The Curious Art of
Interviewing a Swede

Bad at boasting


Although Swedes are generally skillful in the use of their own and foreign languages, they often express themselves in subtle ways that differ from the more direct approach of most other western societies. In journalistic contexts, there is a strong tendency to accentuate the negative, while politely ignoring the positive.

Of course there are always exceptions, but at least three tendencies are fairly widespread. The first is a general prohibition against blowing one's own horn. As the U.S. writer, Cheryl MacLachlan, has accurately observed: "There is one thing that Swedes are not good at, and that is boasting."

A more general cultural trait is conflict avoidance, which calls for the use of diplomatic language whenever possible. In a situation that might provoke an American to exclaim, "That guy is totally full of crap", or an Englishman to snort, "The man's a bloody fool", a proper Swede is expected to offer something like, "I can understand why he might feel that way."

Balancing that sort of tolerance is a habit of relentless self-criticism, especially against the real and imagined flaws of one's native land.

The combined effect of all this is to create an interviewer's paradise for those who are in the market for bad news about Sweden. It is very easy to find Swedes who are eager to complain about their country, but difficult to find anyone who is prepared to openly defend it. Conscientious interviewers are thus advised to discount the anti-patriotic sentiments of Swedes by at least fifty percent, and to always submit them to a concrete reality check.