Here’s what Swedes say it takes to be truly Swedish

The struggle to try to integrate is one many internationals experience, and Sweden is no exception. So what exactly does it take to be considered truly Swedish, according to the Swedes themselves?

Here's what Swedes say it takes to be truly Swedish
Swedish National Day celebrations in 2016. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

The results of a new survey by the Pew Research Centre help provide an answer, with Sweden among the nations quizzed on the importance of issues like cultural norms, country of birth and language to national identity.

The good news for Sweden's foreign-born population is that one of the the things it's impossible to change is of little importance, with few Swedes making a strong connection between the place someone was born and their national identity.

Less than one in ten (eight percent) of Swedes polled responded that “having been born in our country is very important for being truly Swedish”, the lowest of the 14 countries which were asked the question.

That is also less than the European median of 33 percent, and way below the 52 percent of Hungarians and 50 percent of Greeks who answered that birthplace is very important to be truly considered one of them.

Relatively few say national identity is strongly tied to birthplace

Customs and traditions are also given little importance by the Swedes when it comes to assigning national identity, according to the survey. Only 26 percent of Swedes polled said that was the case, which again was the lowest of the 14 nations asked that question. Hungary had the highest level of agreement (68 percent) followed by Greece (66 percent).

There was however a notable difference in opinion on that issue depending on political sympathies. The survey showed a 24 percentage point difference on the importance given to Swedish customs and traditions by sympathizers of the populist Sweden Democrats (SD) compared to those who see the party unfavourably.

Of those who view SD favourably, 44 percent said sharing national customs and traditions is very important for being truly Swedish, while 20 percent of those who have an unfavourable view of SD said that was the case.

Similar divides were found when responses from sympathizers of Ukip in the UK and the National Front in France were compared with those who see the parties unfavourably.

Europeans favoring right-wing, populist parties more likely to see culture as very important to identity

The survey suggests that Sweden's reputation as a largely secular country is deserved. Only seven percent of Swedes think being a Christian is essential to their national identity, the lowest of the 13 nations asked that particular question. The majority (57 percent) said religion is not at all important to being a Swede.

Age also played much less of a role in Sweden in shaping that view than in many other countries. The 'oldest-youngest' gap in the country (the difference in opinion between those aged 18-34 and those aged 50 plus) on that subject was one of the lowest of the nations surveyed, with only eight percent more of Swedes aged 50 plus answering that Christianity is very important to national identity compared to those aged 18-34. In Greece there was a 26 percent difference.

Older people more likely to see link between Christianity and nationality

So what exactly do Swedes think is important to be considered truly Swedish? Don't be fooled by the Swedish love of speaking English: according to the survey, the majority still think that being able to speak Swedish is key, with 66 percent saying speaking the national language is very important for being truly Swedish. Only two percent said it was not at all important.

The importance given to language was not unique to Sweden however. The majority in each of the 14 countries polled on the question said the same, and the median across Europe was 77 percent.

Language seen as most important requisite of national identity

There does appear to be a generational shift taking place on the issue in Sweden though, with the youngest generation 23 percentage points less likely than the oldest generation to say language is very important to being Swedish. In the Netherlands the difference was 11 percentage points.

The moral of the story? Learn the local language if you ever want to be considered truly Swedish. At least for the foreseeable future, anyway.

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INTERVIEW: ‘Returning to Stockholm from Mumbai is so horrible’

For foreign correspondent Malin Mendel, moving to India in 2005 was "like coming home". The Local spoke to her about the cultural differences living in India as a Swede and her TV programme with Swedish-Indian comedian David Batra.

INTERVIEW: 'Returning to Stockholm from Mumbai is so horrible'

“I spent some time living in Lahore in Pakistan with my family when I was a small girl. So, that was mainly the reason why I became a foreign correspondent, I wanted to return to that part of the world,” Mendel explains, with her English noticeably influenced by almost two decades living in India.

“Even if India and Pakistan are different countries, so much is similar, like the food and the colours and what people look like.”

Another draw for Mendel was the food – growing up in Sweden in the 70s and 80s, staple ingredients in Indian food like basmati rice and fresh coriander weren’t readily available.

“My main goal was to just go back and eat,” she laughs.

The first time she landed in Mumbai with her husband and her young son was “like a dream”.

“I immediately just recognised that particular smell and the warm, humid climate, the people and the sounds and everything was very familiar to me.”

She has noticed, however, that friends visiting from Sweden often need some time to adapt to the radically different culture.

“If they haven’t been in similar countries, they’re in a complete shock, at least for a week,” she says. “I’m brought up in Sweden so I understand where they come from.”

‘As a Swedish person, India has taught me so much’

India and Sweden couldn’t be greater opposites, Mendel says, adding that India has given her new perspectives on social life and the attitude to religion which she didn’t have living in Sweden.

“It’s a luxurious situation for me to have one foot in both of these different worlds, because I learned so much from India, and I think many people in Sweden can learn a lot from India,” she adds.

Indians in Sweden often appreciate things which Swedes take for granted, Mendel believes.

“There aren’t so many people, it’s very clean everywhere, you can breathe the air, you can swim in the water, you can buy everything in Ica. Life is quite convenient, compared to many places in India.”

‘Have patience with Swedish people’

However, there are downsides to living in Sweden for those who are more used to a more social, faster pace of life.

“Many of the people I know from India who stay in Sweden feel lonely. They are isolated and not used to this ‘one-by-one’ society.”

This can be a big culture shock for Indians arriving in Sweden, Mendel says.

“Usually whoever I meet in my work, if I interview people, they just invite me to their house immediately. ‘Just come over for food, come over for dinner’. If you’re used to that and you end up in Sweden, that can be a shock, because people in Sweden don’t do that.”

Her advice to Indians arriving in Sweden is to “have patience with Swedish people”.

“Don’t expect them to invite you over like you’re used to. Maybe you have to invite them first. And even if you do, maybe they won’t invite you back,” she laughs.

“They hardly invite their friends or family,” Mendel adds, saying that this ‘closed-door’ mentality often makes her feel “ashamed of Sweden”.

‘Where is everybody?’

For Mendel, she often experiences a kind of reverse culture shock returning to Stockholm from her home in Mumbai.

“It’s horrible, I’m so depressed when I return, because it’s like coming from a normal world where people are looking into your eyes and they will greet you and say ‘hello, how are you?’ and things like that.”

“Everybody is quiet. My neighbours will not even say hi, they will kind of run away like Swedish people.”

Mendel’s family and friends live in Sweden, so she still has a social life here, but she explains that she is often struck by the difference between the two countries when she takes a taxi from Arlanda airport to Stockholm city centre.

“It’s like ‘wow, what happened? Where is everybody? Has there been some kind of nuclear disaster?'”

‘The response is overwhelming’

Since 2018, Mendel has had a TV programme with Indian-Swedish comedian David Batra, Världens sämsta indier (which literally translates to ‘The World’s Worst Indian’, although the English title is ‘Homecoming’). In the first series, Batra travelled to India, enlisting the help of Mendel to better understand the country and his Indian heritage.

In the second series, Batra tried to break through as a successful comedian in India, again with Mendel’s help, and in the third series, broadcast in March and April 2023, Batra and Mendel try opening a restaurant together to see if that will make Batra a “real Indian”.

All three series investigate some of the cultural differences between Sweden and India in a tongue-in-cheek way, while aiming to teach Swedes more about India and Indian culture.

“The response from Swedes is just overwhelming,” she says, “even if they weren’t interested in India before, they are now interested in India, and learned more than they would from news coverage, because this is different. So I’m happy about that.”

Their programme has been heavily advertised on public broadcaster SVT and is one of the main programmes Swedes were watching this month, Mendel says.

Although Mendel and Batra often joke in the programme, which Mendel describes as “infotainment”, she explains that it makes fun of the differences between Sweden and India through Batra and is not seeking to ridicule India or Indians themselves.

In the most recent series, Mendel and Batra also show the modern side of India, visiting wine producers, discussing how to appeal to the growing Indian middle class who have an increasing interest in eating out in restaurants, and sourcing ingredients for their restaurant from young female entrepreneurs.

They also highlight the diversity of India, discussing how to ensure that their menu fits the dietary requirements of the locals in Saligao, northern Goa, where the restaurant is located, who eat a lot of fish, as well as Hindus – many of whom avoid beef, while others avoid all meat, fish and eggs – and the Jains, who don’t eat meat, fish, animal products or items grown underground like onions, garlic and potatoes.

“I know that many in the Indian community recognise many things, but some of them also maybe feel like ‘why are you showcasing poor people or dead rats? Why are you joking about so many things?’,” Mendel says.

“The reason we do not focus on ultra modern office environments is because we all in Sweden know what that is like. So even if there are such environments in India as well, it will not be interesting, it will not be a clash for David coming from Sweden experiencing this.”

“When we sometimes deal with different stereotypes of India, we usually try to break these stereotypes or at least nuance them.”

‘They get suspicious when they hear my accent’

Batra, born in Lund to a Punjabi father and Swedish mother, is a household name in Sweden, while most Indians living in India have never heard of him, which led to some entertaining situations while filming.

“The very second they start to talk with us, they notice that my accent is a little bit Indian, and he has more of an American accent,” she says. “They get suspicious.”

Often, they would be filming in a group of four consisting of Batra as well as Mendel, their camerawoman and their producer. 

“So when we three blonde ladies come along, and he’s with us – usually carrying the tripod – they think he’s the carrier, the Indian wallah who is working with us,” she explains.

“Sometimes they’re like ‘oh, you can wait outside’. He’s a really big star in Sweden, so it’s really funny to see this reaction when nobody cares.”

You can watch all seasons of Världens sämsta indier/Homecoming on SVT Play here.