Tag Archives: swedish

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

On Filipino-American-Swedish Marriage

I certainly would not have predicted it before meeting Jammie but 13 years after leaving the Philippines I married a Filipina-American in Los Angeles on April 3, 2011.  We were polar opposites on the one hand – an American of Filipino descent, born and raised in Los Angeles and a vaguely Swedish Third Culture Kid born in Stockholm and raised in too many different places.  Seen differently we had very similar backgrounds – we both loved and understood Filipino culture (Jammie as a matter of heritage and I from living there for six years) and we both loved Los Angeles and its chaotic creativity, with near-foolish abandon.

We’ve been married for five months today so I thought I’d post on a few defining features of our Filipino-American-Swedish union so far:

Loud vs. Shy Culture – Anyone that knows me well would condescendingly smirk at this understatement:  I am loud.  I love talking to and engaging people.  I therefore enjoy Filipino gatherings because they tend to be high energy and boisterous.  My family on the other hand, is a lot more Swedish in that they tend to be a little more quiet – especially when you take a step beyond my nuclear family.  I remember my aunt’s reaction to raucous laughter at our rehearsal dinner in LA’s Chinatown.  She thought something was wrong.  It was just a buddy of mine being himself.

How to Really Party – Traditional Swedish birthday parties involve your nuclear family and some carefully-chosen close friends and often take place within the safety of your locked home.  The birthday parties I went to in the Filipino fishing village I lived in involved the whole village and a lavishly roasted pig, displayed dramatically on the spit against a backdrop of lesser dishes and assorted balloons.  For my 30th Jammie and I compromised and only invited my work friends, an entire think tank, and the volunteers and Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce.  Our one bedroom apartment was crammed beyond recognition and people spilled out onto the lawn.  We had a piñata.

Don’t Eat Off my Plate! – Jammie is an ardent proponent of eating off of other people’s plates.  This took a while for me to get used to.  I was all about eating my own food and finishing it.  It barely occurred to me that I would need to share it or at least offer it up for multi-person sampling.  In fact, that seemed a little gross.  Jammie cured me of any such inhibitions.  I will now eat off your plate.

Visiting Family – Family is extremely important to both of us.  But visiting and communicating takes on different forms.  For starters, we live in Northern California so driving or flying to LA to see the Filipino side is easy.  If we lived in LA I am sure we would be over at Jammie’s parents’ place a lot or they would come to ours.  Scandinavian culture is a significantly more hands-off.  Even if my parents didn’t live in England but right here in California, the visits would be more spread out.  Not because the family bond is weaker but because Swedish parents believe it wise to “let the kids work things out for themselves” unless their help or opinion is directly solicited.  I am happy with either approach and am not sure yet how I will treat my future kids.  Probably some kind of hybrid approach as usual.

What Qualifies as Fashionably Late? – This is a biggie.  Jammie and I both are a blend of event-centered and time-centered cultures. The question is not so much one of when to arrive to work.  American culture can explain that one for you with a pink slip in record time.  Social engagements are the real question.  Last weekend we got to our favorite car show so late that the sun had set and we could barely see the cars.  That’s what you call unfashionably late.  So we do need to be more punctual with our social engagements but we want to keep the focus on the event, the people and the relationships, not militaristic time card punching.

As I said, we are just five months in but I’ll keep you updated on our very intercultural marriage.  In the meantime, leave a comment with how you navigate diversity in your relationships.



Bjorn Karlman

Save a Buck, Bust a Brown Person: the Idiocy in Racial Profiling


Of all the points made against racial profiling, this is the one you want to avoid making if your gig is avoiding looking stupid: Racial profiling is wrong because it is not effective.  On the left side of the shouting match about racial profiling you far too often hear someone rattle off all the white terrorists they have ever heard of in an attempt to make a case that there aren’t any ethnic trends in terrorism.  The guy arguing for racial profiling will then start a list of as many brown bad guys as he can conjure up and “From there the conversation will devolve into a contest to see who can name more terrorists, until at some point the segment runs out of time.” (Ben Eidelson for Salon)  Apart from this being an entertaining spectacle to watch, this is clearly a pathetic exercise and even if you are the victor, your long list of terrorists only qualifies you as a terror geek.  It solves nothing.

So what to do instead?  Eidelson’s got the answer: argue that racial profiling is morally wrong.  Two examples:

Arizona: “Arizona’s new law, for instance, will ostracize innocent Latinos, entrench racial suspicions, and lend the government’s endorsement to hostile stereotypes about who “looks American.” It will serve as a regular and painful reminder to Latino Americans that, in the eyes of many, they don’t belong in their own neighborhood.”

Airport Security: “The question is whether officials should consider ethnicity as one factor in deciding whom to examine more or less closely. We should exclude race and religion from those judgments not because everybody is equally likely to be a threat, but because it would be wrong to institutionalize the alienating suspicion already faced by innocent Muslims and Arab-Americans in their schools, workplaces and communities.”

The inevitable retort to this line of argument will be that we have limited resources and border hoppers and plane bombers in recent history tend to fit a certain profile.  So as uncomfortable as it might make weak sauce commies, brown people are getting the pat-down.  Or, as Fox commentator Steven Crowder helpfully puts it, “You’re not looking for a blond-haired, blue-eyed Swede most of the time.”

As easy as that might make airport security checks for this Swede, this kind of lazy pragmatism makes me sick to the stomach.  Simply because something is simpler or more cost-efficient doesn’t make it right.  This kind of racially-charged rhetoric that blames broad swaths of our population for society’s ills was equally convenient in Nazi Germany when a particularly charismatic leader harnessed German efficiency to his less than fuzzy feelings for Abraham’s children.

Change for the worse may at first happen slowly but bigoted thought has a way of snowballing.  On the heels of the passing of the Arizona law sanctioning police questioning of those who “look” like illegal immigrants, we have another encouraging trend from this anachronism of a state:  a bill that seeks to nix ethnic studies in Arizona schools.  The Los Angeles Times correctly identifies the law as a source of great concern for those who believe, “it’s yet another law targeting Latinos in the state.”

Massive opposition to this kind of downward spiral is needed now.  The Los Angeles and San Francisco and, just today, Austin city governments have passed official boycotts of Arizona for most business.  Opposition to institutionalized prejudice should not just be the remit of government.  Don’t fight creeping racism with weak arguments about what color our troubles come in.  We have far greater problems on our hands if we turn back the tide of civil rights progress by claiming that racial profiling is justified because it is more cost and time-effective a method to soothe our woes.  We have come too far and we are too wealthy a society to justify institutionalized prejudice for such petty reasons.  As Eidelson puts it:  “It may simply cost us more — in time, money or convenience — to achieve the same level of success without racial discrimination. Many Americans are fond of the slogan that “freedom isn’t free.” Why should we expect that fairness will be?”



Bjorn Karlman

Swedish Cartoonist’s Still-Deadly Naiveté


Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was back in the news this week after it had been discovered that seven arrests had been made in Ireland due to a plot to kill him. In 2007, Vilks’ work depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog was published in the Swedish Nerikes Allehanda newspaper. Vilks’ work had originally been featured in an arts project before it was published by the paper. It caused widespread anger in the Muslim world as well as a bounty of $100,000 to be placed on his head by a group linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq and, as the BBC reports, “a 50% bonus if he was ‘slaughtered like a lamb’ by having his throat cut.”

After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and created the country’s biggest international blowup since World War II, you would have thought basic common sense would have discouraged any similarly-inspired artwork.  But no, Vilks carried on and his work caused such an uproar that Sweden’s embassy in Pakistan had to express regret over his art and the subsequent hurt caused while stating that it could not prevent the publication of the material because it would interfere with the freedom of the press.

Vilks at the time chimed in saying that his work was art and told the Associated Press, “I’m not against Islam. Everybody knows that…”  The Christian Science Monitor quoted Vilks after the $100,000 bounty had been placed on his head: “I suppose this makes my art project a bit more serious. It’s also good to know how much one is worth.”  The same article reports that Vilks created his controversial art “as an editorial comment on self-censorship, freedom of expression, and religion.”

The BBC, in an August 31, 2007 piece, quotes Pakistan’s foreign ministry on “what it described as a growing tendency ‘among some Europeans to mix the freedom of expression with an outright and deliberate insult to 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide… Such acts deeply undermine the efforts of those who seek to promote respect and understanding among religions and civilisations…’ ”

How do you react to such sentiment?  You could go the route of conservative political commentator, Tony Blankley.  After the cartoonist behind the original Danish work, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked in his home by a Somali Muslim, Blankley railed against the fact that “most European journalistic commentary argued that Western writers and artists should, for prudence sake, abstain from such (allegedly blasphemous) expression..”

Said Blankley, “…it is worse than imprudent for Americans (or Europeans) to give up freedoms and ways of life that have been defended for centuries by the martial sacrifice of our ancestors (and current warriors) — and by the intellectual courage of our writers and artists — just because our morally feeble, self-proclaimed ‘educated class’ and elites have lost the will to defend our civilization.”

What Blankley seems to miss is that the problem has very little to do with defending Western civilization and every bit to do with basic intercultural relations.  Just because the free world embraces freedom of speech does not mean that all forms of reason and restraint and respect for cultural and religious differences should be cast to the wind.  Freedom of religion and expression are a basic right in the free world but there are limits; anti-hate speech legislation exist in a number of Western countries that prevent expression of hateful rhetoric based on factors such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

With current anti-Islamic sentiment at record highs, there is little difference between irresponsible (blasphemous, in the eyes of some) art depicting Muhammad, and hateful propaganda.  Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are important rights and should remain so.  But cultural cretins like Vilks should think carefully about the responsibilities that come with such freedoms.



Bjorn Karlman

Offend Anyone Anywhere With These Five Simple Screwups

loose gears

I really enjoy it when people get what’s coming to them. Rarely have I found this more satisfying than in cross-cultural situations when some oaf has clearly made no effort to be culturally sensitive and then suffers the inevitable backlash. Case in point: during Nato’s airstrikes against Belgrade in 1999, a Serbian friend of mine was talking about how beautiful the city was when a visiting citizen of one of the Nato member countries helpfully offered, “Well it won’t be when we are done bombing it.” The offender was shunned from that point on.

If you are reading this you probably have as little pity for this clown as I did. But what happens when YOU are the offender? There is a good chance that if you do any kind of mingling with people from other countries, something you say will upset someone. There is obviously no fool-proof way to avoid causing this kind of offense and it is possible to be too paranoid about potential insensitivity. However, there are a few avoidable moves that will frame you as a dimwitted, nationalistic philistine without a cosmopolitan bone in your body. Here they are:

Talking too much about your own country
Yes, if you are an American traveler, you will take an international beating for the reputation Americans have as loud-mouthed, nationalistic brutes whether or not you yourself have done anything to encourage this stereotype. Luckily, Barack Obama’s reversing of George W. Bush’s moronic unilateralism has made today the easiest time for Americans to travel in at least a decade. Talking too much about one’s own country is something that anyone from anywhere can be accused of. When I first moved to the US I was a little too eager to tell people about Sweden. I look back now and I am embarrassed… luckily my American friends where gracious and gave me some time to adjust to the fact that as interesting as Sweden may be, I was now living in the US and could afford to wave my own flag a little less.

Unnecessary Comparisons
This is a screw-up that is very closely linked to excessive commentary on your own country. Sometimes it is soooo tempting on overseas trips or in discussions of international flavor, to compare foreign lands to your own. Steer clear of it. If you have a local guide, they are hoping to show off their country, they don’t need to hear about yours and they certainly don’t want to hear about how your country’s architecture/health care/communication style somehow is better.

Lazy Assumptions
I got a lecture from an Argentine friend when I suggested that refined conversation was, by definition, calm and collected. She completely disagreed. Refinement, she said, did not at all come from the kind of monotone, subdued interaction that I was describing. Animation, energy, passion and dramatic fluctuations in tone and volume were not just OK, they were just as refined as anything I was talking about. I backed right down from my Northern European assumption.

Wimpy Eating Habits
Whenever my family and I visited friends’ homes growing up in Asia, food would appear. Our hosts were often intensely interested in what we thought about their food. I learned very quickly that it was NOT OK to ignore the curry and make comments about the food tasting “interesting.” If you are traveling, embrace the opportunity to try something different. Stick your neck out, puff up your chest and ask for another pupusa…

Being an Island Unto Yourself and Your Own
It’s tricky. You are a long way from home. You are homesick. And the confusing blend of new language, food, customs and beliefs has you wanting to either stay indoors or join a club that exclusively admits your own nationals. Resist this urge to hibernate. Some culture clash is to be expected. If people sense that you have no interest in reaching out and learning about your host country, they are less likely to make an effort with you.

One final word: don’t freak out if you are guilty of any of the above. International interaction and cross-cultural communication of any kind is going to involve a lot of trial and error. If you upset someone, a sincere apology is often all that is needed to move forward and enjoy the process of learning about new ways to be human.


Bjorn Karlman

Border Skirmish – Boundaries in Cross-Cultural Relationships

Voluntary Restrictions
Voluntary Restrictions

You know how it goes: Straight-laced white guy with IBM pocket protector meets exotic young curvy thing from Guadalajara, they fall in love, struggle through no end of relational issues and cultural adjustments and then finally reach some kind of happy cultural equilibrium and live happily ever after. The predictability of these Hollywood cross-cultural romances is touching. But how do you navigate cultural diversity in real-life relationships? Some would say that the most important thing is to break down all boundaries, to create a complete blend of both cultures. I would say the exact opposite: in order to have a successful cross-cultural relationship, you need boundaries. Effective boundary setting is the most effective way to multicultural relational bliss. Here are a few boundaries to watch:

Overgeneralizing: Familiarity in multiclutural relationships can easily lead to slips of tongue and overgeneralizations about the other person’s culture. “You Swedes are such emotionally unavailable bores…”, for example, is not something that needs to be heard. “National and cultural stereotypes do play an important role in how people perceive themselves and others, and being aware that these are not trustworthy is a useful thing,” says Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging http://bit.ly/4kXDgE.
“No cultural stereotyping” is a great ground rule for cross-cultural relationships; it will spare you a lot of conflict.

Comfort Levels: It is entirely unfair to expect your significant other of another culture to enjoy or feel at ease with each one of your cultural practices. Come from a loud, spontaneous culture? Don’t judge your boyfriend for his inability to jump straight in and blend in. Decades of conditioning to one way of life are not reversed overnight. Give your partner some space and allow for very gradual change. The Harvard University International Office tells Harvard international students that it is possible to control the discomfort of living in a new culture and the accompanying culture shock. The first step: Realize that dealing with culture shock is tough. Students are advised to reach out to family and others from “back home” to have some connection to their roots. (http://bit.ly/1dMfXT).

Superstition: Whether or not we come from a background of organized religion, most of us have beliefs that seem very true and very important to us. As personal and non-transferable as some of these beliefs may be, we do not appreciate ridicule about them. An example from Filipino culture: turning your plate around when someone leaves during a meal to ward off bad luck. This may look petty or silly to the outside observer but it speaks to the importance of community-building and sharing food in Filipino culture… ignore it at your peril. Check out this article that touches on the benefits of respecting cultural superstition, no matter how strange it may seem: http://bit.ly/2pPlWC.

Historical/Political Pressure Points: It is important to know a little about the historical and political landscape of your partner’s home country. Often, seemingly harmless jokes can have disastrous consequences if they indicate insensitivity about another’s culture. Realize that jokes about political developments in your girlfriend’s country may wreak havoc when her father decides you are an uneducated brute who hasn’t even bothered to understand basic cultural taboos.

Good boundary setting is ultimately one of the most freeing things if you want to have a happy cross-cultural relationship. Solid ground rules and structure facilitate respect and understanding and the ability to appreciate and celebrate differences.


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