A little while ago Argos, our European-African traveler, visited Stockholm Sweden for four days.
Argos, mind you, is of conservative persuasions, and the Scandinavian fling with socialism does not suit him. And yet he found it hard to deny that Stockholm had it going on: “It was maybe the most beautiful city I’ve been to.” Despite the absence of mountains (something Argos has always loved), the water was gloriously clear, the buildings magnificent, the streets clean, and the people gorgeous, which probably had something to do with the fact that, wherever he looked, he saw Swedes running, biking, and walking.
At a superficial level, the Swedes and Stockholm were a wholly new experience for the well-traveled Argos. Yet when he began talking business with them, things became bizarrely familiar. “Holy crap,” he thought, “I know these guys.” And know them he did. A Norwegian-German boy from pockets of the Scandinavian Midwest, and a businessman for a time with a third-generation Swedish company, he realized that America hadn’t quite knocked the Swedish out of the Swede: their leadership style was annoying as ever. Argos characterized the senior Swedish leader’s approach as such: “We really just need to make sure everyone is in agreement before we do anything. We need a little more conversation. I am the boss, but really I’m not in charge. We are all in charge. Lets have another meeting.”
Irritated by such a pedantic, slow process, and accustomed to the leader taking counsel but then taking charge, Argos is nevertheless globally-minded enough not to be the belligerent American. So he asked Oskar the Leader (we’ll call him Oskar), “So, why can’t you just say, ‘This is what I think we should do,’ and be done with?” Oskar replied, “Well, maybe people don’t agree with me.” Argos: “What happens then?” Oskar: “Well then we talk about it.” Argos: “And then?” Oskar: “Then we decide after everyone has a say.”If you’re the leader, you should get everyone’s opinion. The Swedes find it natural to hold to the maxim that one should not think themselves better than anyone else. This group-think plays out in how Swedes approach the world. Since assertive individualism is frowned upon, the Swedes tend not to put themselves forward on the continent. The default: don’t rock the boat, keep the peace, and make sure everyone is heard (or is it herd?) and happy.
An anecdotal example of this: The Swedes had amazing breakfast buffets. But the Swedes deferential nature created annoying traffic jams—”No, after you.” “No, no, no, after you.” “No, after you, I insist.” Argos felt like a bull in a china shop and had to learn how to slow down (one wonders how a New Yorker would handle such polite slowness).
Based on the results, though, this approach hasn’t gone too badly for Sweden
I hazarded a guess at this point: if the Swedes were so differential and cared so much about what everyone thought, they probably didn’t have strong political opinions. Argos agreed: a culture where everyone moves to the common denominator doesn’t need to discuss politics too much. And the common denominator was a bleeding heart liberalism. The government is responsible for us. The government is wise. We must all follow the rules no matter how intrusive. They are here to help us, after all. Case in point, Argos pointed out, a beer in Stockholm is $15. Why? The Government says alcohol is bad for you, so if you want to have it, you pay a sin tax. The locals noted, though, that a fairly significant black market had developed with people taking buses to Denmark where they then bought tons of booze, smuggled it back into Sweden, and then sold it tax free. “Well,” said Argos, “Here’s something Bernie Sanders didn’t tell us about: in his optimal world beer is $15.”
So Sweden felt familiar to Argos. They were the people he had grown up with. They were cousins— the ones who irritated him in America. It was also unfamiliar—a Bernie paradise.