“That’s not how it’s done here.” I turned around to see David* looking at me with his arms crossed and a sanctimonious smirk on his face.
“By bringing the wine AND the dessert, you’ve done too much. It makes the rest of us look bad. It’s just not lagom.”
I had just arrived for dinner at a friend’s place and was handing over a bottle of wine and a plate of brownies to the host. And though it was nine years ago now, I still remember my reaction. Vividly. I was equal parts embarrassed and angry, cheeks burning and stomach fluttering like I had been called to the principal’s office.
David was not the party host. And though he is actually a fellow expat, married to a Swede, he was determined that I know that culturally, I was in the wrong. Since I’d moved to Stockholm just two months before, I had already been put on the spot so many times in terms of what I was “doing wrong” in my new homeland. This comment was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I was tired of being judged harshly.
So tears came to my eyes. Immediately. And they added to my already considerable humiliation in a room full of people I did not really know so well. What I don’t remember is exactly what I replied back to David. It was something like: “how is it wrong to simply be nice to someone?” But I do remember that I just.as.quickly excused myself and ran to the toilet. And I sat there for a while, thinking: why the hell did I move to Sweden?
Learning how to live, how to behave, what to do, in a new country is tough. There’s no getting around that. But what is still interesting to me is how differently things are done in different parts of the world. At that dinner party, I had done too much. In Swedish terms, I was not lagom.
Lagom is a word that has no direct English translation. The literal meaning is just right, just enough or just the right amount. But culturally, it’s a word that has come to define behavior in that there is “virtue in moderation.” Basically, you don’t want to stand out in any way by being too flashy, too loud or too rich and you certainly should not act like you’re better than anyone else. Nor do you want to be the best in your class, for that manner.
It’s the exact opposite of how we are taught to be in the US. Culturally speaking, Americans are not lagom. In Sweden, we’re perceived as too loud. Too flashy. We talk too much. We want to stand out and impress. And we try too hard to be the best at everything.
Lagom was one of my first Swedish culture lessons. And while I came to understand it, I also came to realize just how hardwired I am to behave as an American. Living in a new country, the challenge comes in trying to adapt to your new culture while trying to hang on to your own.
Notes: This post is excerpted from my in-progress book Going Viking.
*Name changed to protect the sanctimonious one from scorn.