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Six Spot-On Cultural Insights from Greg and Amy Poehler’s “Welcome to Sweden”

Amy and Greg Poehler discuss their cross cultural comedy "Welcome to Sweden." Image courtesy NBC Universal
Amy and Greg Poehler discuss their cross cultural comedy “Welcome to Sweden.” Image courtesy NBC Universal

Amy Poehler and her brother Greg know that moving is hard. Moving to a country where you don’t speak the language or understand the local customs is even harder . . . and sometimes hilarious.  The Poehler siblings, who are co-Executive Producers for “Welcome to Sweden,” are counting on this fish-out-of-water discomfort to drive their new comedy series, which premieres tomorrow, July 10, on NBC.

The semi-autobiographical show follows Bruce Evans, played by Greg, as he moves to the home country of his Swedish girlfriend, Emma Wiik (Josephine Bornebusch), and tries to adjust to Swedish life. Pop Omnivore asked National Geographic contributor Amanda Hobbs, who also recently moved from the U.S. to Sweden, to tell us what the show gets right. Here’s her take:

Bruce’s somewhat haphazard attempt to adapt to a foreign land is good for a laugh (though admittedly fewer than I had anticipated), but where the show really shines is in its comparisons between the two cultures. A recent transplant to Sweden, myself, I can vouch for some of the awkwardness Bruce feels as he navigates through unfamiliar territory. Here are half a dozen things, among many others, that the show gets right:

Neighbors

As Bruce experiences in the show, it can be hard to meet your neighbors. Swedes are not chatty people, and they don’t particularly like small talk with strangers. It’s not out of rudeness. They are actually a very kind and polite people, which is exactly why they don’t want to pry or take up any more of your time than necessary.

When meeting one of my neighbors for the first time, I said all the normal (for an American) things you might expect: my name, where I was from, why we moved, and how happy we were to be here.  As I talked I noticed that she was, ever so slowly, backing away from me. The entire conversation lasted approximately 20 seconds, but was apparently too long by Swedish standards. As Emma explains to Bruce, all you should really say is “Hej.” Anything more is too much.

Learning Swedish

You will never, ever, speak Swedish like a Swede. Though there are many common words between English and Swedish (thank you Viking raiders?), proper pronunciation is one of the hardest things for foreigners to achieve.  So when Bruce complains of new vowel sounds and “all these extra letters with dots over them” as he tries to master Swedish, his complaints are totally valid.

Want to say the word for seven? Well, it’s spelled like this: “sju.” And pronounced something like this “shweu.” Except when it’s not. Depending on where you are in Sweden, this particular letter combination has any number of different, “correct” pronunciations. But you, my friend, will never achieve any of them.

Learning Swedish is further complicated by the fact that almost everyone speaks English. I once ordered a cappuccino in a coffee shop simply by saying the (Italian) word “cappuccino,” and was answered in English.

Sounds helpful, right? And it is . . . kind of.  Swedes are happy to speak English, they even welcome the practice with a smile and apologize for speaking Swedish to you when they learn you’re from the U.S., which feels a bit awkward when you’re the foreigner and they the native. But knowing that you can switch into English the moment you forget a word means that it’s a challenge to get any practice using the language you’re trying to learn.

Lagom

Swedes believe in equality, and celebrate the average. To American ears this can seem odd, even blasphemous. But a Swede will tell you that the idea of “lagom”: not too much, not too little, but “just right” is the ideal.

My own introductory conversation with my neighbor was too much, though not saying anything would have been too little. Saying “hej” would have hit the Goldilocks sweet spot – just right.

All in all, the goal in Sweden is not to stand out, but to blend in. What makes you so special? According to the Swedes, your ability to be normal. Unfortunately for Bruce, he’s anything but.

Taking a Number

You may be familiar with taking a number at the deli counter or at the DMV, but in Sweden the little numbered ticket is a way of life. Seriously, they’re everywhere.

You take one to buy a pastry, when you visit the immigration office, when you’re at the bank, or as Bruce discovers, even at the video store owned by your girlfriend’s uncle.

Anywhere that Americans would normally just form a line, the Swedes go one step further and provide you with a ticket – a printed assurance of equality. It’s brilliant really, unless you’re unaware of the system, and in that case God help you. ALWAYS look for the ticket machine.

Nudity

In general, Swedes are much more comfortable with nudity than Americans are, and entering a sauna dressed in anything but your birthday suit will definitely cause stares (as a still-jetlagged Bruce discovers on his first day at Emma’s family lake house).

Skinny-dipping in open water is also a common occurrence and done with zeal and childlike abandon. But be forewarned, you can’t just pick a spot, take off all your clothes and jump in the water. In Sweden, there are designated areas for such things, and of course tradition dictates that you sauna first before taking a dip in the freezing cold water.

In my little coastal town, it is perfectly natural to see folks heading to the bathhouse in their terry-cloth robes first thing in the morning. Some do it year round, and according to locals, it’s the key to staying healthy.

Honesty

Honesty is a way of life in Sweden.  Here, people say what they mean, and mean what they say.

If you tell someone “we must get together soon,” they will inquire earnestly as to when. If you say “hello, how are you” they will actually tell you how they feel. There’s little allowance for idle chit chat or an exchange of pleasantries void of actual meaning.  If you ask a question in Sweden, they assume it’s because you want to know the answer.

When Bruce’s mom and dad come to visit him in Sweden, his dad, Wayne, meets Emma’s USA-loving uncle, Bengt. Upon hearing of Bengt’s enthusiasm for the U.S. Wayne reluctantly says, “you must come and visit Nancy and me sometime,” to which Bengt replies, “I would love to. When?”

The American in me cringed upon hearing this. This habit of ours, to make empty invitations in an attempt to appear friendly, completely backfires on the Swedes.

Bengt believes he’s genuinely been invited to stay and proceeds to buy a non-refundable ticket to Cleveland. Only after a particularly disastrous dinner conversation does Bengt regret his decision and tells Bruce that he can’t visit Wayne in the US because he just doesn’t like him. Sincere. Honest. Swede.

Truth, Exaggerated

In the end, the show has more than its fair share of caricatures and stereotypes for both Americans and Swedes, but exaggeration aside, many of the scenes have a basis in truth. The Swedes do really love their cinnamon buns, use walking sticks, sing drinking songs on national holidays, and have incredible social benefits.

And if you come to visit (which you should), be prepared my American friends. As seen in the show, “fart” is a common occurrence on street signs: “infart,” “utfart,” “farthinder,” and the list goes on. The unintentional silliness of Swedish will eventually give your inner 6-year-old a case of the giggles.

No wonder Swedes were ranked in 2013 as the fifth happiest people on Earth. Why not first? Well, that wouldn’t be “lagom,” would it?

Amanda Hobbs

Follow Amanda Hobbs on Twitter at @AmandaHobbs427

Comments

  1. Sally H.
    California
    July 25, 2014, 10:27 am

    My grandfather immigrated from Sweden. Now I know where my
    ingrained traits come from!

  2. Warren Thrasher
    United States
    July 13, 2014, 7:33 am

    Well done! I am looking forward to plunging into the Swedish culture when we come in August.