True or False: Sweden is the most Americanized country in the world?

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.

American TV! It's everywhere! Image: Southparkstudios.se

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.

Bringing the Halloween spirit to Sweden, one orange-colored pastry at a time. Photos: Kate Wiseman

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.

Another strong Swedish custom resisting American takeover: cheese at breakfast. Photo: Kate Wiseman

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.

  • The Cobalt Eagle

    Loki, the Wise One!

    And whence the Kingdom in One Thousand Years!!!

    Egil

  • Antonbeierhuber

    I need your help! This summer, a number of venues in Europe will offer a stage to “artists” like “Capelton” and “Bounty Killer” who call for the murder LGBT people. It is time to speak up again and to call for a boycott of these events and their sponsors. 

    After a huge wave of protest against “Bounty Killer” and his hateful lyrics, his appearance is already canceled in a Club in Berlin and we were informed that it was also cancelled in Zurich yesterday. I got huge support by the gay news page queer.de and also other news forums posted the link to the petition or called for protest in many ways. We must build on this growing movement also in Sweden. 

    There will be another event in Stockholm on 25th of August. A Club called ”KOLINSBORG” invited “Bounty Killer”. He is singing about burning and killing all homosexual people. The strange thing is that “KOLINSBORG” also host gay parties. This Club can not host gay events and invite People who want to kill 
    us.

    So I want to ask for your help. But the time is short and I dont speak swedish. I created a petition that targets also the Club “KOLINSBORG” who already has 1200 people who signed it. I posted at the Facebook pages of the KOLINSBORG Gay Events to call for support of the gay community in Sweden. 

    http://www.change.org/petition​s/dont-give-a-platform-to-sing​ers-who-call-for-the-murder-of​-lgbt-people-and-boycott-their​-sponsors

    Together we can make a change.

    Anton

  • http://hemborgwife.wordpress.com/ hemborgwife

    I agree that just because American television shows are played does not make a country Americanized. I think it has to do more with ideals and values as you said which in Sweden are very different then in America. I also think that some American style things that are popular now could also be a fad that go away just like the flag style of clothing is so popular now with the teenagers!

    One last thing is that I think it depends on where you live if you are treated different as an American, I live in a small town not to far north of Lund and have had some very rude and racist things said to me about being an American.

  • rylin

    I’d say it’s more important to look at what separates us, such as the acceptance of socialist welfare (to differing degrees), a healthy love of proper cheese, the fika culture, candy culture, “lagom” and the “don’t talk to strangers” culture.

    Of course, Sweden is leaving the far left and marching steadfastly towards the American left. Right or wrong? I won’t be the judge of that, but our political balance is shifting.
    This, in my mind, is the biggest differentiator – we haven’t stagnated.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrSommer Christian Sommer

    Yup, like I said, the Netherlands haha. Although I’m not sure if Americanized would be the right word, its way up there in the list.

    I guess its the same in a lot of European countries, Living in the Netherlands I grew up with American movies and TV-series like Peyton Place,Mr Ed, Batman, Mission impossible and I love Lucy:D *all subtitled*, we have halloween *Allerheiligen* or in English *All hallows eve*, follow American politics and debates between presidential candiates and even see the live broadcast of the trial involving Michael Jackson’s doctor, most of the people speak American English although in school we learn the Queens English in school, *thanks to the movies and series being subtitled I suppose*.

    I have a feeling its not Americanization but the world simply getting smaller. I mean, I grew up in the sixties and thats really when everyone was starting to be able to afford a TV and telephone. From there on things only went faster and the US being way ahead of us in the TV market, it was only logical we turned to them and that never really changed.

  • Anonymous

    I hope Sweden doesn’t slide into all things American. I am disturbed when I see things like some young women having to wait for the cervical cancer inoculations (while Big Pharma argues) while those that can afford it, just go ahead and pay for it and get the protection now. This seems more American than Swedish…

  • Lizardek

    I also think that the world is getting smaller and the fact that English has become the global language in so many ways has really helped. Sweden may FEEL very American in many ways, but for anyone who thinks they’ve ended up in Little America, Sweden will rise up and bat them in the back of the head in any number of ways.

  • Monica-USA

    I just hope Sweden doesn’t follow all of my American ideals because a lot of them are not right. I think it is great that Sweden is ever expanding outward in gaining cultural ideas but I hope they don’t loose themselves in the process. Thanks for the interesting blog Kate.

  • http://brittwarg.blogspot.com/ @Britt_W

    As a Swede having lived in the UK since 1998, I see Sweden from a slightly different perspective. Even though, as a former English teacher (in Sweden), I agree that a lot of Swedes speak English with an American accent, I still think they are also very much influenced by the British culture.

    I grew up with imported TV series from the UK. My first TV memory: an English language course with a very British man in an armchair, complete – with a cup of tea in his hand (if I remember right). I think he was called Mr Dennis Gotobed. (Just that!)

    Then there were “Upstairs and Downstairs”,”The Onedin Line” and “A Family At War”, or “The Ashton Family” as it was called in Sweden. British dramas, with subtitles. We were glued to the screen to see what would happen in the next episode. Later, “Hem till Gården” (Emmerdale Farm) made us understand there was a British world outside of London too.

    We also imported ideas and concepts from across the North Sea. In the 70s, numerous British productions were adapted to Swedish, played by Swedish actors. “Good Old Days”, “Albert & Herbert”, “Fleksnes” (OK, the latter was Norwegian but watched and loved by many in Sweden.) Oh and let us not forget the incredible influence Monty Python and Fawlty Towers had on us… I even used the latter in my English teaching.

    Another great influence: The high quality drama series: The wildlife programmes, like the ones with David Attenborough. Not forgetting the love Swedes show for Miss Marple, Inspector Frost and the numerous Midsomer murder mysteries.

    This, together with the fact that there is a constant ‘Swedish buzz’ in London, be it Swedes visiting to attend football, shop or go to a concerts or Swedes actually living and working there – makes me feel Sweden is also pretty ‘Britishized’.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Britt! Nice to see you here as well! You bring up a valid point, “Britishized” should not be overlooked!

  • Unisebra

    I sat in a birthday table today together with a 89 year old lady (she was a native english speaker, but not from the states or UK or australia..so I am not sure of her origins, South-African Republic…maybe) and I haven’t seen anyone so disgusted by the idea of States before…she fired up and had a wonderful use of language so no one was able to stop laughing…she was especially mad at Michael Jackson for some reason. And there was an american girl also sitting in the table, not taking it personally, fortunately. So, though she lives in Sweden and has lived here for quite a while (the old lady), she is not swedish and I don’t know if she counts as one swedish person who really doesn’t like US…probably not. (:

    And by the way…US politics are known to most european countries I think and at least in Estonia, everybody follows the elections and such. So it’s not a very swedish special thing (nor is any of the other things you mentioned, actually…they are all quite common among other european nations as well..except the “making it in the US” part, maybe). It is just that US is a pretty huge and influencial counrty and it is not like “any other counrty in the world”, so it is somehow natural to know a lot about it, follow the news and take over some things. And historically… US population is like a tower of Pabel…and very large part of the population originally comes from, you know, Europe…so in some way…americans are just european/asian/african emmigrants – all put together. (: I am sure you, yourself, are somehow decended from Europe if you track the ancestors…. (:

    Or am I awfully off my case here…that might also happen.

  • http://herrborjesson.wordpress.com Börjesson

    The way I’ve heard this sentiment expressed is something like this: “Sweden is the most Americanized country in the world. In second place comes the United States.” :)

    Swedes are, or so it seems to me, generally more willing than most to be influenced by other cultures. There is a feeling of “Swedish is boring/silly/provincial, foreign is better” here that, perversely, is perhaps the most Swedish of all our idiosyncrasies. The last couple of decades, the US has been the culture in vogue, and so, true to form, we take to it like fish to water. But back before the war, we were Germanized, and a few centuries earlier, we were Francized(?). In a way, I guess we’re just staying very Swedish by sticking to this fascination with other cultures.

    It is often said – I don’t know if it’s true – that Sweden is the only country where a word like “osvensk” (non-Swedish) is actually used as a positive attribute. Like for instance: “O, how wonderfully non-Swedish of you to express your emotions in public like that!”

    However, this is really only skin deep. Down below, we’re very different from Americans in many ways; not least politically, as others here have commented on. And deep down in a very private place, we’re all awfully proud of being Swedish and quite convinced of our superiority to other, lesser nationalities. Of course, we’re also all united in our belief that it would be in very poor taste to admit to this pride, perhaps even to ourselves…

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate

      Very, very interesting! Thank you so much for your comment. I’ve definitely heard echoes of the first part, that Sweden takes elements of the culture in vogue to heart. I really, really agree with your point there as well as in the end… that hidden superiority complex is there, but oh-so-denied!! It used to drive me crazy, but it doesn’t bother me that much anymore. I will definitely have to keep my ears perked for people using “osvensk” in different contexts. I haven’t heard that yet, but it could also be that I’m not paying attention.

      Thanks again for your great commentary. Much appreciated!

  • Pingback: 43 Things I Love About Sweden

  • Lindaz74

    haha..it’s far from true. I’m moving back to Sweden because it ISN’T the USA.

  • Andi6587

    Hi Kate, Is there an african/african american community in Sweden?

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Yes! Actually, you can check out our photo blogger’s personal site (www.lolaakinmade.com) for that. She was born in Nigeria, went to college in the States, and now lives in Stockholm. I think that she can give you lots of information about the African/African-American community there!

  • C-arvidsson

    Hi, firstly I just skim read the text so I have most certainly missed something or misinterpreted some of the points you are actually trying to provide us with.

    I do agree that Sweden is becoming more influenced by social, cultural and political factors from different parts of the world. I would suggest that this depends on the process of globalization and the growing interconnectedness between countries in general, and not in particular by “the states”…

    Thanks to the newer developed technological resources we can communicate more easily and the fact that USA would seem more “familiar” to us, is because the internet enable us to communicate. It is more likely for us to use virtual communication in order to “talk” to americans then, for instance to an individual in Africa, (the usage of, technological developments such as, internet and telecommunication is more active among Europe and North America)

    Also the English skills will more likely (rather than, as a process of Americanisation) depends on the Swedish education system, and the fact that we are studying the English language form the age of 14.

    I would actually argue that Sweden is not becoming social, or cultural influenced by America…It is more likely that the “new” process of globalization has connected Sweden with for instance muslim countries among some parts of the world since the large numbers of immigrants over the past years.
    The muslim religion is a clear evidence of integration and how it affects the Swedish culture…
    You also mentioned that Swedish people follow the political developments in USA. Would it not be more suitable to say that since USA play a significant role in the international politics game/structure, and as a member of the UN security council creates an interest for its domestic politic? USA domestic politic can result in a international change..

    Furthermore I am quite surprised that you do not mention Mc Donald’s or any other major US transnational corporations since this is a really interesting factor of the Americanisation/globalization.

    Best regards,
    Supercoco

    • Leo Lindén

      Acctually we study English from the age of 8