On Swedishness, stoicism and drama queens

Stoic, n. and adj. “One who practises repression of emotion, indifference to pleasure or pain, and patient endurance”… Drama queen, n., “A person who overreacts to a minor setback or who is prone to exaggeratedly dramatic behaviour; (also) a person who thrives on being the centre of attention.”

The way they are defined by Oxford English Dictionary, almost antonyms, right? If you use them to depict the cultural characteristics of a particular group of people, they certainly are – polar opposites that represent two very different mindsets, perspectives on the world and the vicissitudes of life, and on how to cope with them. I am sure some of you know the orientalist binary oppositions of thinkers like Montesquieu between North and South, which associate all that is good with the North and all that is bad with the South. “As you move toward the countries of the south”, Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of the Laws, “you will believe you have moved away from morality itself.”

Well, we should definitely “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”; these stereotypes have had an amazing life span, still continuing to shape the way we think about peoples and their cultures. Individuals too. We tend to praise stoic endurance and self-sufficiency, at least in more individualistic societies. We associate it with strength of character, freedom, a prerequisite of emancipation from oppression, however defined. And there are very few places or contexts where “drama queen” would denote something positive. Who likes needy, noisy people? Who enjoys the company of people who crave for, in fact as the OED claims, “thrives on”, being the centre of attention?

Nowhere more so than in Sweden! Being a Swede means being self-sufficient, silently enduring, private… Avoid confrontation at all costs – “lay low, keep a low profile” as a friend just told me. It is no coincidence that the two words you learn first when you move to Sweden are lagom (everything in moderation; just the right amount) and jantelagen (the Law of Jante which promotes modesty, or a belief that individual achievement and success are not things to be proud of – you’re no better than the others!).

Now if you are not familiar with my academic work, you may think that I am reproducing the same stereotypes here. Far from it. Cultures are historically and socially constituted; they are not homogeneous, and of course they are subject to change. And yet, in each and every society, at any particular point of time, there are general tendencies that you need not ignore – or you could, at your own peril. In today’s Sweden, the dominant tendencies you are expected to abide by and respect are those I have cited above.

My dear friend, the historian Lars Trägårdh, has called this “the Swedish theory of love”. In a brilliant article he and another dear friend Henrik Berggren have co-authored, “Pippi Longstockings: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State”, they define it in the following way: “…the Swedish theory of love posits that all forms of dependency corrupt true love. Only mutual autonomy can guarantee authenticity and honesty in human relationships.” Lest be misunderstood, this is of course a historically rooted praxis that marks the institutions of the Swedish welfare state, not an essential-peculiar cultural idiosyncrasy: “the primacy of individual autonomy has been institutionalized through a plethora of laws and policies affecting individual Swedes in matters minute and mundane as well as large and dramatic.”

Why this conceptual, semi-academic, musings? A knot in my stomach. Yes, you have not misread it; this is all because of a knot in my stomach. A profound sense of indignation – feeling victimized and helpless; knowing that whatever I do or say, under the current circumstances, I will “bury myself deeper” (again referring to the words of the friend who wisely suggested me to lay low).

For some time now, I am losing all the battles I am engaged in, and the funny – no tragic – thing is, I haven’t started any of these battles. Yes, I am a fighter; I would not avoid conflict if I believe I am defending a right cause (I may be wrong of course but that’s another question). And yes, I have not always picked my fights wisely in the past.

Not so much recently. I fight cancer and I fight the current government in Turkey; that’s all!

I know that, as the wise Byron Katie once noted, “defence is the first act of war”. But surely defending your rights is not? Or is it? Should I turn my other cheek when I am slapped simply because I am surrounded by a cultural environment that does not condone any kind of confrontation?

Rhetorical question. In Sweden, I should. The only thing I can do is to avoid the slapping to turn into whipping, or beheading. All in the name of higher values that are hardly upheld by the majority – a “secret” that everybody knows. And do not ever refer to extenuating circumstances; you are just making up excuses for your acts that defy the accepted norms. You are being a “drama queen”. Shut up and endure. Stoically. Like a proper Swede.


3 thoughts on “On Swedishness, stoicism and drama queens

  1. So you have noticed the interesting attitude that my compatriots have and care for. Now, if it may give any comfort I can tell you that I have lived with this for my entire life in Sweden – as a Swede. During my first 40 years, I was told how strange and odd I was but no one could explain in what way. Then I spent two years in a Greek family in a supposed “no-go-zone” and got the explanation there; I was not really Swedish in spite of my ancestry and I was welcomed by all residents from all around the world. So my lifelong strange- and oddness seemed to be that I was not really Swedish.

    In Sweden the “consensus” rules. Sometimes about things that may seem puzzling. It´s not about the effect things have, it´s about that everyone should feel confident with the solution. When it comes to “drama” it´s the headline for compassion, energy, intensity, drive, mission and if you tend to be a verbal black belt. You may think that Swedes are afraid of their own shadow and conflict shy, this may be because of that they are not trained to have the courage or do not know how to answer in a fast and precise way. You may also think that they protect themselves a lot. Question is, what are they protecting? Some secrets about the universe, their family or that they do not know? I have asked this myself many times.

    So it seems that I am an immigrant in my own country. Perhaps the result of bad integration? : )


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