Culture clash: Doing everything wrong

October 11, 2013

in Cultural differences,Lagom,Life as an expat,Stockholm,writing a book

Stockholm Traditional Swedish attire on parade for National Day.


“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 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.

I’ve written about lagom many times before. Here are a few favorites: Lagom is driving me crazyhistory of lagomtalking too much about yourself,  and the Swedish view of lagom.

*Name changed to protect the sanctimonious one from scorn.


1 Sandra October 11, 2013 at 19:59
2 Lou Lou October 11, 2013 at 21:50

OhI was laughing about this until you started crying! Busted for being too generous, that’s terrible. I say flat out no to club Lagom. Anyone who brings wine and cake should be applauded not lauded. America 1. Sweden. 0

3 Sandra October 12, 2013 at 10:20

Thanks so much Lou Lou. You made ME laugh out loud at your synopsis “busted for being too generous.” And I’m sure you well know how it is when you first move somewhere and do everything wrong. I was just so shocked by David that I didn’t know what to do really. All I could do was think what am I doing here! And THAT made me cry.

4 Jonas Ehrenpreis October 12, 2013 at 12:09

Sandra, I hope by now you know how much most of us love when someone clearly comes from No-Jantelag-country and just does what he/she thinks is best!! We love loud people who slightly overdo things! (at least I do…)
Secondly, what you got from David was HIS interpretation of how things are done here. I don’t think a Swede would have said it like that. Or felt it like that. So I hope you keep it up…!

5 Sandra October 12, 2013 at 12:39

Thanks for that Jonas. And yes, I do try to make my way how I see it best these days. But I have to say it was HARD when I first moved here. Interestingly, it was often my fellow immigrants who gave me the hardest time about not doing things properly. But I also had my share of Swedes giving me comments like: “why are ALL Americans so loud?” To which I would often reply, why are all Swedes blonde?
Cultural stereotypes are so fascinating.

6 Fabian Zsiga October 13, 2013 at 20:12

I’m a 18 y.o swede living in germany since a few months back and the constant feeling of being pampered by everyone is terrible/awesome. It is not just me who is being treated really well and with generosity. Everyone here is simply really hospitable to one another… or maybe i just feel bad about myself, my home country and our lack of hospitality when i see it, haha.
Thank you for putting up with us swedes 🙂

7 Sandra October 14, 2013 at 21:31

Hi Fabian, Thanks for the comment. I’m so glad to hear you are being treated so well in Germany. I have to say that overall, I’ve been treated pretty well here in Sweden too!

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