Blog Archive

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Little Houses on a Hillside

Stockholm, Sweden

If you ever decide to dig a hole to China, your chances for survival depend on a coin toss. First, you’ll have to get confused. And then you’ll have to read the map wrong, turn left instead of right, and accidentally land somewhere inside Stockholm proper. Only then will you have the chance to visit the most opposite place in the whole world. It’s upside down and inside out from Mexico. And altogether different from America’s Fourth of July.

In many ways, Stockholm resembles an assembly line. It’s a tightly regulated production process and each piece is quality controlled to look just the same. Street sign goes here, sidewalk goes there, place a garbage can every 4.5 meters. Bus number 442 to Nacka arrives in exactly five minutes. Remember to stand right and walk left. Take your shoes off before going inside (every Swede will loan you a pair of house socks). Arrive on time. You must arrive on time. Be sure to take a number and wait your turn. It’s called making the queue. Don’t complain or protest. Tip-toe when you’re in public. Tip-toe when you’re in private. Clean up. Separate the plastic from the glass and the paper from organic. Say ja, tack, and nej, tack. Shake hands, nice to meet you, crank, pull, piece No. 979, you’re ready to be shipped and handled.

I know it sounds straightforward and simple to understand. But for me, the orderliness and consistency of it all actually has the opposite effect. After a lifetime of diversity in America and years of disorder in Mexico, Stockholm baffles and confuses me.

Of course, the crooked hole I was digging to China could have taken me to many more difficult places. Instead, it lands me on softer ground. Thanks to Sweden’s assembly line, for example, bus drivers and businessmen, janitors and policewomen, children and old people – almost everyone can understand me because they all speak near flawless English. It’s just one of many government sponsored luxuries afforded to the Swedes via nationwide access to an excellent state-run education.

And the list goes on. The elderly are protected; the children are cared for. Need surgery? You got it. Medicine? Also. Unemployed? We’ll save you. Five weeks vacation? Not a problem. Sweden is a modern marvel; a primer on the “Successes of Socialism.” And all of this can be yours for the really rather reasonable cost of around 60% income tax per person (give or take more for the rich and less for the poor).

The Swedes also benefit from an 18-month maternity leave – correction, paternity leave, as both mother and father are obligated to share the time off. Mothers play the role of fathers and fathers play the role of mothers. In Stockholm, I see more men pushing strollers than women. I see a tiny 18-year-old high school girl driving a super huge coach bus. I watch a father doing laundry. I squeak when I open a stall door to find that men clean women’s restrooms just as often as women clean men’s. And I walk freely, crosswalks everywhere, no need to look both ways. The Swedes always stop. More than people acting out particular and separate social roles – driver and pedestrian, boss and subordinate, him and her – I discover citizens sharing in the everyday business of running society.

It’s all so…


…all so equal and perfect. The lines that very clearly mark the differences between us as individuals on my side of the world disappear in Stockholm. Here, blue collar earns just as well as white collar. Suburban flats sprawl in uniform spaces, equally sized boxes, across the 17 islands that form Stockholm’s metropolitan archipelago. Sometimes, men take women’s surnames in matrimony. Even physical differences between male and female fade. The men in Sweden, for example, are actually pretty. They are lean with thin blonde hair, and have lovely fine-featured faces. (If you haven’t fallen asleep yet, and want to learn about intercultural research that supports my claim, please see footnote F).

All signs labeled “Utopia” point to Sweden.

I chew on the sweetness of equality and enjoy the smooth texture of efficiency. However, after one piece of candy, I feel I’ve had enough.

What I perceive as one of Sweden’s greatest strengths – this widespread efficiency and equality – somehow challenges me. It challenges me because freedom from want is a temptation to be satisfied. And when you’re satisfied, as many Swedes are, there is no understandable need to push for more.

I have a conversation with an auto glass specialist. He earns 40,000 Swedish kronas each month (roughly the equivalent of 4,000 euros) and he lives a very, very comfortable life. Nice apartment, perfect IKEA furniture, jet-ski for the weekend, all set to go. The American in me asks him what his next step will be.

“What do you mean?” he says.

“Yeah, I mean… what’s next? How will you work your way up? Have you ever thought about operating your own car glass franchise?”

He gives me this look like, “Why on earth would I do that?” Like, “Why push for what I already have?” And in many ways, he’s right. The cost benefit for the extra effort that would be necessary to “get ahead” puts him in the negative. He doesn’t have to push, because his life already moves. Just like clockwork. [On a side note – and to be as fair as I can be while still being biased – conversations with other Swedes introduce me to the exact opposite. I have met some very, very driven individuals from Sweden who have successfully pursued and achieved more against all odds. They are writers, and restaurant owners, artists and entrepreneurs. And they prohibit me from making overly sweeping generalizations.]

But it’s here, in this short exchange with the car glass specialist that my tic starts to tock and I find so many of the answers I’d been looking for. I begin to understand that in America, the carrot stick is held just far enough away from us to keep us running, and fast. Fortunately or unfortunately, we do not enjoy a freedom from want. We are not altogether provided for, so we must compete. And it’s a grand affair, with bets and wagers, winners and losers. A particularly exciting phenomenon because each competitor offers something different. May the best man win! And may he be richly rewarded.

In Sweden, the best man is taxed. So heavily, in fact, that small business owners often have a hard time getting off the ground. Innovation shoots itself in the foot, and the best man is pushed back in the pen with John Doe no. 3, 42, and 89. Sweden tends to be cautious in its courtship with large global chains. Starbucks has not entered the Swedish market, and neither has Wal-Mart.

Clearly, big business isn’t always good (if Sweden’s challenge is stagnation, then America’s is overzealous greed, and ironically both can get you into a big 10-car pileup), but it represents something important about a fundamental value that’s been culturally bred into me, something like the gene that gives me brown hair instead of red. Satisfaction is a sin. Want more. Get more. The market is yours to capitalize. Bingo.

It’s a question of fairness, and Stockholm teaches me that my definition of this word depends almost completely on my freedom to earn more and venture for gain. This realization sits with me, a piece of chocolate in my pocket. I nibble on it from time to time as I explore the city because the calories are worthwhile.

The story about Stockholm goes on and on. It’s a split-level home with many rooms, important days, and key characters. But for now, I share this small bite with you as I continue to brush the dust off my body and enjoy the fresh air after so many months of digging, just to get to the opposite side.





Footnote F: Geert Hofstede is an Emeritus Professor at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. He is most known for his research regarding certain dimensional measurements that can help us to define and understand differences between cultures around the world. One such dimension includes the masculinity index. His findings state:

“Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society to which a range of solutions are found. [Our studies have] revealed that (a) women's values differ less among societies than men's values; (b) men's values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive and maximally different from women's values on the one side, to modest and caring and similar to women's values on the other. The assertive pole has been called 'masculine' and the modest, caring pole 'feminine'. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men's values and women's values.”

Here we can see that Sweden’s Masculinity index is notably low. (To learn more, or compare Sweden’s Cultural Dimensions with other countries, visit In other words, men in Sweden tend to share more behavioral and attitudinal values with women than in most other countries around the world (i.e. their social roles are more uniform), making Sweden, as Hofstede would put it, a uniquely feminine culture.