Where there is modesty, there is virtue – Swedish Proverb
Like the awkward elephant in the room, I first noticed this unspoken ethos years ago while dining with violinists and bassists who perform in local orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic and Radio Symphony Orchestras, in Stockholm, Sweden. A typical week for them could involve playing at Nobel Prize ceremonies or a more private gig for the Swedish royal family.
But I was the odd one out. The outsider who’d been invited to this rather casual dinner where the unspoken dress code was well-worn blue jeans paired with loose-fitting tops for the ladies and more tailored, tighter cuts for the men. All feet clad in warm woollen socks.
There was a certain air enveloping our group that denoted moderation. The gratuitous peppering of self-achievements seemed non-existent within our conversation. No one willingly divulged personal information unless asked by another guest. The average number of languages fluently spoken within the group was three each yet this class of globetrotters who’d traversed the world multiple times quickly dismissed their skills because they weren’t native speakers. On several occasions, our banter dipped into long stretches of silence; one which seemed perfectly comfortable for them. The small apartment we inhabited oozed warmth and contentment.
That subconscious moment was when lagom as a quiet rule began to clearly emerge from the shadows for me as a new resident in Sweden. Still, I threw it all down to modesty and humility among fast friends who knew each other well and didn’t feel the need to brag or take up the entire conversation.
But that silent ethos raised its head once again in a completely different setting, and that was when I realised it was also a shape-shifting public code of conduct along the lines of ‘appropriate’.
I noticed it when our group of passengers arriving in Stockholm from Swedish Lapland, waited in silence at a baggage conveyor belt for delayed luggage. Beyond acquaintances sharing words among themselves, strangers didn’t interact with each other for close to thirty minutes during that unusually long technical delay. Had I been somewhere else, I’d have nudged my fellow passenger and we would have commiserated as loudly as we could about our predicament.
But here, within the ecosystem of the Swedish mindset, stating the obvious seemed unnecessary.
This ideology was further solidified when I was once running late for a Swedish class and had prepared an explanation for my tardiness, ready to be delivered to my teacher.
‘No need,’ a local promptly advised me. ‘No need to explain yourself. Just apologize for being late.’ I didn’t need to share more information than was necessary.
Especially if I wasn’t asked.
Give equal in reply, answer according to the call – Swedish Proverb
That moment brought me full circle back to my dinner with the musicians and I could see that principle in all its clarity now. Over time, what started out as the awkward elephant in the room morphed into an unseen guiding spirit whispering reminders into one’s ear.
‘Not too much, not too little,’ it whispers. ‘Just right.’
Not the middle. Not average. Not complacency. Just right.
And that distinction remains the underlying power of lagom as the basis for achieving an optimal lifestyle where one gives and receives in equal part without disturbing the balance between individuality and group dynamics.
I’d heard of this unspoken custom long before moving to Sweden many years ago, and over time, I’ve come to adopt lagom in various aspects of my own life as I’ve further immersed myself in Swedish culture. This book deeply reflects my unique vantage point – a marriage between the objectivity that comes with looking in and the subjectivity that comes with an intimate relationship with Sweden in many ways.
Lagom is so much more than the simple act of moderation which it is so commonly associated with.
And through this book, I hope to show you how this little, understated word not only deeply permeates the Swedish psyche (including through old Swedish proverbs), but how it may very well be the little secret that could push you towards living your most sustainable life yet.
Not just living a life of balance, but finding the perfect equilibrium for you.
Lola Akinmade-Åkerström’s photography and travel writing are characterised by vibrancy and hope. Graduating with a Masters (MSc) degree in Information Systems from the University of Maryland with a minor in Geography, she specialised in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for 12+ years and her affinity for the geosciences and maps meant she was born to travel.
Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Travel + Leisure, Slate, Travel Channel, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, National Geographic Channel, several in-flight magazines, New York Times online, amongst others.
Her photography is represented by National Geographic Creative.
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