The Almost Nearly Perfect People


A fascinating account of the unique culture of the Scandinavian countries - Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Denmark. Michael does an excellent job of portraying these countries and their quirks from an outside perspective while still being able to dive into the nuances which make them unique.

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways
  1. Gallup asked other questions about social support (“If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them?”); freedom (“In your country, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”); and corruption (“Is corruption widespread within businesses located in your country?”).
  2. I did more than that. After some years of watching the Danish happiness bandwagon roll relentlessly on from a distance—interspersed with regular visits that, if anything, only served to confuse me more (Weather still shitty? Check. Tax rate still over 50 percent? Yep. Shops closed whenever you need them? Oh, yes)—I moved back there.
  3. While I was writing this book, several people—including some Danes and, in particular, many Swedes—expressed genuine bemusement that they would be of the slightest interest to anyone outside Scandinavia. “Why do you think people will want to know about us?” they asked. “We are all so boring and stiff.” “There must be more interesting people in the world to write about. Why don’t you go to southern Europe?” It seems Scandinavians tend to regard themselves rather as we do: functional and worthy, but plagued by an unremitting dullness that tends to discourage further investigation. Industrious, trustworthy, and politically correct, the Scandinavians are the accountant at the party, five countries’ worth of local government officials, finger-wagging social workers, and humorless party poopers.
  4. But where were the discussions about Nordic totalitarianism and how uptight the Swedes are; about how the Norwegians have been corrupted by their oil wealth to the point where they can’t even be bothered to peel their own bananas (really: we’ll get to that later); how the Finns are self-medicating themselves into oblivion; how the Danes are in denial about their debt, their vanishing work ethic, and their place in the world; and how the Icelanders are, essentially, feral? Once you begin to look more closely at the Nordic societies and their people, once you go beyond the Western media’s current Scandinavian tropes—the Sunday supplement features on Swedish summerhouses peopled by blond women in floral-print dresses carrying baskets of wild garlic and surrounded by children with artfully mussed hair—a more complex, often darker, occasionally quite troubling picture begins to emerge. This encompasses everything from the relatively benign downsides to living among such comfortable, homogenous, egalitarian societies as these (in other words, when everyone earns the same amount of money, lives in the same kinds of homes, dresses the same, drives the same cars, eats the same food, reads the same books, has the same opinion about knitwear and beards, holds broadly similar religious beliefs, and goes to the same places on their holidays, things can get just a teensy bit dull—see the chapters on Sweden for more on this), to the more serious fissures in Nordic society: the racism and Islamophobia, the slow decline of social equality, the alcoholism, and the vast, over-stretched public sectors that require levels of taxation that would be deemed utterly preposterous by anyone who hasn’t had them slowly creep up on them over the last fifty years like a deadly tide, choking off all hope, energy, and ambition.…
  5. Midsummer’s Eve is one of the highlights of the Scandinavian calendar; pagan in origin but hijacked by the Church and renamed in honor of “Sankt Hans” (St. John). In Sweden they will be dancing around maypoles garlanded with flowers; in Finland and Norway they will have gathered around bonfires. Here in Denmark, in the garden of my friend’s summerhouse north of Copenhagen, the beer and cocktails are flowing. At ten o’clock we gather around a fire to sing “Vi Elsker Vort Land” (“We Love Our Country”) and other stirring, nationalistic hymns.
  6. The Danes have a refreshingly laid-back approach to their work-life balance, which, as we will see, has had major consequences—both positive (the happiness) and potentially negative (sometimes you do really need to buckle down and do some work: during a global recession, for example).
  7. Danes were second only to the Belgians in the laziness stakes—
  8. Annual leave is often as much as six weeks, and during July, the entire country shuts down as the Danes migrate en masse, like mild-mannered wildebeest, to their summerhouses, caravan parks, or campsites located an hour or so away from where they live.
  9. Once upon a time, the Danes ruled all of Scandinavia. They like their fairy tales, the Danes, but this one is true. The Kalmar Union of 1397 was an historic high point for the Danes, with the then queen, Margaret I, ruling a loosely unified Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The union held for over a century until, in 1520, the then Danish king, Christian II, rashly beheaded around eighty Swedish nobles in the so-called Stockholm Bloodbath, something of a diplomatic faux pas. Though Denmark did manage to hold on to Norway for a few hundred years more, henceforth the Swedes would play a far more proactive role in the region’s history, mostly by holding Denmark’s head in the toilet bowl while Britain and Germany queued up to pull the handle.
  10. It would be surprising if this long litany of loss and defeat had not had a lasting impact on the Danes, but I would go further. I suspect that it has defined the Danes to a greater extent than any other single factor—more than their geography, more than their Lutheran faith or their Viking heritage, more even than their modern political system and welfare state. You see, in a roundabout way, Denmark’s losses were her making.
  11. Their greatly reduced circumstances bound the Danes together more tightly as a tribe than any of the other Nordic countries.
  12. the Danes adopted a “glass half full” outlook, largely because their glass was now half full, and it is an outlook that, I would argue, has paved the way for the much trumpeted success f their society to this day.
  13. Hvad udad tabes, skal indad vindes. (What was lost without will be found within.)
  14. They were learning how to do what they still do best: to be grateful for, and make the most of, the resources available to them; to cherish the simple pleasures of community; to celebrate their Danishness; and, above all, to avoid annoying the Germans.
  15. Parochialism remains the Danes’ defining characteristic, but their radically recalibrated sense of identity and national pride has created a curious duality best described as a kind of “humble pride,” though many often mistake it for smugness.
  16. They have never looked back: today, the Danes are the world’s leading pork butchers, slaughtering more than twenty-eight million pigs a year. The Danish pork industry accounts for around a fifth of all the world’s pork exports, half of domestic agricultural exports, and more than 5 percent of the country’s total exports.
  17. The Danes do seem to have an uncommon facility to get on with each other regardless of age, class, or outlook. Egality comes easily to them.
  18. Improbably, considering his background, it is thanks to Gini that we have what many believe is the single most revealing piece of evidence—statistical or otherwise—for the root cause of Nordic exceptionalism, not to mention the most helpful guide to answering the ultimate secular question of our age: how to be happy. This is the Gini Coefficient, a statistical method for analyzing the distribution of wealth in a nation, which he introduced to the world in 1921. The Gini Coefficient quantifies how large a percentage of the total income of a society must be redistributed in order to achieve a perfectly equal distribution of wealth. It remains to this day a brilliantly concise way to express the inequality of a group of people as a simple figure (although technically, I am told, it is not actually a coefficient).
  19. the Gini Coefficient is the silver bullet that goes directly to the heart of not just how equal a society is, but how happy and healthy its people are likely to be. It is, if you like, the very sum of human happiness.
  20. Their most radical conclusion is that inequality breeds stress among poor and rich alike; the more unequal a society, the less benefit is obtained from an individual’s wealth. The stress of inequality does not just breed envy, it is not just about coveting your neighbor’s ox/Cadillac Escalade. Inequality breeds depression, addiction, resignation, and physical symptoms including premature aging, that affect the entire population. In other words, the well-being of individuals, rich or poor, is mutually dependent.
  21. In contrast, the Danes are arguably the most sociable people on earth. According to the Danish think tank Mandag Morgen, they belong to more associations, clubs, unions, societies, and groups, and have larger social networks, than any other nationality—
  22. All of the Nordic countries have high levels of trust, but the Danes are the most trusting people on the planet.
  23. (In fact, when talking all this over with my Danish publisher, he said that it was the Swedes he really trusted the most. “They simply don’t have the imagination to lie or cheat,” he said.)
  24. the Danes are not only the most trusting, but also, Bjørnskov said, the most trustworthy, because the “people” in the question are, by definition, other Danes (just as they are other Americans when Americans are asked the same question).
  25. I suspect trust and social cohesion are so inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforcing as to be indivisible.
  26. I am here because, according to some, the Vikings are the best bet as to the source of the Danes’ remarkable egalitarianism.
  27. “One of the fundamental elements of Viking-age society was honor,”
  28. The trust is based, on my understanding, on the welfare state, period. You trust your neighbor because you know your neighbor is paying tax just like you are, and when that neighbor gets sick, they get the same treatment as you, they go to the same school. That is trust: that you know that, regardless of age, sex, fortune, family background or religion, that you have the same opportunities and the same safety net. You don’t have to compete with your neighbor, or be envious of your neighbor. You don’t have to cheat your neighbor.
  29. There is income tax, for a start, which ranges from a base rate of 42 percent (for a European comparison, in the UK it is 20 percent) up to the top level of 56 percent.
  30. Thus the total direct and indirect burden on the Danish taxpayer ranges from 58 to 72 percent.
  31. For many Danes, their tax burden seems to be the ultimate symbol of collective sacrifice.
  32. they are highly enthusiastic shoppers on the black market.
  33. Today, Danish households have the highest ratio of debt-to-income of any country in the Western world: the Danes owe, on average, 310 percent of their annual income, more than double that of the Portuguese or Spanish, and quadruple that of the Italians.
  34. Another report, published in June 2013 by the government’s statistics department, no less, revealed that the Danes were working even less than previously thought—fewer than twenty-eight hours a week.
  35. Though the Nordic people have largely grown out of religion, boasting the lowest church attendance of all the Christian countries, and though its impact on society today is little discussed, their particular form of Christianity, Lutheranism, has been a formative influence
  36. on the Nordic psyche and remains fundamental to the way people here behave and relate to one another.
  37. In 1527 the Danish king, Frederik I, proclaimed that his people should be free to worship in whichever way they pleased, “For His Grace is king and judge over life and property for his realm, not over the souls of men.” (That
  38. The fragment of A Fugitive that has come both to define and to torment the Danes is a list of rules by which the residents of the fictional town of Jante were said to abide. These rules set out the Law of Jante (Janteloven), a kind of Danish Ten Commandments, the influence and infamy of which have spread beyond their home country throughout the Nordic region. These are the rules of Jante Law, the social norms one should apparently be aware of if one is planning a move to the north:   1. You shall not believe that you are someone.   2. You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.   3. You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.   4. You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.   5. You shall not believe that you know more than we do.   6. You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.   7. You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.   8. You shall not laugh at us.   9. You shall not believe that anyone cares about you. 10. You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
  39. Sandemose really nailed the Danes. And not just the Danes: Jante Law sent ripples of recognition beyond Denmark—the Norwegians are all too familiar with them and, as we will hear, they act as an even more powerful normalizing force in Sweden.
  40. What is the foreigner to make of Jante Law? How does one negotiate its booby traps and trip wires? There are two approaches to take: one is to play the stupid foreigner card, proceed as you would at home, and feign obliviousness to the frowns as you sail through Danish society boasting of your successes and acquisitions. Or you can keep your head down, your socks up, and your nose clean.
  41. Alongside Jante Law, there are two other prime drivers of Danish conformism—hygge and folkelig. They are tricky to translate: the former is a deceptively relaxed and informal, uniquely Danish form of coziness or conviviality, which is actually highly codified, with strict social rituals that exercise a relentless, tyrannical pressure to conform; the latter is a kind of broad-based cultural populism that pervades a good deal of Danish mainstream culture and, in a kind of reverse-Midas effect, turns everything it touches to shit.
  42. The Danes pride themselves on their informality: the men rarely wear ties, teachers are on first-name terms with their pupils, Danish politicians cycled to Parliament long before it was a fashionable cause. Yet, like every other race on earth, they still have their social rules and formal procedures. Even when the Danes appear to be at their most informal, often it will be a highly ritualized informality. In fact, this is when the foreigner should be most on his guard, because this is when the traps are set: the beer may be poured, but wait for the host to lift their glass and say skål before you taste it; there may be rye bread and salmon on the same buffet, but the salmon always goes on white bread;
  43. The Danes genuinely believe that they have the most beautiful flag in the world, and will hoist it given the slightest opportunity—birthdays, funerals, anniversaries, any old social event.
  44. “In Denmark it is shameful to be unhappy,” she told me. “If you ask me how I am and I start telling you how bad I feel, then it might force you to do something about it. It might put a burden on you to help me. So, that’s one of the main reasons people say things are all right, or even ‘super.’”
  45. Here’s another convincing theory, posited by a Danish friend of mine: “We always come top of those surveys because they ask us at the beginning of the year what our expectations are,” he said. “Then they ask us at the end of the year whether those expectations were met. And because our expectations are so extremely low at the beginning of the year, they tend to get met more easily.”
  46. The Danes are in denial about their poor health, too. In surveys they claim that they have above-average health, though the reality is quite the opposite. They are in denial about their creaking public services; in denial about the increasingly rampant gang criminality that has resulted in numerous shootings in Copenhagen suburbs; in denial about the realities of integration and of being part of a globalized world (the ascendant, right-wing Danish People’s Party is aiming to close the open border with Germany, for instance); in denial about the growing economic and geographical divide within their country and its consequences; and in denial about their various economic woes—the low productivity, their head-in-the-sand approach to debt, the massive public sector overspend, and so on.
  47. As The Economist put it in their Nordic special edition, Scandinavia is a great place in which to be born … but only if you are average. If you are averagely talented, have average ambitions, average dreams, then you’ll do just fine, but if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams, great visions, or are just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first.
  48. With that in mind, I had a standard question that I asked most of my interviewees: “What are your fears for the future of Denmark?” One word cropped up more than any other in their responses: complacency.
  49. The similarities between them are striking: the strong, extensive welfare states; the social cohesion, the interconnectedness and collectivism; the economic equality; and the masochistic licorice obsession—all are common to the people of the north.
  50. Geneticists from around the world have long flocked to Iceland, so pure- (the uncharitable might say in-) bred are they.
  51. The crash appears to have been a crime with no criminals. Haarde was eventually prosecuted for negligence at the Landsdómur criminal court, the first political leader anywhere in the world to be called to account for what happened in 2008. He faced up to two years in prison for his role in the widespread financial mispractice that had ruined Iceland, but was found not guilty. The president throughout all of this, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, is, quite remarkably, still president, having been reelected in 2012: the fact that he has consistently vetoed all attempts by the Icelandic Parliament to repay the money they owe their foreign creditors might have something to do with his enduring popularity.
  52. Early Iceland was a lawless, irreligious place peopled with Norwegian outlaws and their Scottish and Irish companions. Human sacrifices to appease the terrible forces that raged just beneath the surface of their meager soil were not unknown. There was no executive authority, no king, and no army, just a ragbag of laws mostly concerned with the apparently pressing issue of incest. In the thirteenth century, unable to control themselves, the Icelanders finally asked the Norwegians to intervene. King Olaf of Norway somehow managed to convert the Icelanders to Christianity, but theirs was always a halfhearted observance, at best.
  53. After all, much of the success of the Nordic countries has been ascribed to three key factors: their homogeneity, their egalitarianism, and their social cohesion, all of which Iceland boasted in abundance, in some cases to a greater degree than any of its Nordic siblings. But something, somewhere, went catastrophically wrong. Did Iceland lose its Nordic mojo? Did it have its head turned by distant sirens, or was it never really Nordic in the first place?
  54. By the end, virtually all the media—from the state-run TV and radio, to private TV channels and newspapers—was under the control of people closely affiliated to the ruling Independent Party. Even the National Economic Institute was abolished in the late 1990s after publishing one too many reports questioning the direction in which the country was heading. So, it would seem that a country can be too small, too socially knitted, too tightly tied for its own good. Strong social networks can, in certain circumstances, turn to incestuous corruption and the shutting down of democratic discourse. You can, it turns out, be too Nordic for your own good.
  55. In 1998 a poll revealed that 54.4 percent said they believed in elves.
  56. Iceland’s remoteness kept the missionaries at bay, and the Icelanders remained deeply superstitious (I haven’t even mentioned the giant worm that lives in Kleifarvatn, a 1,000-meter-deep volcanic lake; or that another monster lives in Lagarfljót, a lake in eastern Iceland; or that the Westfjords still have a reputation for witchcraft).
  57. “Well, these are people who live very much for the moment, which is also connected to the landscape. You get this ‘just get through the day’ mentality.
  58. I did find myself drawn again and again to the idea that, for most of the Nordic peoples, for most of their histories, climate and geography have been the predominant long-term influences on their mentality and culture.
  59. I had expected Iceland to be some kind of microcosm of Scandinavia. Icelanders look like Norwegians and speak Old Norse. They have a modern welfare state, high levels of education, equality, democracy, robust knitwear, and the same hang-ups about the sale of alcohol, with their government-run alcohol shops staffed by the same species of disapproving elderly women as you find in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The young men smoke pipes, which I always find strangely reassuring. But the modern-day Icelander, with one foot in Scandinavia and the other in the Wild West, has evolved into something quite different from customary notions of what it is to be Nordic. Beaten and battered by the elements, cowed by the landscape, subjugated by a reasonably kind but still condescending colonial power, and then given a glimpse of a very different way of life by their American guests, a way of life with whose temptations they were unfamiliar, the Icelanders have morphed into a curious hybrid. As a result, their genetic homogeneity and small, tightly connected population didn’t translate into trustworthiness, accountability, openness, a strong civil society, long-termism, individual self-control—all of those things that have made the Nordic countries so successful. Instead, their genetic disposition toward high risk and a historic lack of Protestant inhibitions created the perfect climate for a corrupt, nepotistic, antidemocratic economic free-for-all.
  60. Part of the problem lies, I suspect, in how the Norwegians dress for their special day. They are a bit special, the Norwegians, and May 17 showcases this specialness in abundant ways magnificent to behold. It is the fancy dress party to end them all. Soon after leaving my hotel at 9 a.m., I begin to encounter them en masse: men, women, children, and, in some instances, their pets, all decked out in regional costume. These include heavily embroidered dirndls, shawls, neckerchiefs, and frock coats in black, red, and green; shiny top hats; hobnail shoes with silver buckles; bright-buttoned breeches; crisp white blouses with pirate sleeves; horseshoe hats and natty knickerbockers—all of which eccentric get-up is collectively known as bunad
  61. One Norwegian conceded to me that May 17 was really not much more than “a kind of ‘fuck you’ to the Swedes
  62. The Swedes consider themselves far too modern to indulge in this kind of public dressing up; besides, they have never been occupied, so have no such yoke-shrugging to celebrate. Their “National Day” on June 6 is, by comparison, a contrived and halfhearted event being tied up with their break from the Kalmar Union in the sixteenth century. From what I hear, there is sporadic flag-waving on the day, but this has at times been hijacked by right-wing extremists, thus confirming many Swedes’ fears that this kind of overt nationalistic expression brings the Nazis out of the woodwork. Some Norwegians accuse the Swedes of envy over the fact that they get to dress up and wave flags on May 17, but I think it’s fair to say that were the Swedes to adopt the Norwegian approach it would be a source of mortifying embarrassment for at least half the population.
  63. At one point, as a multiethnic gaggle of under-tens passed by in that distracted way that characterizes the marching style of under-tens everywhere, I had to fight myself to stop from crying. Admittedly, this should be taken in the context of a man who has become pitifully prone to lachrymosity (Pixar films are virtually a no-go these days, and I can only watch major sporting events in private), but what on earth was this all about? As a Somali girl passed by, struggling proudly with a flag three times her height, followed by a Sikh boy in authentic bunad, it was all I could do to suppress a full-blown, snotting meltdown. It wasn’t just the fact of their ethnicity that had so touched me, but that the Somali, Turkish, Iraqi, and Pakistani kids had committed just as fully to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic as their “pure” Norwegian peers. They, too, were proudly, unselfconsciously dressed up in their Hobbit Sunday best. And it doesn’t get much more assimilated than that.
  64. Hardly likely in a land where the then prime minister, at the memorial service to the dead of Utøya and the Oslo bomb, gave one of the most courageous speeches in defense of public freedom I have ever heard. Jens Stoltenberg had called for “more openness, more democracy,” at a time when most politicians elsewhere in the world would have used an attack of that nature to pledge revenge, exploit the anxieties of the electorate, garner greater authority and power, and then compromise civil liberties. His speech was a reminder that the political leaders of the north have often served as the moral compass of the world.
  65. “Norwegian racism is always a kind of racism that is not prepared to accept it being qualified as such,” agreed Bangstad. “Because we’re the good guys, and racism is what bad people do. Within the last ten years there was a public debate on whether one could use the Norwegian equivalent of neger, and people would get up and say, ‘I have the right to say this, why should I care about the sensitivities of African youths in Norway.
  66. Tne Norwegian I spoke to about this, Yngve Slyngstad, head of the country’s oil-investment fund, likened the way the Norwegians are defined by their landscape to the way the French are defined by their culture: “It is extraordinarily important for Norwegians to tell each other on a Monday morning that they have been out skiing, mountain walking, and so on,” he said. “Norway has this fascination with having mountain cabins and ocean cabins, this fascination with nature.” Slyngstad also pointed out that an unusually high number of Norwegian surnames are connected to the landscape. “Our names often come from actual physical places in nature, and it is not so long ago that people knew the places they came from ancestrally, and these were actual, physical places,” he said. “My name refers to the place where the river bends and, exactly where the river bends, there was my father’s farm, so there is this very strong identity and connection with nature. And if you live in cities, you only tend to reinforce it.”
  67. The discovery in 1969 of what turned out to be gargantuan oil reserves in Norway’s North Sea territories has shaped contemporary Norwegian society more than any other single factor—for the better but also, as we shall hear, for the worse. This black gold touches every Norwegian’s life, pretty much every day. The success of modern Norway—of its welfare state, its virtually unparalleled standard of living, and its strong regional infrastructure, services and random, expensive, and architecturally innovative museums—is to a great extent founded on oil.
  68. This country of little more than five million people now has the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. And I don’t mean per capita—we are talking in absolutes. It overtook Abu Dhabi’s when it hit $600 billion in 2011, and continues to rise. The fund currently stands at $617 billion, and is conservatively estimated to pass $1,600 billion before the end of the decade. To put that into perspective, the Norwegians could comfortably pay off all of Greece’s national debt twice but, crucially, up until now, they have heeded their economists’ warnings not to spend the money within their own borders, limiting themselves to using a mere 4 percent every year and investing the rest elsewhere in the world.
  69. The Oil Fund is arguably modern Norway’s greatest single achievement—the ultimate expression of Nordic self-discipline and control, and a paragon of responsible fiscal stewardhip. This brilliantly managed, tightly controlled wealth fund is the envy of every oil-producing nation—not to mention every non-oil-producing nation—in the world. The man ultimately responsibility for how that gigantic pot of gold is distributed around the globe is the CEO of Norwegian Bank Investment Management (NBIM), Yngve Slyngstad.
  70. The fund owns shares in more than eight thousand companies, which effectively means that Norwegians own more than 1 percent of the world’s listed companies, almost 2 percent of Europe’s and 0.7 percent of Asia’s.
  71. “Two things—first is that the founding fathers of the fund were very clear about avoiding the Dutch disease. We could easily destroy the economy; we need to have an export-orientated economy that is able to survive without the oil, because if you are destroying your possibility to compete in the world, you can’t be sure you will regain it later when the oil runs out.
  72. In his excellent book Petromania: A Journey Through the World’s Richest Oil Lands (unfortunately only available in Norwegian), the Norwegian author Simen Sætre documents how oil wealth rarely has a positive effect on any country in the long term. And that includes Norway. He points out that the Norwegians are working 23 percent fewer hours per year than they were prior to the oil boom, taking more holidays (five weeks instead of four) and more sick leave (they top the European league in this), and retiring earlier (at 63.5 years). He quotes an OECD report on Norway that stated that the country’s oil wealth had “distorted the relationship between work and free time.”
  73. cause for special concern is the OECD’s figure for gross domestic expenditure on research and development, which, when considered as a percentage of a country’s GDP, is a key indicator of future economic performance. Not only is Norway investing relatively little in its R&D—1.71 percent of GDP compared with 3.42 percent in Sweden—but almost half the investment is coming from the government (compared with just over a quarter in Sweden). If these figures don’t reveal a people who are resting on their laurels, then I’m an economist.
  74. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Norway’s social structure is the fact that about a third of all Norwegians of working age do nothing at all. More than a million of them live on money from the state, the majority of them pensioners, but also a sizable number (340,000) on disability, unemployment, or sickness benefits—proportionally the largest number in Europe.
  75. The OECD has warned that the greatest challenge Norway faces is to maintain its population’s incentive to work, study, and innovate. Today, almost 10 percent of Norwegian jobs are carried out by foreigners, mostly the kind of jobs—peeling bananas, gutting fish, washing hospital floors (according to Sætre almost half the country’s cleaning staff are foreign)—from which Norwegians would run a mile.
  76. Denmark built, then lost, an empire, has always been the bridge with continental Europe, and wrangled ceaselessly with Sweden. Sweden ruled and lost Finland, waged wars deep into Europe, and, post–Second World War, has seen its manufacturing corporations conquer the world. Though it shares Norway’s geographical isolation, in its own cursed way, Finland has also been forced to engage more with regional geopolitics thanks to its role as the rope in a tug-of-war between east and west, ruled first by Sweden, then Russia, bloodied yet defiant after countless conflicts, and it is the only Nordic country to have embraced the euro. You could argue that Iceland has also existed on the edges of Nordic history, although it was Icelanders who “discovered” America, and they have, of course, recently enjoyed a second rampage, this time out among the money markets of the world. As for the Norwegians, they have always tended to keep themselves to themselves.
  77. Occasionally, though, this isolationism backfires on the Norwegians. There was much mirth in the rest of Scandinavia when, in 2011, Norway was reported to have run out of butter. A fad diet that recommended ingesting vast quantities of the stuff had swept the nation and cleared out domestic stocks. To protect its own dairy industry Norway imposes extravagant duties on imported dairy products and, as a consequence, the price of butter shot up. People began panic-buying, supplies of domestic butter produced by Norway’s Tine Dairy monopoly ran out, and soon Norwegians began asking Danish friends to fill their suitcases with Lurpak butter when they came to visit.
  78. This feeling of unthreatened somnolence, of peace, stability, and calm, is, of course, central to the sense of security and quality of life enjoyed by the people of the north and, by extension, also to their happiness. But safety, functionality, consensus, moderation, social cohesion—these aren’t the be-all and end-all of life, merely the foundations for a pyramid of needs. I would not be the first person to point out that Scandinavia might be a little lacking in a few of the things that you might hope to find further up that pyramid—the passion and spark, the flamboyance and joie de vivre you find if you venture farther south, for instance. Where in Scandinavia is the emotion and the drive, the conflict and risk, the sense of a life lived on the edge?
  79. Now is probably a good time to make my confession about Finland, our next destination in this Nordic odyssey: I think the Finns are fantastic. I can’t get enough of them. I would be perfectly happy for the Finns to rule the world. They get my vote, they’ve won my heart. If you ask me, they should just change the word “fantastic” to “Finntastic.” Helsinki? Heavensinki, more like.
  80. hundreds of thousands of Finns are hooked on the anxiety and insomnia drug benzodiazepine. More worryingly still, they have the third highest rate of gun ownership in the world (after the United States and Yemen); the highest murder rate in western Europe; and are famously hard and reckless drinkers as well as enthusiastic suicidalists.
  81. According to Schatz, the Finns’ “can-do, will-do” attitude is reflected in their language: “You know, there is no future tense in the Finnish language. While in English or German you might say, ‘I am going to do this or that,’ or ‘I shall have done that,’ a Finn would say, ‘How can you trust people who have different ways of talking about the future?’ Either you do it, and consider it done, or not.”
  82. Finnish nouns have no gender, and, in fact, people have no gender—the word for “he” and “she” is the same, the masculine hän. A Finnish friend tells me that, increasingly, the Finns are just using “it” to refer to everything:
  83. He had a theory that the Finnish language—which some argue has its origins in the same group as Mongolian, Japanese, and Turkish—directly informs the character of the people. “Behaviors and value systems come from the grammar, the language. In Sweden, Norway, all of Scandinavia really, Germany, and England, we all speak languages that are dialects of one another, but in Finland the way of organizing thoughts, the world, feelings, expressions, emotions is so completely different. It has taught me a new way to think. The Finnish language works like Lego, you can put any two pieces together and they always fit, somehow.”
  84. I am on my way to experience the archetypal Finnish pastime. Actually, it is far more than a pastime—in Finland it is considered one of life’s necessities, intrinsic to, and indivisible from, elemental notions of Finnishness. This ungodly act is simply something that Finns do, like the British and their DIY, or the French and their adultery. I have a Finnish friend who talks of virtually nothing else. The first time we met he raved about it for more than an hour, and every time we have met since he has raised the subject again, always with the ulterior motive of trying to persuade me to have a go. I am talking, of course, of the sauna. The Swedes like their saunas, too, and Icelanders have their thermal baths, but the Finns take the appreciation of saunas to a whole new level. The sauna lies at the heart of Finnish social life and leisure time.
  85. I go out, stand beneath the shower head, brace myself, turn the handle to full cold, and am drenched in an icy waterfall more refreshing, invigorating, and, strangely, soothing than anything I have ever experienced. It is wonderful.
  86. Finland’s climate and topography must clearly have played a part in forming the Finnish character, but it also seems likely that the Finns’ taciturnity is in some way connected to their homogeneity.
  87. According to Hall, a “high-context” culture is one in which the people share the same kind of expectations, experiences, background, and even genes. Such people have less need for verbal communication because they already know so much about each other and the situations in which they typically find themselves. In high-context cultures words take on a greater meaning, but fewer are needed. In a low-context culture, like London, where hundreds of different nationalities, races, and religions are represented, there is a greater need to communicate verbally to be sure of making oneself understood. There is less common ground, fewer unspoken assumptions are made, more gaps need to be filled in.
  88. “Finns distrust verbosity. If you speak for more than four or five minutes at a time, they begin to wonder what you are trying to hide,
  89. There are, though, varying degrees of Scandinavian shyness. In the category of “really good to sit next to on a long-haul flight but not so great if you are sat next to them at a dinner party,” the Finns are the heaviest dance partners conversation-wise, followed by the Swedes, who share the Finns’ fondness for silence; then come the Norwegians and Icelanders. The Danes are almost human in this context.
  90. Every race and language has their affirmative “uh-huhs,” their quizzical “hmms,” and their verbal tics, but the Scandinavians seem to have turned them into a key mode of communication.
  91. In some senses, the Finns can be considered über-Scandinavians. As we have discovered, the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians self-censor according to Jante Law—one must not boast about one’s achievements or possessions, one mustn’t think one is better than anyone else, and so on. The Finns take this kind of modesty to a whole other level, to the extent that many claim it has a negative effect on their export economy.
  92. Sometimes it doesn’t even work in a Finnish context, either. Heikki Aittokoski, the foreign editor of Finland’s leading broadsheet newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, told me he often felt frustrated by his colleagues’ reticence. “I like that Finns are low-key,” said Aittokoski, who had worked as a correspondent in Berlin and Brussels before returning home. “But I have trouble at work when journalists are presenting ideas and good stories. They never say, ‘We should run this big.’ I keep telling them they can be proud of their ideas. I was looking for someone from another department who spoke good English. I found someone and asked her if it was true, and she said, ‘Well, I suppose. I studied it a bit.’ It turned out she majored in English! She was totally fluent.”
  93. Whenever I mentioned to people that I was going to be traveling to Finland, every single one of them, without exception, made some kind of nudge-wink reference to the Finns’ reputation for drinking, whether it be a subtle dig along the lines of “They like a drink, the Finns,” to warnings like “You’re going to be there on a Saturday night? It’s Armageddon!” usually accompanied by the speaker gripping my elbow and maintaining eye contact just that little bit longer than strictly necessary.
  94. Finns’ “tendency to go to extremes in order to discredit our own national character.”
  95. This leads us, inevitably, to sisu, the Finns’ cherished (by them) and envied (by the Swedes) spirit of endurance, stamina, and manliness. The word evokes a sense of quiet, determined strength, of dependability; it speaks of the ability to display unwavering resolve in the face of insurmountable adversity, a kind of proactive stoicism, if you like.
  96. He also mentioned something called the “warrior gene,” which had been identified in the Finnish DNA, and cast their relationship to alcohol in a slightly different light. I looked it up. In fact it’s an enzyme, monoamine oxidase A, which works together with serotonin. According to research carried out by the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, there does seem to be some link between monoamine oxidase A levels, alcohol consumption, and impulsive, violent behavior. Research has shown that Finns have higher levels of the enzyme than other people and, apparently, it doesn’t mix well with alcohol; inebriation seems to bring out the warrior in some Finns, making them even more up for it.
  97. There is their complex relationship with the Swedes and their anxieties about the Russians; their fears about what the rest of us think of their nonverbal social inadequacies; the drinking and violence; the terrible Civil War; that awkward business with the Nazis; a 1947 partition every bit as divisive as the subcontinent’s; the growing fear of Nokia going under and prompting another national near-bankruptcy like the one in the early 1990s; and so on.
  98. “It is difficult to gauge the influence of the Swedish minority,” Heikki Aittokoski told me. “Probably only 10 percent of them are old families with money, and of course they have lots of influence—this is centuries-old money and they
  99. have companies and employ thousands of people—but the majority of Swedish Finns are ordinary people. The bad boy is definitely Wahlroos. He is the most famous capitalist in Finland and every time he says something it makes the headlines.”
  100. “Sweden is the enemy you love to hate, and hate to love,” Neil Hardwick told me.
  101. “Finns used to have—and still do to a certain extent—a huge inferiority complex with Swedes,” agreed Aittokoski. Then again, I suppose that’s understandable. We all do.
  102. “I think it’s more that we envy their success,” she said. “Sweden has been like a sun that just attracts everybody, a kind of magnet for success … and I think many Finns are grateful to the Swedes.
  103. Revealingly, in the “masculinity versus femininity” section of Dutch anthropologist Geert Hofstede’s hugely influential 1980 “cultural dimensions” study into the values of cultures around the world, Finnish society was deemed to be the most masculine in the Nordic region, while the Swedes were not only the least masculine in the region, but in the world.
  104. As terrible as it was, in a sense the Winter War galvanized Finland, helping to bring together a divided nation and earning the Finns the admiration of the rest of the world. Their white-clad ski patrols, nicknamed “the White Death” by Russian soldiers, became a Second World War icon.
  105. As punishment for siding with the Germans, Finland ended up giving Russia 10 percent of its territory. This included much of agriculturally rich Finnish Karelia; almost a hundred power stations; great tracts of forest; and, crucially in terms of its economy, the port of Vyborg.
  106. Many attributed Finland’s success at keeping Moscow at bay during the 1970s to one man: Urho Kekkonen. Initially as prime minister and then as president for twenty-five years, he guided Finland along a diplomatic tightrope up until his resignation due to ill health in 1981, at age eighty. There were times when Kekkonen toyed with dictatorship himself, dissolving parliament in 1961 to reassure the Russians that he was in control, for instance, but through various other Soviet-related crises—such as the so-called night frost of 1958, when the Russians canceled their orders to Finnish industry and withdrew their ambassador—he managed to preserve Finland’s independence.
  107. Finland’s most lauded achievement of the post–Cold War era has been its education system, not that you would know it if it had been left to the Finns to broadcast the fact. Naturally, it took foreigners to point out that Finland has the best schools in the world.
  108. Early on, Finnish education was essentially the teaching of survival skills, everything from woodwork to sewing. Teachers became known as the “candles of the people,” lighting the path to Finnish self-reliance.
  109. in Finland teaching attracts the brightest students.
  110. There is one other, actually quite important reason why Finland does so well. That word again: equality. There is no two-tier, public-private education system in Finland. There are no private schools in Finland, at least not in the sense of private schools in the rest of the world. All schooling in Finland is state-funded. The message from Finland, then, is that equality starts at the blackboard.
  111. When asked in a survey a few years ago to select eight adjectives to describe themselves, the Finns chose: honest, slow, reliable, true, shy, direct, reserved, and punctual.
  112. Do not underestimate the Finnish woman.
  113. “Finnish women are tremendous,” agrees Neil Hardwick. “It is a very matriarchal society.
  114. As we have seen, in some senses Finns are almost über-Scandinavians, with their high-context homogeneity, reticence, openness, and trustworthiness, their welfare state, and fondness for booze and salty licorice.
  115. The traditional Swedish crayfish party—the kräftskiva—is one of the Swedes’ few self-sanctioned days of public disorder, a rare moment of unguarded merriment when they permit themselves to unleash their (otherwise dormant) Viking spirit. It is held every year in mid-August, as the last hurrah of summer before the murk of winter draws in. And there is no point in tiptoeing around this: everyone is absolutely hammered.
  116. This is the country that has done more than any other to define how the rest of the world sees Scandinavia: as modern, liberal, collectivist, and—kräftsvika parties aside—more than a little dull.
  117. (it hardly helps that the Swedish company insists on naming its least dignified products—doormats, and so forth—after Danish towns).
  118. How we lap up news of their free schools and foundation hospitals, their harmonious “middle-way” consensus politics, and their economic and gender equality. The latest Swedish innovation to grab the attention of the British media are the Kunskapsskolan (Knowledge Schools), with their free-form, open-plan style of education with no classrooms, where children set their own academic targets and draw up their own timetables.
  119. The boldest of Sweden’s recent social experiments has been in the field of multiculturalism. Over the last forty years Scandinavia’s largest country has welcomed more immigrants than any other European land. Today, almost 15 percent of the Swedish population was born outside of Sweden (compared with just over 6 percent in Denmark, the next largest immigrant population in the north), and if you include the next generation, almost a third of the population was born outside of the country.
  120. Its great strength lies in fostering large-scale international corporations, like Tetra Pak (the world’s largest food-packaging company), H&M (the second largest clothing retailer in the world), industrial engineering firm Atlas Copco, Eriksson, Volvo, and that global chain of marriage graveyards, IKEA. In fact, almost half of the largest companies in the Nordic region are Swedish.
  121. The abiding view of the Swedes from their neighbors to the south is of a stiff, humorless, rule-obsessed, and dull crowd who inhabit a suffocatingly conformist society and chew tobacco. The Danes love to tell each other stories of Swedish prissiness, drone-like obedience, or pedantry.
  122. I find them not so much boring as reserved (unless there are crayfish and schnapps close at hand, of course). On the plus side, they do listen to you with a selfless attentiveness, rarely interrupting, and they laugh at your jokes (either out of politeness or pity, I don’t know and, frankly, does it matter?). As one guidebook on the Swedes put it: “The more you talk, the longer they listen—and the quieter they become.”
  123. Swedes don’t hold themselves in terribly high regard.
  124. The top eight adjectives they chose, in descending order of relevance, were: envious, stiff, industrious, nature-loving, quiet, honest, dishonest, and xenophobic. The bottom three (out of thirty) characteristics, i.e., those least exhibited by the Swedes, were: masculine, sexy, and artistic.
  125. adds a few more Swedish descriptors: taciturn, serious, stiff, boring, superficially friendly, unsociable, punctual, inflexible, arrogant, and overcautious. Another word that crops up regularly in analyses of the Swedes is “shy.
  126. One explanation for the blushing is their often-cited, unusually heightened fear of appearing foolish.
  127. leading Swedish ethnologist Åke Daun put it in his book Swedish Mentality: “Before expressing one’s views on a controversial issue, one tries to detect the position of the opposite party.… Swedes seem to reflect a great deal on what they would like to say, how to say it and when, how other people might react, etc., before they actually say it—if they decide to do so at all.
  128. This fear of being ridiculed is reflected in one of the key words by which the Swedes define themselves: duktig. It literally translates as “clever,” but this is a specific type of Swedish cleverness: a diligent, responsible kind of clever; punctual, law-abiding, industrious clever. We’re talking Japanese-style responsible competence, rather than show-off-y clever; not clever like knowing who won X-Factor two years ago, more “filing your tax forms on time without any rubbings out” clever.
  129. If Daun was to be believed, Swedish shyness and self-effacement even extended to the country’s maternity wards and funeral parlors, in what have to be the most extreme examples of Nordic inhibition I have yet encountered. During childbirth, Daun says, “Swedish women try to moan as little as possible, and they often ask, when it is all over, whether they screamed very much.
  130. At funerals, meanwhile, Daun warns that, while mild sniffling is just about acceptable, “cries of despair are embarrassing and are remembered long afterward.” This doesn’t mean the Swedes are unaffected by, or unsympathetic to, bereavement, he stresses: “Rather, they lack the skills to deal with strong feelings and are afraid of doing the wrong thing, of behaving clumsily.”
  131. A Danish friend of mine is the CEO of a Swedish company and their overriding instinct to get everybody on board with all decisions drives him mad. “If we want to change the board members, we have to check that it’s okay with the receptionist,” he says, exaggerating only slightly. Hiring Danes to kick butt is quite common practice in Swedish companies, apparently. Swedish managers are just too consensus-orientated to push through unpopular decisions.
  132. “We have this ritual of making employees come together, asking what they think,” one Swede told me. “You can’t just change something, it has to be prepared and discussed. Swedes don’t get annoyed, or disappointed, if they don’t get their way: it is part of the game to compromise.”
  133. When they are not striving to be perceived by their fellow countrymen as duktig, the Swedes will seek to impress each other with how lagom they are. Lagom is another key Swedish watchword. It means “according to law” or “according to accepted custom,” but implies being “moderate,” “reasonable,” “fair,” “acting in a common-sense way,” “rational.” Though it clearly resonates with Lutheran doctrines, its etymology is said to go much further back, to the Vikings. Legend has it that when they shared a horn of mead around the campfire, those gentle, caring-sharing Vikings would always remember to take care not to drink too much before passing the cup on to their neighbor (before going out and separating a monk’s head from his neck). Laget om loosely translates as “pass around,” and over time this is thought to have transformed into lagom, which has today come to imply a kind of self-imposed, collective restraint.
  134. Lagom defines many behavioral aspects of Swedish society, from a general lack of conspicuous consumption and public showiness, to their system of government, which has tended to rely on compromise, moderation, and consensus. Lagom is clearly related to Jante Law; the fictional Danish social manifesto defines Swedish society (where they call it Jantelag) as much as, if not more than, in Denmark. The Swedes are even more afraid to pop their heads above the parapet, even less likely to boast or brag of their achievements, even more prone to understatement and modesty.
  135. Though, as I discovered in Malmö, the Swedes have by far the best drinking songs in the region, it takes a fair bit of alcohol before they show their more gregarious side, and you usually have to wade through a good deal of strictly observed social protocol to reach that point.
  136. First, to remove, or not to remove is the question all foreigners must ask themselves on arriving at the threshold of a Swedish home. To ask your hosts whether you should take off your shoes is to imply a reluctance to do so; the polite host might not want to impose, but will then secretly despise you for sullying their floors. Discard them automatically, though, and you could find yourself circling a soirée in your socks while everyone else is in shoes, which would be embarrassing.
  137. In truth, Swedes will likely cut foreigners some slack in the footwear department, but there is one golden rule that you will not be forgiven for breaking: be on time. You should not be too early—no one appreciates that—but equally you should absolutely never arrive later than five minutes after the time you were invited. In Sweden, the concept of “fashionably late” is akin to “fashionably flatulent.
  138. As you mingle before being called to the table, feel free to ask how much people earn, how long they were in education for, and make very clear your stance on how racist the Danes are, an attitude that will instantly endear you to your Swedish hosts. If you find yourself seated to the right of the hostess, bad luck. The other assembled guests will now be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the short toast you are expected to give, greatly relieved that it is not they who must stand up and be modest and witty in complimenting the hostess without provoking her husband.
  139. Never touch glasses when you toast. Despite what you might have been led to believe from the various carousing scenes in Hollywood Viking movies over the years, in Scandinavia this is considered unforgivably proletarian.
  140. Åke Daun’s book Swedish Mentality
  141. Daun describes the Swedes as a race of wallflowers racked with insecurities; they would rather take the stairs than share a lift, he writes. Their more scintillating habits including visiting the countryside, eating crispbread, speaking in a low voice, and avoiding controversial subjects in conversation. “What is remarkable is the weight Swedish culture attaches to ‘orderliness,’” he continues, adding that punctuality and thorough organization are among the characteristics Swedes value most highly. Mmm, sexy.
  142. When waiting for trains to Copenhagen Airport at the city-center station, for instance, you could always tell the Swedish passengers who were continuing across the Øresund Bridge toward home because they would barge into the carriage while passengers were still disembarking as if it were the most normal thing in the world. I had experienced many similar instances of this kind of civil discourtesy in Denmark, but the Swedes rivaled the Hong Kong Chinese as the rudest people on earth, and their rudeness was all the more confusing as it ran so very counter to their otherwise respectful, orderly, timid image. Someone once described Scandinavian manners to me as a manifestation of a kind of perverse equality: “I have just as much right to walk or drive or cycle here as you.
  143. An exhibition at the Historiska museum had featured photographs from Sweden’s most notorious immigrant estate, Rosengård in Malmö. Rosengård is known throughout Scandinavia for its social problems, racial tension, squalor, and violence, and is genuinely feared by the Danes who live just twenty minutes away across the Øresund Strait. They talk with palpable horror of Rosengård—of the lawlessness, the Islamic extremism, the
  144. Though Swedes think that they are hypermodern, open, and rational, they are hiding themselves behind some taboos. Beneath the surface there is masses of conflict and extremists that are not heard about in Swedish society. This includes, for example, the growing gang criminality, Nazism, ultra-feminism, and problems with Muslim immigration—and no one is talking about this officially.”
  145. for much of the twentieth century Sweden was effectively a one-party state, the party being the Social Democrats.
  146. There were few aspects of the Swedes’ lives that their government did not strive to control, including their pay, how they raised their children, how much they drank, what they watched on TV, how much holiday they took, and their views on the Vietnam War. And the Swedes, it seems, were the most willing of puppets, “world record-holders in docility,” as Enzensberger puts it. One famous, and in its way really quite magnificent, example of the Swedish population’s malleability is that, when the government decided, on the night of September 3, 1967, to switch from driving on the left to driving on the right, they promptly did so without so much as a honked horn, let alone a single accident.
  147. At around midnight on February 28, 1986, as the Palmes were walking home from the cinema, an unknown assailant fired several shots at them, injuring Lisbet but killing Palme. The shock to this peaceful nation of having its prime minister gunned down in the street is hard to overestimate; indeed, Palme’s murder still resonates among an entire generation of Scandinavians.
  148. “Swedes are not interested in history,” Daun told me. “Swedes look at their country as modern.”
  149. Perhaps more apt than likening the Swedes to frogs would be to say that they were the most diligent of worker bees, happy to toil for the good of the hive. But what made the Swedes such perfect subjects for benign totalitarianism? Historically, several factors paved the way: the alleged Viking egalitarianism; Lutheranism, with its emphasis on collective sacrifice, social justice, equality, self-control, and denial; a comparatively weak feudal system; high levels of centralization from the sixteenth century onward; and the emergence of the trade union and cooperative movements. Above all, Sweden had a far larger landless peasant population than, say, Denmark, and a far greater concentration of wealth in a small number of rich landowners—it was a society ripe for what you might call, if you wanted to annoy some socialists, collective social vengeance.
  150. Thanks to this ruthless pragmatism Sweden, the serene swan, sailed through the 1939–1945 conflict—during which its GNP rose by 20 percent—and in the decades that followed its wealth grew to match that of the United States in per capita terms. But its reputation was permanently tarnished by its often personal connections to Nazi Germany
  151. As historian Tony Hall writes in Scandinavia: At War with Trolls, “The collective weight of Swedish shame built up slowly—shame for not helping the Finns was replaced by shame for turning their backs on the Norwegians, for not standing up against the Germans, for sending some Balts to certain death—until shame and guilt seemed to be the natural state of the Swedish conscience.”
  152. In 1934, laws were strengthened so that women deemed “inferior” were sterilized against their will, along with male juvenile delinquents.
  153. Everything I read about the Swedish Social Democratic government of the last century suggested an organization that was driven by one single, overarching goal: to sever the traditional, some would say natural, ties between its citizens, be they those that bound children to their parents, workers to their employers, wives to their husbands, or the elderly to their families. Instead, individuals were encouraged—mostly by financial incentive or disincentive, but also through legislation, propaganda, and social pressure—to “take their place in the collective,” as one commentator rather ominously put it, and become dependent on the government.
  154. It seems to me that the problem with this is that it takes many of the Swedes’ underlying characteristics, particularly their love of being alone and isolated, and really lets them run with it. Thus, today in Sweden most students live by themselves; Swedes have the highest divorce rate in the world (although some might look upon this as a positive, of course); the highest number of single-person households; and more of their elderly live alone than in any other country. It also reinforces the notion that one must be able to solve one’s own problems. Swedes don’t like to ask favors of each other: they keep their problems to themselves and suffer in silence. Being duktig is one facet of this: if you are duktig then you don’t need any help, and as duktighet is the ultimate ideal for Swedes; to ask for help—or even to give it—is a kind of low-level social taboo.
  155. In Sweden, self-sufficiency and autonomy is all; debt of any kind, be it emotional, a favor, or cash, is to be avoided at all cost. The Swedes don’t even like to owe a round of drinks.
  156. “The American wants the freedom to do, the Swede wants the freedom to be.”
  157. Newsweek recently ranked Sweden second on its list of the best countries in the world in which to be a woman (after Iceland, where presumably the women have now removed all sharp objects from the reach of their men); and Save the Children placed it at number three on its “best places to be a mother” list, after Norway and Iceland (with Denmark in fifth place).
  158. Meanwhile, Swedish men are reputedly the least chauvinistic in the world.
  159. In my experience old-fashioned chivalry is about as welcome among Scandinavian women as chastity belts. Hold a door open for a Danish woman in a department store in central Copenhagen, as I used to do before I knew better, and you risk a look either of baffled suspicion or outright hostility (“Don’t you oppress me with your gallantry!”). The kind of gentlemanly manners expected in the UK or United States bewilder and amuse Scandinavian women.
  160. In his book Suicide and Scandinavia US psychiatrist Herbert Hendin observed that the Swedish approach tended to encourage independence in their children at a very early age. Swedish children were, he said, taught that to be dependent on another person—even one’s own mother—is a failing. “Children are encouraged to separate from their mothers early on, socially and psychologically,” agrees Åke Daun in The Swedish Mentality. “They deny the existence of any such need and mask it behind an ostensible self-reliance.”
  161. They find the extremes of poverty and wealth, deprivation and privilege you find in the States downright horrifying. Scandinavian class structures tend to be far more subtle, income and status differences far less marked.
  162. All may seem clever and classless and free, but there is an elephant in the democratic, meritocratic, middle-class Scandinavian living room; the elephant is dressed in velvet robes, with an ermine stole, and a crown, and is glaring evidence that the class system is alive and well in all three Scandinavian countries. I am talking, of course, about the absurd, anti-democratic carnival that is the monarchy.
  163. The Swedish royal family’s legitimacy is even more tenuous. The current king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, is descended neither from noble Viking blood nor even from one of their sixteenth-century warrior kings, but from some random French bloke.
  164. gently explained that part of the reason that Sweden had tolerated its royal family for so long was that the country’s move toward democracy and universal suffrage had been a gradual, peaceful one. It is a similar story in Denmark. “By the time of the late seventies most people didn’t feel there was a need to get rid of the king because he didn’t do much and didn’t cost much,” he said.
  165. Berggren was at least prepared to nail his colors to the mast: “I’m a republican, basically, and it’s definitely an intellectual nuisance, but I tend to agree with Engels that it’s a distraction.
  166. According to Stefan Jonsson, his country has reached a crucial crossroads. “There is huge confusion in Sweden. I think it is a society on the edge of cracking up. Mentally it is disintegrating, questioning what it is. Questioning social democracy. Many are now wondering what to salvage, whether this is sustainable, and what will come if it is not sustainable.”
  167. I don’t believe this is the case, but Sweden does appear to be sitting on a demographic time bomb. It is the only country in the world in which people over eighty years old make up more than 5 percent of the population (the global average is 1 percent). Almost 20 percent of Swedes are over sixty-five, making Sweden the oldest country in Scandinavia, and the eighth oldest in the world. The World Bank predicts that by 2040 a third of Swedes will be over retirement age.
  168. To achieve authentic, sustained happiness, above all else you need to be in charge of your life, to be in control of who you want to be, and be able to make the appropriate changes if you are not. This cannot merely be a perception, a slogan like the American Dream (the United States came way down on the LSE’s social mobility scale, incidentally). In Scandinavia it is a reality. These are the real lands of opportunity. There is far greater social mobility in the Nordic countries than in the United States or Britain and, for all the collectivism and state interference in the lives of the people who live here, there is far greater freedom to be the person you want to be, and do the things you want to do, up here in the north.
  169. Immigration will continue in the north—it has to for many reasons—and integration will continue to improve.
What I got out of it
  1. If you're interested at all in understanding different cultures or just need to interact with people from any of these countries, this is a great book which will remove frictions in communication and help clarify other cultural differences

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