Swedish Language Blog

What is the biggest Swedish item of export? Swedish gender equality or maybe IKEA? Posted by on Jan 24, 2013 in Culture

Recently there was a one episode documentary broadcasted on Swedish television about stereotypes about Swedes and Sweden. People from different countries around Europe were interviewed about their impressions/stereotypes of Sweden.

The first country they visited was Denmark. In one of the previous posts this month, about Öresund, you might recall the mentioning of Swedes being very drunk. Apart from this stereotype many Danes images of Swedes are: blonde, blue eyed, appear friendly especially when saying “hej”, seem to have well organized lives and are very dutiful. These are things people on the streets of Copenhagen said when asked what their image of a Swedes was.

Brusquely moving on to the next country to ask some of it’s citizens what they’re first thoughts were when hearing “Sweden”, England, London was next on the map. One of the things that was soon mentioned by the Britts was: Swedes openness about sex. One man said “They seem to always be walking around half naked”. Good fashion sense, efficient, well educated, and the appearance of a reserved outside but rich and for filling life on the inside were also things mentioned.

All in all people in London seemed to have a good image of Swedes. The documentary team had also arranged to meet some young Swedes living in London. There are very many Swedes living in London, and when the people who they’d arranged to meet were asked why they think that is, they were all in agreement: “Sweden is too lagomt” it makes young Swedes want to get away, to experience something more. They all felt they weren’t able to express who they were or wanted to be in Sweden, that is why they moved from their home country. When they were asked what their image of Swedes is the answers were surprising. “It is very Swedish to talk bad about Sweden and Swedish customs” a couple of them said. A few others said they were very surprised at the way people addressed them as “daring” or “sweetheart” even though they hardly knew each other. “It is very Swedish to be reserved and keep your distance, to keep your thoughts to yourself about other people’s business”. All these things they said they hadn’t’ noticed until they left Sweden. “It is only once you leave Sweden you realize how Swedish you really are, and how much more you want to continue with Swedish customs” they all agreed on. “Lagom in Sweden is boring abroad” they also told the team. This opinion was confirmed by people the team talked to on the street.

However, even though they have moved abroad most of them said they would most certainly move back to Sweden to raise their children. That lead to the renowned Swedish gender equality. Many Swedes probably realize when having moved abroad how far Sweden has come in matters of equality between the genders. For example pappaledighet, (pappa = father and ledighet = leave of work ie. the amount of time dads get to take off work to stay at home with their newborn child).

Just before the documentary team said goodbye to the young Swedes they asked them what Swedish customs they thought should be exported or spread abroad. Equality and equality between genders were the immediate answers they received.

The next stop was Warsaw, Poland. People on the streets mention a state that takes care of both the elderly and children, the image of men being gay seems to still stick strong and the famous IKEA was also mentioned. “Swedes seem to be very practical, go for comfort and simplicity”. But when the team asked if the Swedish gender equality model would work in Poland people shook their heads. The team interviewed a mother of four children who mentioned how the image of the Polish mother is a woman who is independent, doesn’t need help raising the children or the housework but who is also self sacrificing. She said that many women dream of their futures being a stay at home mother, only taking care of the children and the housework, never having to worry about a job. Receiving help from the state is seen as shameful she said.

So maybe it isn’t as easy as just converting a system of equality from one country to another.

While the team traveled around Europe they found a new face to Sweden in no other place than bookshops. Stieg Larsson and Camilla Läckberg are only a few who have shown a different picture than the idealistic country of welfare. Excitement and murder are now things also to be associated with Sweden. And maybe it is just these things that have started to replace the old image of the 50’s Swedish sex bomb and kräftskivor (crayfish parties).

All in all, the documentary confirmed that some of the old stereotypes still exist, but that there might be a new image being associated with Sweden in Europe.

Can you identify with what any of the interviewed people mentioned? As a Swede living abroad have you become more or less Swedish than before? Share your thoughts, maybe you don’t agree at all with what has been said and in fact have experienced something completely different. Well, write that then!


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  1. Laurent:

    Interesting article, thanks Katja! In France also, Swedes have a very good image : efficient, dutiful, organised and friendly.

    Is the documentary available anywhere online? On SVT Play maybe?

    • Katja:

      @Laurent Hi there, thanks for the comments. I don’t know if you can see the documentary online from abroad or not but I’ll post the link to svtplay.


      There might be a time limit for how long it is online for, but in any case, go for it. 🙂

  2. Gypsee:

    Very interesting! Yes, wondering if this documentary is available online as well! Thanks!

  3. J. Eric:

    Thanks for the article on what foreigners think of Sweden. I am a Swedish-American who identified with a few of your insights. One of those insights said, “the appearance of a reserved outside but rich and fulfilling life on the inside”. I certainly think that was true of my Grandfather and Father. And when I got home from our Swedish vacation this summer, I looked at a photo of my Swedish cousin and myself. We both have the same smile (no teeth) and body posture while we posed for the photo. So you can take the Swede out of the country, but he still remains a Swede, even if he is an American. :O)

  4. Laurent:

    Thanks for the link, Katja! 🙂

  5. Mike Steinberg:

    Sorry, but I think a major stereotype about Sweden is its politically correct lunacy.

    This is to the extent that it fails to acknowledge the increasing rape problem it has, which in itself is a disgrace for a country that supposedly prides itself on women’s rights.

    Further that it is apparently incapable of acknowledging the problem is fueled by its “humane” policies concerning who it allows into the country. I was appalled to read last week that now it is projected that 1 in 4 women in Sweden may be raped in her lifetime. Wouldn’t a sane society acknowledge it needs to be more careful about who it allows in? Sweden is a laughing stock.

  6. Senchaholic:


    That link you gave us doesn’t work. What’s the name of the show? It seems to be in three parts.

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