– How do you greet people in the elevator in Swedish, Jacques Malan asked me when he was in Stockholm to teach the ECG course.
You don’t, I responded. We don’t greet strangers in Sweden. The next day he confirmed what I had told him. In Sweden people just stare at the ground when they enter the elevator. It’s a behavior we are somewhat ashamed of, but don’t know how to change.
I’ve always been interested in learning languages. It’s fascinating how every new word adds to the vocabulary and challenging to try to make sense of grammar rules while speaking. But what I find even more intriguing is the cultural language. How just translating the words doesn’t translate the meaning. I struggle to express gratitude and appreciation in American English, since even the most common thing is referred to as ”amazing” or ”awesome”, which in Swedish would translate into ”not too bad” or ”pretty good”. Being overwhelmingly positive is difficult for a Swede who thinks moderation is bliss.
The interesting thing about our own culture, is that it’s hidden to ourselves. We don’t know that views or habits are unique to us. A funny example is the Swedish house tour. When you come to someone’s house for the first time, you will be shown around the whole house, often including untidied rooms and storage rooms. I thought that was how everybody did it and was surprised when invited to homes in India and Egypt, to only be shown into the living room. When staying with friends in the US our hostess was very reluctant to show my husband their bedroom. I thought all these people behaved strangely. Therefore, when invited to a Belgian friend here in Sweden I was delighted that she showed me their messy storage room. – Aah, you do the house tour in Belgium, too? I asked. – No, never, she replied smilingly, but I know you do in Sweden.
When we went to live in Botswana for half a year I wanted my kids to feel what it is like to be different, to increase their understanding for people who are different from themselves. They all went to a private school run by South African owners, but the teachers were mostly Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe is known for having well educated teachers and, just as a coincidence, my older kids had all had a wonderful Zimbabwean teacher for their first years of school in Sweden.
Emilia, our youngest, was only six at the time and a bit afraid to go to school on her own. She refused to let me go when class was about to start. Her teacher came to Emilia’s seat and squatted by her side:
– Emilia! Do you love teacher? Emilia lowered her eyes shyly.
– Do you know teacher loves you? The teacher wanted an answer and Emilia nodded slowly.
-Teacher loves you verrrry much. All the children here love you. They will be very sad if you don’t come to school. Do you promise to come to school?
Emilia didn’t really know what to say. I also think she had trouble understanding the teacher’s accent.
– And during break time, teacher will buy you some chocolate. Would you like that?
Emilia definitely understands chocolate and agreed to stay if I stayed, too. The thought of getting candy from the teacher is tempting when you come from a culture where kids can only eat candy on Saturdays and there is constant debate about whether it’s acceptable for schools to serve cake to celebrate a special occasion. But of course Emilia’s teacher didn’t know that her kind offer would stir up a controversy in Sweden.
After some spelling exercises the teacher called for attention. – Now we are going to talk about the nuclear family, she said. I listened attentively, thinking that this would never happen in Sweden, where the term ”nuclear family” is a provocative term to many people.
– Who is in the nuclear family?
The children’s raised their arms and took turns answering.
-Father. -Mother. -Brother. -Sister. -Baby. -And me.
-Right, the teacher said.
– She says that all the time, Emilia whispered in Swedish. But what does she want us to write?
The teacher moved on.
– And who is the head of the nuclear family?
I didn’t know. But the children did.
– Yes! the teacher confirmed and nodded smilingly in my direction. It was probably because I was sitting there and smiling to myself. – Father is the head of the nuclear family. And what does mother do?
Yes! That’s what I wanted to know. The children knew that, too.
– She takes care of the family!
– Yes, but how does she take care of the family?
The children hesitated with their answers and the teacher helped them out.
– She cooks. She cleans and makes sure the house is neat and tidy. She irons your clothes. She cares for the family.
The teacher explained how the nuclear family is little, but the extended family is big. Who is in it? All the aunties and uncles and cousins and grandparents. And who is the head of the extended family?
– Yes! What is grandfather the head of? Repetition is great for learning.
– Grandmother! someone said. Is that correct or wrong? l wondered, but I never got to find out.
– Grandfather is the head of the extended family.
The class broke up for break time and I went home thinking that if I were to raise my kids in Botswana, I would send them to Sweden for feminist camps every summer. This experience increased my understanding for immigrants from more conservative countries whose children are taught Swedish values in school.
It is interesting how we Swedes see ourselves as a culture of moderation. In reality, when it comes to values, we are extremists. Our self image of being tolerant and open-minded makes it difficult to realize that we don’t understand other, less individualistic, cultures. One year after coming back from Botswana I read in the newspaper about how some Swedish mosques were being radicalized. The example offered was how they had started to preach that men were the heads of the family and women should take care of the household. I thought of Emilia’s and my experience in Botswana.
We have generous parental leave in Sweden. For 390 days, the maximum parental allowance is SEK 946 (USD 137) a day, as of 2013. For the remaining 90 days, the daily allowance is SEK 180. Sixty days of leave are allocated specifically to each parent, and cannot be transferred to the other. In addition, one of the parents of the new-born baby gets 10 extra days of leave in connection with the birth or 20 days if they are twins. (ref: https://sweden.se/society/gender-equality-in-sweden/)
Men only take about 24% of the total parental leave, which is a great concern to most political parties. In Swedish we wouldn’t ask a man if he intends to stay at home with his child, but when and for how long. I have several male colleagues who took a year of parental leave, but I would say about four-six months is most common. An executive of my hospital said that it’s ideal to have a child during your internship, since whenever you choose to come back from parental leave, the hospital has to offer you the same rotation you were doing when you left.
But it isn’t only the gender gap that is shrinking in Sweden. Our culture is changing into something that others would probably call extreme feminism. Gender pedagogy has made its way into our preschools and schools. http://www.genus.se/english/news/Nyhet_detalj//what-is-gender-pedagogy-.cid912417.
I don’t feel comfortable with the ”feminist discourse”, which makes gender an íssue when in reality it shouldn’t be. In Sweden I would hesitate to call myself a feminist. It is in the encounter with other cultures that I realize how the Swedish language has been influenced by feminist values. When a male colleague from another country greets me and says ”You look good” it sounds strange to me, until I realize that in Swedish a man shouldn’t comment on a woman’s look.