Is there anything typically Swedish?
Last updated: 15 10 2018
It is difficult to say what defines Swedish culture and what is typically Swedish. All cultural groups in the world hold common values that give them a sense of affinity. Many of these values may be shared by several cultures; but it is also the case that they may not be shared by all the members of one group. It follows that what one person considers typically Swedish may not be seen that way by others.
Many believe that small red cottages are typically Swedish. Photo: Colourbox
In terms of ethnic background, Swedish people originate from among the Germanic peoples. Nowadays, Swedish people have many different origins. What Swedish people primarily share is the Swedish language. This is an Indo-European and Germanic language spoken by about 10 million people, mainly in Sweden, but also in parts of Finland. The Swedish language is similar to both Norwegian and Danish and the majority of people in these three countries can understand one another's languages.
Cultures change over time and are influenced by various factors throughout society. Swedish culture has been shaped and continues to be shaped by many events and processes. Among them are industrialisation, the emergence of the welfare state, secularisation and individualisation. These and many other factors have influenced the way Sweden relates to the surrounding world, how people interact and how they conceive of society.
There are few things as complex and heterogeneous as a culture. The texts belowdescribe some factors that many regard as typically Swedish and characteristic of Swedish culture. This does not mean that everyone in Sweden would agree with or recognise themselves in the descriptions that follow.
Trust in the authority of the state and its agencies
In Sweden there is a relatively high degree of trust in the state and its agencies. An individualistic society needs to be a strong central actor capable of offering the security that, for example, the family provides in a more collectivist society. In Sweden the state takes on this role. People in Sweden have a relatively high degree of confidence in government agencies' decisions, in the justice system and public officials. This can be partly explained by the fact that the construction of the modern Swedish state was a democratic process. As such it was largely based on popular movements, including the labour movement, the women's movement and the temperance movement, and it involved people from all over Sweden.
The effect of the climate
The weather is said to influence Swedish culture in different ways. The long, cold winters mean that people do not get together outdoors that much, instead meeting in cafés, restaurants or at home. But for many people, winter means that you meet your friends less than you do in summer. Once summer arrives, social life changes. People spend more time outdoors and socialise with friend more than they do during the winter.
Many people in Sweden share an interest in and a closeness to nature. The right of public access to private land is a law that makes it possible to move freely in the Swedish countryside, regardless of who owns the land. Nature and the right of access are an important symbol of Swedish identity. Sweden also has an important and prominent role in international environmental efforts.
Religion in Sweden
Christianity had a strong position in Sweden for a long time, and much of Swedish society was built on a foundation of Christian, mainly Lutheran, values. One of these is the notion of what is right and proper in life. Many of Sweden's ceremonies and festivals also originated in religion, including confirmation, baptism, weddings and funerals. More recently Sweden has become one of the most secular countries in the world. A secularised society is distinguished above all by the fact that its laws are not based on a particular religion or doctrine of faith. Instead the state maintains a neutral stance on issues of faith. Secularism requires that society be based on humanitarian values and that religious faith remain a purely private matter.
About 60 per cent of Swedes are members of the Christian Church of Sweden. But relatively few people regularly attend church services. About 45 per cent of children born in Sweden are baptised in the Church of Sweden. More than half of all Swedes who get married do so outside the Church of Sweden. About 75 per cent of funerals are held in church.
Many religious faiths other than Protestant Christianity are represented in Sweden – including Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Bahá'í, the Norse religion, shamanism, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity.
Atheism is belief system that is based on the theory that there are no higher metaphysical powers such as gods. Agnosticism is a belief system that is based on it being impossible to know whether there is a god. Many atheists and agnostics are positive towards secularism.
Sweden has an age-old drinking culture. People in Sweden have been making alcoholic drinks since the Stone Age, primarily spirits. Sweden's climate is too cold for viticulture, but is perfect for growing potatoes and cereal crops, which are the ingredients normally used to make spirits. By the middle of the 19th century, 50 litres of spirits per person per year were being consumed in Sweden. The temperance movement was formed at this time as a reaction to the high level of alcohol consumption. Many people said that alcohol caused a great deal of harm and many people got together in the effort to get others to drink less alcohol. This came to be called the temperance movement. Since this time, alcohol has been an important political issue.
Relationship to time
In Sweden it is important to arrive on time. If you have decided to meet someone at 2 pm, they will expect you to arrive at 2 pm. Many people think it is disrespectful to arrive late.