups who place the blame on immigrants have made political headway: for the first time, the anti-immigrations Sweden Democrats won 49 of the 349 parliamentary seats – nearly13 percent of the vote – in the September 2014 elections.
Children of nature
It’s no exaggeration to say that Swedes are potty about nature. It’s somehow a part of the Swedish soul. They are quick to wax lyrical about the grassy plains of Skåne, expound the virtues of lakeside Dalarna and remind you that theirs is the only true wilderness left in Europe. Ask any Swede to recount tales of their childhood and they’ll dreamily recall summers spent in the country with a noticeable softening of facial expression and a faraway look in their eye.
Nowadays the little red cottage is Sweden’s most enduring image, and there’s nothing Swedes like better than to take off to their stuga, where they can kick off their shoes, swim naked and bond with nature.
Life in Sweden is intrinsically linked to the changing seasons. Swedish winters are famous for their darkness, longevity and Arctic temperatures. But Swedes have learnt how to make the most of it, and winter sports are popular with Swedes of all ages. They eagerly await the spring and the return of sunlight with all the excited anticipation of children at Christmas. Like hibernating animals re-emerging after winter, sun-starved Swedes are wont to stand on street corners, at crossings, in traffic lights and any other spot with a south-facing aspect, soaking up the first warming rays of spring.
This deep-rooted love of nature means that environmental concerns are a high priority in Sweden. The country plans to wean itself off oil by 2020, and car manufacturers Saab and Volvo have been forerunners in developing vehicles that run on biofuels. Sweden’s best restaurants inevitably are part of the international “slow food” movement, focusing on organic local produce and local culinary culture.
Cosmopolitan citizens of the world
Despite such closeness to the countryside, Sweden is no nation of bumpkins. Its people are a true blend of the provincial and the cosmopolitan, every but at home in the concrete jungle as going barefoot at their place in the country – 85 percent of the country’s inhabitants live in an urban area.
Friendships are often sealed over schnapps. Delicately flavored with fruits or spices, schnapps is a perennial favorite and every Swede can name his or her tipple.
Swedes have a reputation for forward thinking, with Sweden deemed to be Europe’s most innovative country in 2008. Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are a major export, and IT companies thrive: one of Skype’s two co-founders is Swedish, and the online music service Spotify is a Swedish creation.
Swedes also have a strong international perspective and many of Sweden’s most (in) famous people (Dag Hammarskjöld; Olof Palme; Dr. Hans Blix, who lead the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq 2003) have loomed large in the world stage. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2010 Sweden was the world’s most charitable country.
Swedes have a high opinion of their country and like nothing more than to talk about Sweden itself. This is not to say that Swedes are braggarts; a more humble, self-depreciating tyribe you’d be gard pushed to find. But their modesty is merely a thin veil, and all young Swedes are well versed in the achievements of their countrymen, be it Alfred Nobel or August Strindberg. And perhaps this universal satisfaction is not so misplaced; after all, in recent times the rest of the world has come to appreciate various Swedish exports. IKEA sells Swedish homeware in 39 countries, and it is said that one in 10 Europeans was conceived in an IKEA bed!
Culturally, Stieg Larsson’s thriller The Girl with the Dragon tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest have sold over 50 million copies since the first book was published posthumously in 2005.