Monday, May 5, 2014

Sweden, I thought I had left you

Well, that's kind of scary. I was searching for material to illustrate a logical fallacy (the limited depth fallacy where your explanation depends on appealing to a category rather than a cause). Since this fallacy often entails stereotypes, I was looking for a relatively neutral national stereotype that might be broadly recognized. In that search I ended up on a page at Umeå University, What are the Swedes like?

I lived in Sweden from 1970-1975 and my family continued there till 1978 while I was in boarding school. I would have told you that that experience was significant in my learning and the development of my character. But I have lived in many countries, some multiple times or for longer periods, and they have all had an impact of some sort. I would not have thought that the experience of Sweden was overly-determinative. And cognitively I would still say that.

But there were several startling recognitions as the Umeå people summarized some of the key differences that foreigners ought to anticipate about Swedes.
Answering the Telephone

If you usually just answer the telephone with “Hello,” you risk being considered impolite in Sweden. The common way to answer the telephone in Sweden is by stating your name.
I have never given it all that much thought, but I answer the phone with just my name.

Swedes are known to be law abiding and fairly fond of standing in lines. Whenever waiting is involved, at cinemas, paying in a shop, in the library and so on, you will be expected to wait in line. If you push your way into the line, no excuse is good enough.
I like to think of myself as easy-going and tolerant (I would wouldn't I though) but there are few things likely to lower my estimation of a person faster than if they cut in line. Indeed, there is no excuse good enough for cutting in line.
Taking a Compliment

Swedes are notoriously bad at accepting a compliment. For example, the response to the words, “That was great! You are so good at this,” will seldom be “Thanks, I was rather pleased with it myself,” but rather “It was nothing, I messed up in the middle,” or perhaps just an embarrassed blush. However, do not let it bother you, they are actually happy to hear you say it.
I always chalked this up to a personal quirk.
Only one Chance

If a Swede asks you if you want to join him on a skiing trip, or if you want another cookie, make sure you know what you want before you answer. Unlike many other cultures, Swedish people will not coax or insist. They will ask you once and then accept your first answer. Therefore, if you want another cookie, you had better take the chance and accept the offer the first time around.
I have managed to modify my approach over the years, but this is my default mode. I ask a straight question and I expect an honest answer. Living in the South has taught me that that default mode is not adaptive to the regional traditions. Coaxing people in to the answer they want to give but won't acknowledge is part of the elaborate dance of Southern conversation.

I don't think that my personal attributes were overly shaped by living in Sweden but reading the above materials was arresting. Somewhat like reading an ambiguous horoscope which can appear unnervingly accurate when all it is is generalities that happen to have a spurious connection with your own current circumstance.

But perhaps Sweden was more influential on my personal habits and behaviors than I realized.

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