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10 Lessons in Swedish Culture and Values from the Coronavirus Crisis

Apr 21, 2020 anne_pihl
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Sweden has been making international headlines again, this time for its approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic. Global reaction has largely focused on consternation about the decision to abstain from lockdown and many of the stringent restrictions imposed in other countries.

What’s going on in Sweden?

“The Swedish experiment” has been both derided and followed with interest to see what the outcome of this strategy will be. International media coverage in recent days has led with claims that Sweden has started to see the error of its ways and will be changing its Coronavirus strategy in line with other countries. In Sweden, however, the narrative remains firmly that the right approach has been chosen and the rest of the world has lost the plot with their lockdown measures.

Rational thinking or crazy Swedes?

So why has Sweden chosen such a different path? Have sound scientific evidence and logic really been prioritised over economic considerations? Has Sweden’s response been measured and mature or naïve and complacent, and how can Swedes be comfortable with a strategy that so clearly differs from the rest of the world? Most importantly, who is right?

Swedish culture and values permeate the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic

The jury is still out on who chose the best strategy, but what is clear is that Sweden’s approach and its widespread domestic support have been greatly influenced by Swedish values and cultural DNA.

1. Trust
This is a basic component in society in Sweden; Trust in government & in each other.
Democratically strong countries with strong economies tend to have higher levels of trust. High taxes, for example, are accepted in Sweden, as there is a basic level of trust that when you pay tax, you get something back. Instead of draconian laws in response to the pandemic, Swedish authorities expect citizens to follow guidelines and to behave in a considerate way.

2. Responsibility
Starting at a very young age, one of the most clearly articulated goals of parenting in Sweden is encouraging responsibility. This continues in schools and in the workplace, where flat hierarchies are the norm and people are expected to step up and take responsibility without the need for micro-management. Swedes are quite simply expected to do the right thing. Whilst the vast majority have taken responsibility, there are of course those who have carried on as if nothing has happened, to the horror of many.

3. Long term thinking
Many successful Swedish companies have a history of taking a longer-term view and are not driven by quarterly results. Swedish parental leave, renowned for its length, generosity and application to both parents, is also based on a long-term view of what is important for society as a whole. This longer term & holistic view has also been a driving force behind the Swedish coronavirus approach, which from the outset has questioned what to measure and how to measure it; Instead of just considering infection rates and fatalities, the total long term impact of lockdown on overall health, on the treatment of other illnesses, academic achievement, employment possibilities and other lifetime outcomes has been taken into consideration.

4. Pragmatism
Pragmatism is about doing practical things that get results. To the pragmatic Swedes, closing down the whole of society in response to Covid-19 never seemed like a good option. From the outset, they chose a more pragmatic approach and were quick to optimise resources, such as retraining furloughed SAS cabin staff to work as nursing assistants in hospitals.

5. Flat hierarchies
Sweden has a long tradition of separating civic authority from political power. The Public Health Agency makes the decisions regarding health in Sweden and this authority was upheld without powerplay, in sharp contrast to other countries where prime ministers and government quickly started calling the shots. The most unique feature of flat hierarchies in Sweden, however, is the importance of consensus. There has been political unanimity even in these times of crisis and all political parties have united without engaging in political point scoring.

6. Conflict aversion
Over 200 unbroken years of peace have left their mark. Swedes are renowned for being conflict adverse; Consensus is the goal of any negotiation or action. One of the big news stories in Sweden at the early stages of the Corona crisis was about a German TV journalist, who repeatedly questioned the Public Health Agency’s and government’s decisions. His direct style of questioning and refusal to toe the line at Coronavirus press meetings caused such a stir that it led to coverage by Swedish media about who on earth this guy was.

7. Optimism
Sweden is arguably peace damaged after two centuries without war and with a very strong economy. Not used to worrying about tomorrow, Swedes expect things to work out well and are a nation of committed planners. The goal of all this planning is to optimise time and resources, and ultimately, self-realisation. In sharp contrast to Finland, it was decided some time ago that there was no longer any need to worry about the Russians coming and as a result, military defence and emergency supplies planning were scaled back to a minimum. This decision has now come back to haunt Sweden with the current crisis with medical supplies. Another problem has been the positive view that people will make informed, rational and considerate decisions and adhere to guidelines; Unfortunately, this has also been shown to be somewhat over-optimistic.

8. Understatement
Casual dress, lack of titles and playing things down are the norm in Sweden. Anders Tegnell, the Public Health Agency’s chief epidemiologist and de facto spokesperson for Sweden’s strategy, embodies these values. Anders shows up for press conferences in his best jumper and his no-nonsense approach and style endear him to most Swedes. Swedish language nuances, however, have proved to be somewhat of a cultural barrier for Sweden’s 10% foreign population and those outside of Sweden. “Ought to” does not carry the same weight as “legally obliged to” for non- native Swedish speakers and such directives have therefore caused debate.

9. Outliers
Sweden is an extreme country in many senses, from its weather through to high levels of individualism.  This is a country that values critical thinking and is used to setting trends – Skype, Spotify, IKEA and Greta Thunberg, to name but a few. Who knows, the Swedish pandemic model may even be its next export. An irony of the Swedish Coronavirus strategy, however, is that Swedes in many ways, were born to self-isolate; Sweden has more single households than any other country, personal space is highly valued and Swedes love to spend their summers getting away from everyone in the countryside.

10. Nature
Sweden is possibly the world’s most secular country. Swedes’ worship of nature is, however, almost a religion, with physical training coming in a close second. Try telling a Swede that they can’t go for a walk in the forest or enjoy the great outdoors! Political parties and organisations can survive economic dips and turmoil, but an outdoor ban would be an impossible sell. Fortunately, “sustainability” has a lot of buy-in in the homeland of school-strikes, flight-shame and plogging.  Positioning Sweden’s “light-touch” Coronavirus strategy as the sustainable and therefore smarter option was a guaranteed route to gaining broad domestic acceptance.

A Leap of faith

Culture and values have a major impact on political decisions. Only time will tell if Sweden chose the best approach, and it will probably take a few years before a clear picture of outcomes emerges. In the meantime, I’ve decided to take a leap of faith that Sweden strategised wisely. It makes sense whilst living in Stockholm and as a parent of two with Swedish biological and cultural DNA. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a card-carrying Swede as of 4 weeks ago, following my application for dual citizenship of Ireland and Sweden. Initially torn between despair and defence of the Swedish approach as I explained decisions to family and friends in lockdown abroad, I have now trustingly decided to embrace Swedish optimism. This seems to be a pragmatic and good long-term approach to adopt along with my new passport! Maybe I’ve been listening to too much ABBA in self-imposed quarantine but I’m going to “take a chance” on Sweden. 

Anne Pihl is co-author of Working in Sweden – The A-Z guide and works as an intercultural trainer and relocation specialist. If you would like to find out more about intercultural training to support  your staff’s cultural adaptation to living and working in Sweden or need relocation assistance, please email anne@relocatetosweden.com

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