Tag Archives: Sweden

I’m from Sweden, NOT Switzerland…

I am sure it is something about coming from a European, famously neutral country starting with “Sw”.  People always think I am from Switzerland.

I tell them quite clearly that I am from Sweden and then they turn around and introduce me to their friends and say, “This is Bjorn, he’s Swiss.”  It drives me crazy.

Swiss stuff that doesn’t apply to Sweden

Why do people mix these two countries up?  Sweden is not Switzerland.  Not even close.  We don’t have Heidi.  We are not big on goofy-yet-charming goat bells. We are not known for our chocolate (unless you happen to be an IKEA addict and you spend too much time in the food section).  Evil dictators don’t clamor to invest in our banks.

No use

As much as I explain the above to people they still just nod and then come up to me two weeks later and try to tell me about their other Swiss friend or they ask me for travel tips for Zurich.   Come on!

Fun Swedish Stereotypes

It’s not like Sweden is running low on stereotypes.  Whenever there is a dumb lumber jack character in a movie or commercial, he has a Swedish accent.  Whenever there is a foreign, blond bikini-clad hottie in a role, she most likely is also Swedish.  Whenever my right wing friends get riled up about socialism they list Sweden as one of the countries where doomsday has been realized.  I could go on and on.  There are TONS of stereotypes, good and bad to choose from.  Associate me with ANY of them but lay off with the freaking “Swiss” label.

So What?

Why is this a big deal?  Well, at first it wasn’t.  But trust me, the 50th time you hear it, it gets old.  When you are from a small country, identity can be important.  You want to be recognized as unique, not confused with being from somewhere else.  It’s kind of like the time I was working in the Filipino fishing village I called home for a while and I was asked where in the United States Sweden was… Ugghghghghghg.


Am I being oversensitive?  Yes.  But you know what?  I don’t care.

THERE: end of mid-week rant.



Bjorn Karlman

Sweden’s Latest Invention: File-Sharing as an Official Religion

I wasn’t sure whether to feel patriotic or embarrassed at the news:  Sweden has officially recognized file-sharing as a religion.  No this is not a joke. The basic idea doctrine of the church is that it is right to file-share.  The church’s website states that “information is holy and copying is a sacrament”.  Some other out-there language (complete with awkward Swedish-to-English translation):  “The community of kopimi requires no formal membership. You just have to feel a calling to worship what is the holiest of the holiest, information and copy.”

Why did it have to be Sweden?!! Not that I am overly protective of my native land but we have enough weird stereotyping going on already:  Burly mountain men, naively goofy blonds, female volleyball teams… Why did WE have to be the ones with the fake religion announcement??

Of course there are the concerns about piracy that come up with an announcement like this.  “Hopefully, this is one step towards the day when we can live out our faith without fear of persecution, says Isak Gerson, spiritual leader of the Church of Kopimism.”   Gerson hopes that file-sharing will now be given religious protection.  If it achieves this status it will be harder to crack down on piracy.

But here’s the bigger question:  How much does this water down the idea of the need for religious freedom and protection?  If you can seek religious protection for downright ridiculous causes (apologies to my file-sharing enthusiast friends), what is to stop society from saying enough is enough and drastically cutting down on religious freedoms and protections?

The language of the church appeals to the religious cynic:  “The church, which holds CTRL+C and CTRL+V (shortcuts for copy and paste) as sacred symbols, does not directly promote illegal file sharing, focusing instead on the open distribution of knowledge to all”.   Yes, anything can be declared sacred, anything can be made holy.  Apple should get right behind this and make their logo sacred… enough people treat it as such anyway.

Sweden is famously secular, downright hedonistic and revels in neopaganism.  Hopefully Kopimism will quickly be relegated to the weird corner occupied by offshoot sects and political parties.  Until then, remember to show a little more reverence when you copy and paste.



Bjorn Karlman

You’re Fat! A Look at Global, Weight-Related Bluntness

OK, so I may have put on 10 pounds since I got married. This would have been fine had I stayed away from major gatherings like the wedding I attended yesterday.  But such was not my fate.  It was a very culturally diverse Los Angeles wedding and many in the crowd had not seen me since my wedding five months ago.  Reactions to my more “jolly” physique ranged from a quick look to the waistline to the obligatory “marriage treating you well, huh?” and I barely avoided the more direct, “You’re fat” that my wife says my mother-in-law is more than capable of delivering with characteristic Filipino weight-related bluntness.

How to react?

How do you bounce back from a bout of bluntness?  Do you laugh it off?  Do you take offense?  In answering that question it helps to remember what cultural context you are dealing with and whether the bringer of the bluntness meant for his or her statement to be offensive, whether it was a joke or whether it was meant as advice.

Direct vs indirect cultures

When I was studying Spanish in Latin America, I quickly learned that nicknames were often physical.  As people warmed to you they could assign you a completely arbitrary nickname like “gordo” (fat) or “flaco” (skinny) and you weren’t supposed to take it personally.  It was a sign of endearment.  Sometimes the descriptions didn’t quite fit – as in someone called “gordo” wasn’t too tubby in real life.  I was lucky to have friends that explained the custom to me.  If you tried calling random friends “fat one” in Swedish culture you would quickly discover a less charitable side to the Scandinavian experience.

The difficulty in knowing whether something is culturally appropriate is that general assumptions about direct vs indirect cultures don’t always apply.  For example (and this statement is going to revel in stereotype), American culture and communication is often seen as being fairly blunt and Filipino culture is seen as being concerned with face-saving and polite indirectness.  If you are in need of help from a friend in the US, you probably would just tell the friend you need help.  You may end up doing the same in the Philippines, but depending on the situation and how sensitive the actual verbalization of the need for help, Filipinos may want you simply to see their situation and offer to help.  This is obviously a tough one to navigate and most non-Filipinos have to learn how best to handle sensitive situations through trial and error.

Here’s the catch though:  A newcomer to Filipino and American culture may decide that since American culture is “blunt” and Filipino culture is “indirect”, it’s OK to tell someone they are fat in the US but that you can’t do so in the Philippines.  NOT SO.  Most Americans would rather do themselves bodily harm than have a heartfelt one-to-one with a chubby friend regarding his or her weight issues.  Walk into a Filipino Christmas gathering though and a number of aunties will take it upon themselves to, regardless of your gender, ask you “What happened?  Why are you so fat??”  It’s mortifying but true.

Chime in or stay out of it?

So do you join in as a newcomer?  Should you, as a traveler in Latin America or crasher of Filipino potlucks, declare friends and acquaintances fat or skinny?  I would go with a cautiously adventurous approach.  Often there’s an initiation period when you move somewhere or otherwise join a cultural group.  Much the way it can be annoying when someone joins your friendship circle and starts trying to use clearly “inside” humor too quickly, trying too hard to be funny or to fit in, often backfires.  Take some time to settle in, spend your social capital carefully and get some local advice when in doubt about what to say.

And now I’m going running…




Bjorn Karlman


Seduce a Swede – Steps 1-5

mouse trap with cheese and "free cheese" sign.

We’ve all had to endure the heavy-breathing commentary about Swedish women, their striking blond hair, long limbs and  “clothing optional” approach to life in general.  Swedish women are characterized by global media and entertainment as sexually liberated, touchingly naive blond goddesses. Swedish men on the other hand, almost always look goofy in movies and seem only to have two names: Sven and Bjorn.  As Bjorn happens to be my first name, I thought it appropriate to lay down a few helpful steps for anyone who might be looking to snare a viking for themselves.

For step one, let the following sink in: “Dating” is not big in Swedish culture.  There isn’t even a real Swedish name for it.  You can “dejta” or “gå på dejt” (Both basically mean “go on a date” and borrow directly from the English.)  What this means is that Swedish dating rules are, at best, unwritten, and visitors often find them very confusing.

The second step to romancing a Swede is to understand that gender equality is huge in Sweden.  Guys, women will absolutely expect to be treated as your equal.  Ladies, don’t be shocked if Swedish men don’t fall over themselves to carry your shopping.  Because gender equality is foundational to modern Swedish culture, some Swedish women may even be offended if males go too far with opening every door and trying to treat them like the “fairer sex”.  Genuine warmth and charisma are appreciated by both sexes but save the dramatic serenades for Southern Europe, Swedes are more low key.

At the risk of completely contradicting myself, here’s step three.  A lot of Swedish women complain about the fact that Swedish men are often very shy and don’t like to make the first move.  Often it seems that the average Swedish male needs to be on his fourth round of beers before he can muster the courage to utter a tepid, “Hi my name is Sven” (Yes, if Sven is under 50 and he is like most Swedes, he probably will speak reasonable, if somewhat sing-songy English). Herein lies the opportunity for non-Swedish males: a little charm goes a long way.  Simple things like you initiating conversation or offering to pay for a meal when it was your idea, will equal points.  Women, if you like the shy, mysterious type, Bjorn may be your guy.  Ask him about Swedish bastu (sauna) rituals. He may open up and suggest you go for “fika” (no, that is not nearly as exciting as it sounds – fika is the Swedish custom of sitting down for
coffee and pastries).

The digital age has enabled step four.  Swedes are BIG on texting.  A lot of conversation that you would expect to take place face-to-face, happens via SMS.  Texts are preferable to talking to new acquaintances on the phone. Pick up a number from Greta at ICA (one of the main Swedish supermarket chains) last night?  Texting is your ticket…

And now for step five in reeling in your Swede:  Cultural sensitivity is fine but DO NOT try to be Swedish.  Anyone in any culture can spot a wannabe and Swedes in particular are turned off by phony behavior.  Many Swedes are fascinated with traveling and getting to know people from other places.  So by all means appreciate Sweden but don’t be reluctant to chime in about your own country, its customs and way of life.  Chances are your guy or girl will find what you are saying interesting and they will want to get to know you better.

There’s absolutely no reason to sit alone in your hotel room or apartment while in Sweden.  Put steps one through five into practice and get to know the Swedes you come into contact with.  You’ll be glad you did.  Lycka till!


Bjorn Karlman