Alone together: the swedish person and the swedish people

- in Column, News

This past spring I went for a run, a little after sunset, in a busy area of Malmö. It was dark, and I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was heading, and I tripped over a bike rack. It was a big, dazzling trip, the kind you normally only see in slapstick routines, and it resulted in a really astounding amount of hang time during which I was completely parallel to the ground, for long enough to think about how much this was about to hurt.

And so I “ate pavement,” as we say in the US – very obviously, in plain sight, in a busy area.  But as I lay there, moaning, bleeding a little, not a single passerby (and there were many) stopped to see if I was ok.

This seems to me an extension of something I’ve noticed about Swedes, where they tend not to acknowledge others in public, like for example sitting across from people on the train, sharing elevators, in line at the grocery store, walking past each other on the sidewalk. These are all situations in which, in America, I would expect to exchange a word or two of greeting, or, at the very least, to be somehow acknowledged, but in Sweden it’s the norm to quietly go about your business as if you were alone.

Sweden is undeniably a country that functions on collaboration (think of its welfare program, its healthcare system, the tax-supported university tuition). How can we reconcile the seemingly contradictory idea of a collectivist society that’s made up of individuals who are so… individual?

The answer Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh suggest in their 2015 book Är svensken människa? (literally translated: Is The Swede a Human?) is that Sweden’s many and generous social policies cause the Swede to turn to the government in a time of need, instead of his or her fellow Swede. This ability to rely on their government makes Swedes less reliant on each other – hence the individualism.

I’m not saying my experience of eating pavement one time, on one street, in one Swedish city, can or should be taken as some broad judgment on Swedish culture. But it does serve as a useful metaphor for the extrapolation I’m going to make, which is that maybe this government middle-man also means the Swede’s sense of fellowship with his or her compatriot Swedes is an impersonal, outsourced thing of taxes and policies – instead of being something more tangible and human-to-human. Maybe the reason no one stopped to help me was because they felt they already had: that if I had been hurt badly enough to go to the hospital it would be their tax kronor which – in a tiny, but symbolically significant way – would be sharing the bill with me.