Life is a Smorgasbord

You can’t always get what you want—but in Sweden, you just might find you get what you need

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“So, will you two ever move here?” That was the question on everyone’s mind when my wife, Cilla, and I visited her family in Sweden last Christmas.

“Yes. Probably. Someday,” we answered.

Cilla and I met while studying in Chile, one week shy of graduation. We spent much of the next eight months traveling together around Cuba, Brazil, and Scandinavia before coming to live in Minneapolis. We’ve always assumed that someday we’d live in Sweden for a while.

I’ve always admired the strong communitarian ethic that is the basis of Sweden’s political system. A decade of tough economic times has forced the government to begin dismantling some parts of the country’s fabled welfare state, but most of Sweden’s social democratic policies remain firmly in place: nearly free university education, universal health care, strong unemployment benefits, and my favorite, a minimum of five weeks vacation for all full-time workers. The chance to live in a society truly dedicated to promoting economic democracy and social justice is one of the great attractions Sweden holds for me. By the time we came home, however, Cilla found herself feeling far less excited by the idea of moving back to Sweden than she had been before.

“After a month in Sweden, you’d feel like you were in prison,” she warned me.

Don’t get me wrong. Cilla loves her homeland. But she is not a typical Swede. “From the time I was little, my mother always predicted that I’d leave Sweden one day,” she tells me. “She said that Sweden was too small for me.”

What is it about Sweden that would make Cilla feel claustrophobic, and attract me so strongly? There are many differences between my homeland and hers, but the biggest centers on issues of freedom and choice.

Swedes tend to exercise their freedom of choice in different ways than Americans, emphasizing quality over quantity or diversity. For example, Sweden produces only two kinds of cars, but they’re the ultra-reliable Saab and Volvo. Every bathroom in Sweden, it seems, has one of two toilets, water-conserving low-flush models made by Ifö or Gustafsberg, in white or off-white. Few people have cable TV, but the five broadcast networks are known for their high-quality programming. The national liquor monopoly, known affectionately as “The System,” is only open till 6 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on Saturday, but its wine selection is second to none. I mean that literally. The System is the world’s single largest wine buyer, and is therefore able to negotiate excellent deals on great wines. Plus, all the clerks have extensive training and are very knowledgeable about wine. And if the bottle you want is out of stock at the local store, they’ll find it in another store and have it for you the next day. Cilla lived in London for a short time in the early ’90s and says that “there was a liquor store on every corner, but you couldn’t find a decent bottle of wine.” Despite their grumbling about the limited hours and high liquor taxes, Swedes are proud of The System. Waiting in line at The System on a Friday afternoon is a shared national ritual.

At home, Cilla and I talk about things like this all the time. We both love to travel, speak several languages, and find almost nothing more interesting than exploring cultural differences. In Cilla’s case it’s a vocation as well as an avocation—she’s a professional cross-culturalist who advises executives who are moving from one country to another. So what is it, I asked my resident cross-cultural expert, that makes American and Swedish attitudes toward choice so very different?

Freedom in Sweden, says Cilla, is not only—not even primarily—about economic choices. It’s more focused on other factors—the efficiency, beauty, or reliability of goods, the quality of life. Freedom means having leisure time to spend with family and friends, the opportunity to learn and travel. The Swedish idea of choice is to express your individuality in ways that are not tied to your wallet. Although a Swedish grocery store may only carry four brands of soap, Swedes have far more political choices than we do: seven different political parties hold seats in parliament in a country of only 9 million.

Like most Scandinavian and contintental European nations, Sweden is a far more relationship-oriented society than the United States. Cilla cites Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede, one of the 20th century’s most prominent researchers on intercultural communication, who notes that in a relationship-oriented society, individuals seek affirmation from the group before doing anything and actively avoid standing out from the crowd. This attitude—like the welfare state itself—is consistent with the high value Swedes put on freeing the individual from hardship and discomfort. But it brings consequences that might make Americans snicker, or feel frustrated. An older Swedish woman once told me that the Bosnian refugee family that had recently moved into her apartment building were good people because “they follow the laundry room rules.” That was high praise in a culture where every apartment building has a scrupulously clean laundry room with strict rules for reserving a time to do your wash.

The United States, on the other hand, is individualistic in the extreme. Identity in this country, Cilla explains, begins with the individual’s sense of self rather than membership in any group. Personal choices in America are about exercising your capacity for individual expression and creativity. Cilla was surprised at how much culture shock she felt moving here. It was a bit like the scene from Moscow-on-the Hudson, a 1984 movie about a Russian saxophonist who defects to the United States. One day he goes into a supermarket to buy coffee, and finds dozens and dozens of varieties. His head begins to spin, he hyperventilates, and ends up in the hospital. After five years in the United States, Cilla’s come to terms with American life. It’s “the little life,” that she enjoys most about this country—owning a single-family house and a car, access to a wide variety of international foods, music. Yet she’s conflicted, too. “When I step back, I realize that it’s all dependent on this huge, unsustainable apparatus that pollutes the environment and exploits the developing world.”

So—will Cilla and I ever move to Sweden? Yes, someday. I’m certain of it. I want to know what it’s like to live in a place where freedom has a different meaning than a wealth of choices. And, paradoxically, I feel very fortunate that Cilla and I have that choice.