Gold Award in Culture and Ideas: Decoding Lagom

By Lola Akinmade Akerstrom

Eight of us – six Swedes, one Finn, and me – are gathered in a modest city-center studio apartment in Stockholm’s eclectic Sodermalm district. Next to our dinner table is a small window with a gorgeous view of Stockholm’s history-rich old town, Gamla stan, with its narrow fingerlike red clay, melon, and burnt sienna-colored structures. The location alone makes this modest studio as coveted as a New York-city penthouse with direct views of the Empire State Building.

Jorgen is making single cups of coffee on a mini press as we each wait silently in turn. The silence leaves me unsettled, almost feeling obliged to fill it with random chit-chat, a few words about the weather. I glance from silent guest to silent guest. Surely I can’t be the only one struck by this stillness? When Jorgen hands over a coffee, we chat again as if trying not to exclude him from any of our conversations.

Then we revert back to silence as he presses the next cup.

I had noticed this silence before. Once at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, after flying in from Swedish Lapland, our group of passengers waited in utmost quiet for about 30 minutes on our delayed luggage.

Back home in the US, I’d have nudged the nearest fellow, hissed and shook my head, and we would have commiserated in loud booming voices about this baggage delay.

Here, stating the obvious seems unnecessary.

So, instead of filling the emptiness, we wait patiently until everyone has their own coffee before easing back into conversation. There is a certain air of self-assuredness among this table of well-travelled, world-class musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra I am dining with but no-one shares any personal achievements until asked. No one talks over the other. Everyone speaks three or four languages fluently but dismisses their skill because they are not native speakers. Dressed in worn out jeans, single color shirts or blouses and sock-clad feet, they could not look more ordinary.

I’d long heard of this unspoken custom before moving to Sweden a couple years ago. This untranslatable ethos called “lagom” (pronounced: law-gum) that permeates all facets of the Swedish psyche: its culture, lifestyle, business, and society. Often misconstrued as indifference, or the stereotypical Scandinavian “coldness”, lagom is loosely translated from Swedish as “just the right amount”, “in moderation”, “appropriate”, and other similar synonyms you can pull out of the dictionary.

For example, a common phrase could be – The water is lagom hot or, the coffee is lagom strong.

Speaking of coffee, mellanbrygg – the medium type of coffee brew – dominates store shelves. Many Swedes have a hard time deciding between strong and light brew so they gravitate towards the middle, the medium, the lagom brew. This same risk-aversive logic also applies to milk where mellanmjolk – medium milk – remains the popular choice, causing Swedes to give their country the moniker, “land of mellanmjolk.”

For me, lagom harkens back to British author Robert Southey’s 1837 fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears where his golden-blonde lead character sat in the chair, slept in the bed, and ate the porridge that were “just right”. No need for excess, bragging, exaggerations, unnecessary public displays, or showiness. Far from denoting complacency, it actually carries with it an air of appropriateness. And it makes sense in such a social state where equality and moderation on all levels is promoted. An excellent Swedish review after a fantastic meal could be – Det var inget fel pa det här – which means “There was nothing wrong with this.”

Not-so-team-like demise
The word lagom itself comes from a shortening of the phrase “laget om” which literally means “around the team” and dates back to the Viking era between the 8th and 11th centuries. Communal horns filled with mjod (a fermented honey wine called “mead” in English) were often passed around and everyone had to sip their own share.

I imagined any Viking who took a quick extra gulp met with some not-so-team-like demise. The Vikings would later sail on and pillage across Europe, Asia, and today’s bastion of capitalism North America, each acquiring their own individual horn to gulp from, I would assume.
Ironically, while today’s Sweden is known for its fresh cutting edge designs, futuristic way of thinking, and fierce modernism, this unspoken way of conduct and living are deep-seated in camp-fire traditions from the 8th century.

Booming braggart in the room
“I love lagom!” Linda Henriksson, a teacher and native Swede, replies emphatically when I ask her what she thinks of the code. “It’s so individual. It could mean anything to anyone. Ironically, average could be many different things depending on who you’re talking to.” So the word itself was now being used in everyday settings to mean “average” or “just right”. And “just right” for you could be different from what’s “just right” for me. So if she invited me for a run and wanted us to run at “lagom” tempo, considering her long lean frame, it would mean a jog for her and a leisurely stroll for me.

According to the government agency Statistiska centralbyran which pretty much tracks anything that can be counted, averaged, and summarized in Sweden including how many people are called Svensson (102,469 to be exact), of the 9,500,478 people that call Sweden home, nearly one in five residents has a foreign background, bringing in differing cultural beliefs and traditions which might be slowly diluting this intrinsic Swedish mentality.

On the contrary, Henriksson thinks non-native Swedes are picking up on this norm pretty fast. While initially considered funny because it is untranslatable, once you realize you’re the only booming braggart in the room a couple times, you might start looking deeper into cultural nuances. In essence, “feeling out the social code within the group you’re hanging with,” Henriksson explains.

Coming from two boisterously competitive cultures – Nigerian and American – where everyone grew talons and clawed their way (and others) to survive, stand out, and succeed, the word “lagom” felt almost blasphemous when I first encountered it. Yet I embraced it like a lunch buffet after a 30-day Sahara desert crossing. To me, it meant a cool restrain of self-confidence. A restrain that meant I didn’t need to boast or brag about my achievements, but actually let my work do the talking for me.

World-class egos
I reached out to my friend Fredrik Rydehall, a lighting engineer working where big egos come out to play – in the performing arts. His job is to literally put the actor, singer, or dancer in the spotlight. He has seen a broad range of personalities – from the egocentric choreographer behind the scenes to the outstanding yet humble ballerina on stage. “It is easier to stand out in Stockholm because it’s so multicultural and very diverse,” Rydehall told me. He’s from Lulea, a much smaller town, “and in smaller towns, it’s harder to stand out because there’s a lot less diversity,” he went on to add.

I pondered his logic. So in essence, Swedes could get away with not being so “lagom” in a bigger city where they can blend in with larger crowds versus smaller towns where they had to be “lagom” to blend in with the crowd. “It really depends on why you want to stand out,” Rydehall continued. “If you stand out because you are that way, then it’s good. If you stand out because you just want to get attention, then it’s annoying.”

He pointed out an over-the-top Swedish personality with a self-rejuvenating deep orange suntan which we both know. “He’s playing a role and that’s really ridiculous,” Rydehall added. “He’s trying to stand out because he likes to stand out, not because he’s really like that as a person.”

I also tracked down Mats Olsson in Ukraine. Olsson, a well-known sports columnist for daily newspaper Expressen, was covering the European Championship football games in Kiev. Sweden had just been kicked out of their group pool amidst high expectations, and the collective mood in Stockholm where I was watching the game from was “Oh well, next time” with shoulder shrugs of disappointment. Had Sweden played horrendously, I would have understood the shrugs, but the team had worked really hard together. I was expecting a national outcry.

Even on such a global stage, it seems Swedish teams have been conditioned to temper their feelings –not too heated and not too lackadaisical either. According to Olsson, two high-profile Swedes who personify lagom while displaying world-class talent are ice hockey legend Peter Forsberg and soccer star Henrik Larsson – both now retired.

“After amazing performances, their replies during interviews were mostly along the lines of…‘Well, I guess it was okay, it was the team that won’, ‘If I was good, it’s for others to judge, I do my job for the team’, or ‘As long as we win the games, it doesn’t matter who scores’,” he illustrated. Their humility may be lagom, but their athletic prowess and mindsets were anything but lagom.

Celebrating feats of success had to be done in moderation.

Quick right at Sven’s red cottage
In all its unexplainable mystic, lagom’s core virtue of moderation greatly appealed to me and is more so magnified as one travels and spends more time in Northern Sweden and Swedish Lapland where long winter nights forces you into the arms of your neighbors and friends to survive mentally and physically, fostering tightly knit relationships and kinships in the tiniest of villages.

At the height of those infamous bitingly cold Scandinavian winters, even an hour of daylight is available to help maintain one’s sanity in towns and villages as far north within the Arctic Circle as Kiruna. Even the frozen tundra of the north models itself after lagom as you drive along interstate highway E4 gradually making your way towards the Arctic.

Tall pine trees sparsely dot the terse landscape as if questioning why thick branch-to-branch forests are needed with the occasional classic Falu red cottage after cottage strewn across the landscape. Red cottages collectively called stugor that all look pretty much identical.

The color “Falu red” is a deep copper red color named after the village Falun in Dalarna where it originated. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Falu red paint was the cheapest available and so many cottages had that same deep red color. If you had a bit more funds, you could paint your cottage yellow or white. That was about the extent of showiness allowed.

I wondered how people gave each other directions before the invention of road signs. “Go down the road until you see Nilsson’s red cottage, then turn left and keep straight until Arvid’s red cottage comes into view, then a quick right at Sven’s red cottage before you finally arrive at Olof’s red cottage.” Even the 400+ red stugor tightly built wall-to-wall in a circular fashion around the 15th century stone-walled Nederlulea kyrka (church) in UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gammelstad church town, seem to drive home the point of standing in line and not sticking out as you keep pressing northwards.

Fair maidens in flowing summer frocks
I find winter to be hands down the best season to visit Sweden. While visions of fair maidens in flowing summer frocks dancing around Midsummer maypoles with garlands of wild flowers woven through long blonde locks might suggest otherwise, one fully appreciates the rugged side of Sweden during its darkest months.

That rugged side that trudges through silky white snow on skis, in snowshoes, atop a snowmobile, or on a sled drawn by Siberian Huskies in subzero degree temperatures, roasting korv (sausages) over open flames while red and green lights of the Aurora Borealis shimmer across the clear cool night sky.

That rugged side that goes cross-country along the Kebnekaise mountain range and foothills of Mount Kebne in Swedish Lapland, or along Kungsleden (“King’s Trail”) located 200 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle.

At least that’s what my mother-in-law’s neighbor’s son did solo for two months just for the fun of it.

No gallant screams of victory

The sound of tiny tire spikes crunching through compact snow is the only sound for miles, other than the racing engine my in-law Mikael is driving at what seems insane speeds. The landscape is caked in fresh, knee deep snow. His archaic Ford has a manual gear shift that is only a metal rod sticking out between the front seats. The steering wheel is also bare metal. Fixed atop the car are giant headlamps to pierce the pitch-black “night” that will fall in the early afternoon. “You’ll be fine,” he assures me seconds before a potentially harrowing head-on collision with a snowmobile that appears out of nowhere. Then he drives across a frozen lake to meet up with eight other guys waiting for a race. Hands in pockets, standing silently, their faces are as ice cold as our surroundings. Short “Hi”s and quick nods are exchanged. Each has a makeshift race car – banged-up Volvos, beaten-down Saabs, and, of course, our battered Ford.

We wait in silence for others to arrive. There are no jeers or taunting as you might expect at a race. We stand frozen against the landscape like ice sculptures. This makeshift village rally is a way to pass time during the frigid winter days. It’s a tradition shared from grandparents to grandsons and granddaughters: racing across the frozen lake in oval laps carved through the snow as a way of keeping busy and beating the winter blues.

Soon enough, our little rally begins and cars race at breakneck speeds, sliding across ice and rounding sharp corners. One wrong move and they’d cartwheel off the ice and into the trees. Still no screams of joy or excitement.

Only even-keeled laughs when cars spin out of control and need to be dug out.
“Your turn.” I pretend not to hear but there is no avoiding it. I step into the passenger seat and fumble nervously with my seatbelt. I grab onto the bar above my window for support and say a silent prayer. My silence lasts only until Mikael hits the accelerator but my belly wrenching screams of sheer terror are met only with a quiet laugh as we speed around at up to 100 km/hour. On pure ice, it feels like 200. We slide sideways at sharp bends, and tauntingly bump one of the Volvos.

Our rally continues until the sun sets at 2pm but I can’t distinguish the victors from the losers. No extravagant displays of emotions. No screams of victory. The thrill is to be experienced only behind the wheel and not expressed outwardly.

Lagom’s ugly cousin – Jante
If lagom is that humble considerate gentleman you know, the fictitious Law of Jante (jantelagen in Swedish) is its more cynical uglier cousin that pretty much states “Don’t think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us”. To the untrained eye in casual Swedish settings, you might not know which norm – Lagom or Jante – is at play.

“A lot of Swedes hate lagom too,” Henriksson goes on to explain. “Mostly because of the Jantelagen aspect. Maybe you as a Swede want to be noticed, but you feel you can’t scream as loud as you’d want to because you can’t be too much or too little of anything.”

Conceptualized in a fiction novel by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in 1933, the Law of Jante not only frowns upon individual success and achievements, but also discourages individuality in favor of collective group unity. So beneath this group mentality breeds deep-seated jealousy prevalent within the culture and directed towards successful Swedes. All without being verbalized, of course.”Swedes talk about ‘Den svenska avundsjukan’ – ‘The Swedish Jealousy’,” my husband, a native Swede, tells me. Not to be confused with regular jealousy which motivates the one who is jealous to act on some level, The Swedish Jealousy seethes silently to the grave while maintaining its personal status quo.

And thanks to Jante adding an unattractive complex layer atop lagom, many of Sweden’s critics feel this mentality promotes dependence on social welfare, stifles ambition, and is non-confrontational, hence why Sweden stayed neutral in many world conflicts and wars.

Ditching Lagom into the Baltic Sea
Once a norm I thought was so intrinsic it couldn’t be changed, it seems lagom can be slinked into and taken off like lingerie when necessary. When many Swedes cross international borders, they figuratively scream at the top of their lungs, wear their patriotism like tattoos, and let loose away from Sweden’s shores, only to fall back in line – in queue as it were – as they get closer to shore once again.

Overnight Baltic cruises are an outlet for Swedes to “lose” lagom. From Stockholm’s harbor you can catch a boat on a Friday afternoon, sail the Baltic Sea overnight, arrive in Riga, Latvia by daybreak and spend Saturday wandering through Riga at breakneck speed before catching your boat to be home for Sunday morning. Swap Riga for Tallinn, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and a handful of other Baltic ports, and you find that cruising is a way of escaping from Sweden for a few days. A roundtrip fare is often cheaper than dinner at an average Stockholm restaurant.

The girls in their early twenties looked like nervous mannequins as they sat on a metal bench in the boarding hall for the M/S Galaxy – a popular overnight cruise to Turku, Finland. We were in the large U-shaped waiting terminal about to board the M/S Galaxy docked behind clear glass windows. They seemed like mannequins hidden beneath layers of pale matte foundation, multiple coats of rose-blush, and smoky black eye-shadow which made already piercing blue eyes more piercing. Skinny legs clad in black patchy panty-hoses were crossed, their top legs rocking in unison. There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds even – the girls – all dressed alike, sitting on low benches, leaning against walls, standing in circles, some giggling, others nervously rocking crossed legs.

Behind me milled hundreds of boys some holding open cans of half drunk Carlsberg beer, some with sleeked back gelled dark hair, some with spiky short blond hair. Like the security guard who was walking his sniffing German shepherd through the waiting crowd, the boys were scanning the room, stealing glances, tagging, and marking before boarding.

On board, they’ll make their move. Now wasn’t the time to walk up to the nervous girls. And so they stood – the boys – with chests puffed out, holding half drunk beer, chatting amongst themselves, and scanning the noisy hall with laser-like precision.

My husband and I were caught amidst their flirtatious crossfire. Initially hoping for a relaxing weekend cruise away from Stockholm, we were beginning to have a slight hunch we’d picked the wrong cruise. There was a certain tension in the noisy hall. People kept their distance yet I could sense the weight of anticipation in the air mixed in with that remarkable sense of restrain. This shape-shifting unspoken restrain I’d now embraced since moving to Sweden from its capitalist cousin, the US.

Our destination was Finland…well, the seaport of Turku (Abo in Swedish) just to unload and offload passengers…so we were barely scraping Finland. Once we set sail, the ruckus onboard was akin to a college fraternity party, and the noisy revels continue all night. I arrive at the breakfast buffet just minutes after a naked Swede has walked through.

Floating on international waters, away from home and those unspoken rules that govern Swedish society, lagom is gladly chucked overboard, to be fished back up before docking back in Stockholm.


Award-winning writer and photographer Lola (Akinmade) Akerström has written, photographed, and dispatched from six (6) continents for major publications such as National Geographic Traveler, BBC, CNN, Lonely Planet, and many more around the world. She is based in Stockholm, Sweden and her portfolio can be viewed at akinmade.com.

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