I have to admit, before I came in contact with the Swedish population studying at the same university as me in Perugia, Italy, I didn’t have that many thoughts about Sweden. When I went home to the United States five months later with the news that I was officially “in a relationship” with a Swede, my grandmother was unfazed.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. And you know, Sweden’s not that different from the United States anyway. It’s just like the 51st state, you know. Everyone says that.”
Then she dove straight into telling me a story about visiting Malmö with my grandfather in the 1970s and a dramatic pickled herring experience that I would hear repeated many times in the future.
For some reason, though, I never really challenged her statement that Sweden is “just like the 51st state,” even after several visits to the country and my experience living here, which I’ve been doing for almost 1.5 years now. It’s not just her that says it, either—I’ve heard and read it numerous times, most recently from a Swedish American whose Swedish mother always said the same.
So here’s the question of the hour: is Sweden the most Americanized country in the world?
Some people made an easy case for “no,” saying that regardless of how Americanized Sweden is, it will never beat (depending on who I asked) Canada, the UK, the Philippines, or—surprisingly enough—the Netherlands.
Fine, then. Not having lived in any of those places (and having visited only 3 out of 4 of them), I’m not going to argue about which is the most Americanized and how you can tell. I’d probably have to make some sort of ratings system, and I’m not a big math and numbers person. The one time I saw the algorithm for the college football ratings system I had traumatic flashbacks to high school calculus, and I don’t really want to experience that again.
How Americanized is Sweden, then? The first things that come to mind are the aspects of Sweden that are Americanized, or feel like it to me. For one, American movies, TV, music, and computer/video games are everywhere. In 2009, the EU passed a directive of some sort ordering all EU countries to maintain a 50% “made in the EU” quota for TV programming. Sweden and Latvia were the only countries that were not in compliance.
Perhaps because of the significant influx of American entertainment, the English language capabilities of Swedes are incredible. Before I learned how to speak Swedish, I could go to the doctor, a clothes store, or a restaurant and be perfectly confident that I could be helped by at least one person in perfect English. Even more incredible: Swedes in their 30s or younger pretty much all know American slang. It’s ridiculous. Amazing, incredible, and ridiculous.
Those are a few of the obvious things, but there are more subtle ways that Sweden feels like while it’s not fully “Americanized” now, a certain process is underway. Swedes who are into current events and politics know all about developments within the United States. They’re following the Republican primary race, for example, and have opinions about the different politicians in the running. When is the last time you knew enough about another country’s politics to have opinions about their candidates in the race to be the chosen candidate for leader of the country?
There’s also the slow creep of American holidays and traditions into the Swedish calendar. Big weddings, which have apparently never been that mainstream here, are becoming increasingly popular—and they’re referred to as “American-style… just like in the movies.” When I threw a Thanksgiving party last year, I cooked the turkey but didn’t demand anything of my guests besides that they eat it. About halfway through the meal, they started asking—Aren’t we supposed to say what we’re thankful for? The whole party ended up giving toasts to what they were thankful for, an integral part of the day as I see it, but not something I was going to force on anyone.
More: this is the only place I’ve lived abroad where I didn’t feel like a target the second I identified myself as an American; this is the only place where people have recognized “Michigan” as a state and know where it is when I say where I’m from; this is the only place where I’ve heard people talking about “making it in the States” as a test of one’s worth, whether it’s in movies, music, business, or any other field.
An extended period of Halloween celebrations is the perfect example of this Americanization in process. Hardly anyone my age (mid-20s) in Sweden celebrated Halloween growing up, and for a long time it was even considered offensive—it’s very close to All Saints’ Day, a day of honoring your ancestors that is taken very seriously, and the connotation of “Trick or Treat”-ing as a form of begging was not exactly smiled upon.
Halloween made a pretty big splash this year, though. Stockholm had its first Halloween parade, and there were enough trick or treaters to make one grumpy old lady create a mini-scandal by lashing out at a bunch of 10 year olds who dared invade her private property. Local bakeries and candy shops put out the cobwebs and Grim Reapers in a pretty good imitation of middle America Halloween decorations at the mall.
And yet, and yet… At the same time, there are so many parts of everyday life in Sweden that are so totally foreign from what I knew in the United States that I blog about it on an almost-daily basis… and that’s even after the newness has rubbed off.
The pace of life is different—slower—and the level of sheer, unabashed ambition that permeates American culture is missing. In general, people are more environmentally-conscious and less resentful of paying taxes, and while the news tells us that obesity levels in Sweden are going up, they have a long way to go before they catch up to the States.
When you zoom in from the big picture to look at the details, too, there are a million ways that Sweden is wholly itself and not anything else, let alone American. In the end, I’ve reconsidered my tacit acceptance of Sweden as the 51st state. It, like much of the world, is inundated by American pop culture, but the feeling I get from life in Sweden is nothing like the feeling I have from living in the United States. As some of the people I talked to for this blog post said, knowledge of the US is a far cry from identifying as the US, and I think Sweden will remain its own entity for a long time to come.