I’m Swedish, though I know I don’t look it. Most Swedes are tall and blonde, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, and I’m none of those things. I’m not purebred, but I’m more Swedish than anything else, and so when most people ask me what I am, that’s what I’ll tell them. I find myself talking about it a lot, actually. It’s become something of a mannerism or a catchphrase; I’ll offer an opinion or tell a story about something I once did or said, and I’ll follow it with: “But that’s only because I’m Swedish,” or “I’m just being Swedish,” or “Very Swedish of me, I know.” It’s one of the ways I’ve become predictable to myself. Everyone’s got their shtick and that’s mine, attributing every viewpoint or instance of eccentric behavior to my Swedish heritage.
But what do I even mean? Nearly every nationality has its stereotypes, but Swedes are hard to pin down. It might be because people from other countries don’t care enough about us to bother forming an opinion. (There — that’s very Swedish of me.) I think one reason I harp on being Swedish is because I want it to mean more than it does. It’s an attempt to pin down one’s national character simply by insisting that it exists. And yet there are some things one can say about us Swedes that frequently hold true:
We anticipate failure and then celebrate it when inevitably it happens. We obsessively rehash what went wrong. The time we went to Applebee’s and the service was poor. The lobster salad we brought to the potluck, and no one touched it. We’re not depressed or depressing people, we just don’t waste our energy on hoping things will get better. Depressing things don’t depress us the way they do some people. We like it when things don’t work out — the disappointment matches our expectations.
We appreciate all things sterile and antiseptic. Clean surfaces, flavorless food. We’re big on functionality. We like the symmetrical, the smudge-free. To keep things clean is to preserve a distance. We wish to hover through life, gathering no blemish, leaving no mark upon the earth. Some of this has to do with our fear of death, because bacteria leads to decay. We like anything that might be described as “glacial,” whether a piece of symphonic music, a temperament, or a woman’s beauty.
We’re morbid. We begin to live in perpetual fear of death at the age most people enter elementary school. Oblivion frightens us, and we lie awake at night trying to conceptualize a state of non-existence. What does oblivion look like? How to imagine a condition of pure absence? Pain scares us too. On balance, we would prefer a slow, lingering death to something quick like a heart attack. We don’t want it to catch us unaware. We would rather die in a hospital, heavily medicated and surrounded by sad faces.
We actually do have a sense of humor, but it’s not funny. The format for a story that might amuse a Swede goes: man craves happiness, man believes happiness is attainable, man makes heroic attempt to find happiness, man breaks ankle. Mishaps crack us up. The dropped glass of water, the bowl of soup that goes in someone’s lap. Our humor is exactly what other people find unfunny. It’s not that we take pleasure in the suffering of others, we just find it amusing when someone trips and falls on his ass coming out of Kohl’s.
We’re stubborn. My entire writing career is a case in point.
We’re passive-aggressive. Because we’re passive about everything, it makes sense that we’d be passive-aggressive too. Swedes are good at looking hurt but saying nothing. At Christmastime, we buy the most number of gifts, not out of generosity, but because we want to be the first one to run out of presents to open.
We believe in withholding emotions. We don’t like it when people get emotional — not ourselves, not our loved ones, not strangers on the street. (I even had to brace myself to write “loved ones.”) Seeing a person cry or exclaim with joy is simply embarrassing. We don’t “hate” emotions because hate is too strong a word, but we would very much like it if people would just cope with their troubles in silence and keep a lid on the histrionics. Deep and soulful eye contact is not to be preferred, thank you. We’re not big on kissing—instead we peck, and not quite on the lips. There’s no practical value in putting one’s feelings on public display. It solves nothing, nor does it advance one’s cause. A Swede’s goal is to get through the day while preserving an air of polite, measured detachment.
The problem with all this is that I’m also a Scorpio.