The Big Other in Sweden

Saturday, September 9, 2017
Stockholm, Sweden


The Big Other in Sweden

Reviewing one of those typical booklets you get when you check into any hotel, the section entitled Swedish Customs and Swedishness immediately caught my attention.

Of course it would.

I’m always on the lookout.

It’s a strange form of paranoia, wondering how much my sense of self is influenced by external forces.

Today’s New York Times writes of FB’s and Google’s potential for undermining democracy. Pretty scary stuff.

But back to Sweden:

I assume you remember the philosophical concept of the big Other—that collection of mores, styles, themes, trends and other societal influences shaping our individualities.

Here are a few noteworthy signs of it from the hotel’s pamphlet:

Most Swedes answer their phone by saying their names, either first, last, or both.

Swedes are obsessed with punctuality, agendas, and timetables. If you are late, phone and let the waiting person know and you will be quickly forgiven. Always apologize if you are late!

The exclamation point was right there in the booklet.

It proceeds to cover condolences, gender roles, the Monarchy, and peacekeeping—in that order.

Its author notes,

Swedes shun conflict. They prefer not to raise an uncomfortable issue if it means risking having to raise their voices.

The best way to deal with the big Other is to increase your awareness of it, understand its ubiquitous nature, and surrender to the dynamic tension between you and it.

Increasing awareness is fairly easy. It’s obvious when in foreign lands, because sociocultural differences stand out in sharper contrast. Fortunately, I have had little reason to even be assertive, let alone raise my voice. I have missed observing how Swedes avoid conflict.

To understand the all-encompassing nature of the big Other, you need only look in the mirror. I just ate breakfast, for example, and will likely have lunch mid-day and then dinner at dusk. Who made those rules for me?

I wear traditional Western clothing. Sadly, it has now gone so global in the developed world that you could randomly pluck 100 Swedes off a Stockholm street, drop them in Old Pasadena, and no one would notice it. They’d fit right in.

The tension between individuality and the big Other may be the most difficult to explain, specifically because these external influences literally compose us. Our biology certainly has unique features to it, however, as do the sub-sub-sub cultures caused by the intricacies of our familial, economic, social, and historical backgrounds.

The degree to which I self-disclose, in real life as well as in this blog, seems to be particularly non-Swedish. A local tour guide told me he thinks the suicide rate here is high here not only because of the four-hour-long winter days, but also because of the degree of internality.

In other words, Swedes are (allegedly) highly reserved, quiet, and timid. A patient of mine who was reared here told me you can tell Swedes like you when they look at your shoes instead of their own.

I hope it’s not true.

But if it is, they can hardly help it.

All this makes the power of the international media incredibly frightening. And now, I submit this post not only to my website, but to my FB account which I maintain, with guilt and shame, only to build readership.

Seven billion humans now inhabit this planet.

Two billion of them have FB accounts.

I wish I wasn’t one of them.



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