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Njut Lagom! The secret art of being swedish.

Documentary project “Njut Lagom! The secret of being Swedish” presents a coherent overview of behaviors of Swedish people while they are spending their free time. Ordinary people doing ordinary things, but the way that they are doing it is typical of Swedish culture. The cultural phenomenon that is widely known to all Swedes as “Lagom” (just enough, adequate, in moderation) is almost as a secret code which represents an ideal rule for living – to a Swede it means the ideal place, where everything is as it should be.


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To understand the Swedes, one must understand ‘Lagom’. Lagom is said to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, one of consensus and equality. Lagom (pronounced [ˈlɑ̀ːɡɔm]) is a Swedish word with no direct English equivalent, meaning ‘enough, sufficient, adequate, just the right amount, in moderation’. Lagom carries the connotation of appropriateness, although not necessarily perfection. Behaviors in Sweden are strongly balanced towards ‘lagom’ or, ‘everything in moderation’. The archetypical Swedish proverb ‘Lagom är bäst’, literally ‘The right amount is best’, is translated as ‘Enough is as good as a feast’. It can also be viewed as repressive: ‘You’re not supposed to be too good, or too rich’. Excess, flashiness and boasting are abhorred in Sweden and individuals strive towards the middle way.

Lagom may be a little word, but its impact can be great. Whether you believe that it represents an ideal rule for living – that lagom is indeed best and citizens are striving to achieve this state of ‘lagom’; to a Swede it means the ideal place, where everything is as it should be. Lagom has worked well for Sweden in many ways and has allowed a balancing of society and a minimization of class difference because of high income tax and good social benefits correlated to the standard of life. This way of living is the essence of everyday Swedish life and one of the reasons behind the internationally recognized Swedish phenomenon known as “the Swedish model”.

Research of professor Geert Hofstede shows that Lagom is enforced in society by “Jante Law” which should keep people “in place” at all times. It is a fictional law and a Scandinavian concept, which counsels people not to boast or try to lift themselves above others. Swedish people have grown up with it and because of that they live by it, this law helps to explain their behavior. Being moderate and discreet is, in a way, part of the Swedish culture, and the “proper” way to be. Everyone needs to be good at everything, without trying to be better than others, and do just like everyone else. Being different is nothing positive.

Remarkable is the fact that Swedes do not show what they feel very openly, whether it be joy or sorrow. This may be explained by the fact that most Swedish people are afraid to show their feelings openly, because they are unsure what others are going to think about them. In a low-context culture the individual believes that he generally knows other people. By the same token, he is convinced that he himself can be judged. Consequently, Swedes seem to reflect a great deal on what they would like to say, how to say it and when, how other people may react, etc, before they actually say it – if they decide to do so at all (Åke Daun. Svensk Mentalitet.1994). In general Swedes are afraid to look “wrong”, inappropriate and “say the wrong thing”. In order to prevent their true inner self from being seen, they wear a mask. Most likely they try to look “cool”, “laid-back” and “as anybody else”. Typical of the Swede is to be very calm and rarely do something impulsively or spontaneously. Swedish sociologist Christina Skogsberg says, “Feelings are difficult and dangerous. Emotions disrupt and threaten our rational life. Emotions should be isolated, channeled and hidden away.”

Another phenomenon is the strict borderline between private and public live. Swedes like to divide their time exclusively between work and leisure. They also like to separate work colleagues and private friendships. A commonly used expression is “Never mix work and pleasure”. Swedes behave differently while together with family members, other relatives and close friends. They are relatively passive in conversing outside their private sphere. While spending time together with family relatives is not the same, because everyone knows each other so well that there are no feelings of insecurity. There is no reason to pose questions like “What do they think about me?”. The silence and the slightly rigid behavior that characterizes many Swedes while their communication with strangers, is turned into friendships with a louder and above all transparent and not so conservative behavior.

During their free time and relaxation Swedes gladly take some drinks. Drinking spirits also should count as a social and psychological function in Swedish culture that reduces the individual’s fear of making a fool of himself, such as fear of saying something inappropriate. It is like having a permission to get too sentimental, too loud or excited. Nelker say it is not so much about the physiological effects of alcohol, but a “cultural ticket” to a freer and looser responsibility to socializing patterns. However drink consumption is controlled by the rule “Lagom” – one should not drink too much or too little.

More about the project on november posts.

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