Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden—Eight of us—six Swedes, one Finn, and me, the Nigerian-American—are gathered in a modest city-center studio apartment in Stockholm’s eclectic Södermalm district. Next to our dinner table is a small window with a gorgeous view of Stockholm’s history-rich old town, Gamla stan, with its narrow red clay, melon, and burnt-sienna-colored structures. The location alone makes this modest studio as coveted as a New York penthouse with direct views of Central Park.
Jörgen is making single cups of coffee on a mini press as we each wait silently in turn. The silence leaves me unsettled, almost feeling obliged to fill it with random chit-chat, a few words about the weather. I glance from silent guest to silent guest. Surely I can’t be the only one struck by this odd stillness?
When Jörgen hands someone a coffee, we each say a little something, and then revert back to silence as he presses the next cup.
I had noticed this silence before. Once at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, after flying in from Swedish Lapland, our group of passengers waited for delayed luggage for about 30 minutes, completely quiet. Back home in the United States, I would have nudged the nearest fellow passenger, shook my head, and we would have commiserated in voices meant to be overheard about the delay. In Sweden, stating the obvious seems unnecessary.
At Jörgen’s, instead of filling the emptiness, we wait patiently until everyone has their coffee before easing back into conversation. And even when we break the silence, there is a profoundly understated tone to our interactions. The guests at Jörgen’s studio are remarkably accomplished musicians who play in high-profile Swedish orchestras, but no one talks about that until asked. No one talks over someone else. Everyone speaks three or four languages fluently but dismisses their skill. Dressed in worn out jeans, single-color shirts or blouses and sock-clad feet, they could not look more ordinary.
I had heard of this unspoken custom before moving to Sweden a couple of years ago. This untranslatable ethos is called lagom (pronounced: law-gum) and it permeates all facets of the Swedish psyche. Often misconstrued as indifference, or the stereotypical Scandinavian “coldness,” lagom is loosely translated from Swedish as “just the right amount,” “in moderation,” “appropriate,” and other such synonyms. For example, a common usage would be: The water is lagom hot, or the coffee is lagom strong.
Speaking of coffee, mellanbrygg—the medium type of coffee brew—dominates store shelves. Many Swedes have a hard time deciding between strong and light blends, so they gravitate toward the middle, the medium, the lagom brew. This same risk-aversive logic also applies to milk where mellanmjölk—medium milk—remains the popular choice, causing Swedes to call their country the “land of mellanmjölk.” It is a nation of Goldilocks, where the middle road is just right, and the goal is equality and moderation in all aspects of life.
The word lagom itself comes from a shortening of the phrase “laget om,” which literally means “around the team” and dates back to the Viking era between the eighth and 11th centuries. Communal horns filled with mjöd (fermented honey wine) would be passed around and everyone had to sip their own share and not a bit more. Sweden today might be known for cutting-edge design and fierce modernism, yet this Viking code of conduct remains ingrained in their mindset.
“I love lagom!” says schoolteacher and native Swede Linda Henriksson, when I ask her what she thinks of it. “It could mean anything to anyone. Ironically, average could be many different things depending on who you’re talking to.” So the word itself is now being used in everyday settings to mean “average” or “just right.”
And the concept is adapting to a changing society. The government agency Statistiska centralbyrån tracks nearly everything that can be counted, averaged, and summarized in Sweden, including how many people are called Svensson (101,027 to be exact). Their most recent count of the 9,606,522 people that call Sweden home found that nearly one in five residents has a foreign background. That’s peak diversity for the Scandinavian country, and one might assume that they are bringing new cultural beliefs and traditions with them, slowly diluting this intrinsic Swedish mentality.
Not so, says Henriksson. She thinks nonnative Swedes are drawn to this norm and pick it up pretty fast. Many of us outsiders might initially find lagom odd or even a little bit funny since it is such a nebulous concept. But once you realize you’re the only booming braggart in the room, you quickly learn how to appropriate the cultural nuance.
I come from two boisterously competitive cultures—Nigerian and American—where everyone grows talons and claws their way to survive, stand out, and succeed. The idea of lagom felt intensely foreign to me at first. Yet I have embraced it, too. To me, it meant a cool restraint, a certain self-confidence. It feels liberating not to have to wear your accomplishments on your sleeve. I didn’t need to boast or brag about my achievements, but actually let my work do the talking for me—as did everyone else.
My friend Fredrik Rydehäll, a lighting engineer whose job is to literally put actors, singers, and dancers in the spotlight, has worked with everyone from egocentric choreographers to outstanding yet humble ballerinas. “It is easier to stand out in Stockholm because it’s so multicultural,” Rydehäll tells me. He’s from Luleå (population 75,000), and there lagom rules supreme.
In his view, Swedes can get away with not being so lagom in a bigger city like Stockholm with larger crowds. In smaller towns, they have to be lagom to blend in with their neighbors. “It really depends on why you want to stand out,” Rydehäll continues. “If you stand out because you just want to get attention, then it’s annoying.”
Mats Olsson, a well-known sports columnist for daily newspaper Expressen, saw lagom at work during the 2012 European Championship soccer games in Kiev, Ukraine. Sweden had just been kicked out of their group pool amid high expectations, but what might have caused anger and bitter recrimination in other countries was met with a collective “oh well, next time” and shoulder shrugs. Even Swedish athletes have been conditioned to temper their feelings: not too heated, not too lackadaisical. Olsson specifically recalls ice hockey legend Peter Forsberg and soccer star Henrik Larsson, both now retired, for their exemplary athleticism.
“After amazing performances, their replies during interviews were mostly along the lines of … ‘Well, I guess it was okay, it was the team that won,’ ‘If I was good, it’s for others to judge, I do my job for the team,’ or ‘As long as we win the games, it doesn’t matter who scores,’ ” he says. That is, of course, what athletes in the United States are coached to say. But in Sweden, it’s strangely genuine.
Lagom does have an ugly cousin of sorts: Jante. The Law of Jante (jantelagen in Swedish) is something like the strong-arming side of lagom. Instead of celebrating the virtues of modesty, it’s the part of you that says, “Don’t think you’re anyone special.” To the untrained eye in casual Swedish settings, you might not know which norm—lagom or Jante—is at work.
“A lot of Swedes hate lagom too,” Henriksson, the teacher, explains. “Mostly because of the Jantelagen aspect. Maybe you as a Swede want to be noticed, but you feel you can’t scream as loud as you’d want to because you can’t be too much or too little of anything.”
The Law of Jante is named after the fictional small town of Jante in Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose’s 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks. The town was a place where individual success and achievements were frowned upon, where individuality was seen as a threat to collective group unity. But it’s really all about deep-seated jealousy directed toward those who have found success.
Not that it would be spoken aloud, of course. “Swedes don’t openly talk about ‘Den svenska avundsjukan’—‘the Swedish Jealousy,’ ” my husband, a native Swede, tells me. Not to be confused with regular jealousy, which may motivate someone to act, Swedish jealousy seethes silently all the way to the grave.
Lagom can often feel like a national hindrance, and some of Sweden’s critics argue that it has increased people’s dependence on social welfare, stifles ambition, and is overly nonconfrontational—perhaps explaining why Sweden has stayed neutral in many world conflicts when other nations might have expected them to act.
Maybe. But for a true demonstration of the power of lagom, it sometimes helps to observe a bunch of Swedes—when they are outside of Sweden.
That’s because when Swedes cross international borders, they often seem hell bent on leaving lagom far behind. And this may be especially true of Swedish teenagers and young adults, whose natural narcissism and hormones can run afoul of lagom at home.
My husband and I recently took a weekend Baltic cruise—the easiest way to escape Sweden for a couple of days in Riga, Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, or elsewhere—hoping for a couple relaxing days. But instead we found ourselves in a taut booze cruise of sorts for young Swedes. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of girls in their early 20s sat in the pre-boarding waiting area, looking like nervous mannequins, with their piercing blue eyes and expectant, clipped laughter.
Behind them milled roughly the same number of boys, some holding open cans of half drunk Carlsberg beer, some with sleeked-back gelled dark hair, some with spiky short blond hair. They scanned the room, stealing glances, tagging, and marking, before boarding.
It all lent a certain air of tension to the noisy hall. The lagom that I had embraced since moving to Sweden seemed fragile, like it was about to break into a thousand pieces under the weight of all those hormones. And sure enough, once we set sail, the ship transformed into something more like a college fraternity party—constant noise through the night, a naked man walking through the breakfast buffet the next morning—than any typical Swedish gathering.
It stayed like that for the whole weekend. Floating on international waters, away from home and the unspoken rules that govern Swedish society, the passengers gladly threw lagom overboard.
But they knew, as I did, that it would have to be fished back up before we docked in Stockholm.