Example work: Lagom chapter from Swedishness book
Welcome to the Swedish culture of ‘lagom’.
Lagom doesn’t have a direct translation into English. Roughly, it means ‘not too much, not too little’. The word has the same stem origins as ‘law’ – not the judicial type, but the law of common sense. In a way, saying something is ‘lagom’ is a little like saying it’s sensible – but it’s so much more than that. Urban legend asserts that it comes from the saying ‘laget om’ or ‘around the team’, which refers to a Viking drinking game that involved passing a horn of alcohol and drinking just the right amount each that everyone in the team would get some. A nice description of lagom perhaps, but no cigar on the word’s origin.
The idea is used in all aspects of Sweden’s culture – no one should have too much or too little. Lagom can be staying in when you feel under the weather, rather than struggling in to work. It’s decorating your apartment with simple white walls and classic furniture because it’s easy and stylish. It’s not overworking, or eating too much, or getting too excited. It’s equality. It’s avoiding dangerous extremes. It’s a pair of trousers that are just the fit and colour for you. It’s Goldilocks on a countrywide scale. It’s ‘just right’.
Sensible or boring?
Lagom can have a reputation for being a bit teachery-sensible. Recently it’s seen a backlash – a #nomorelagom hashtag appearing online in rebellion against the calm, considered sensibility. Some Swedes feel like lagom inhibits their self-expression, dampens down parties or stunts their pursuit of a goal. When you look at it one way, lagom can seem stiflingly dull.
Take the great Swedish export: IKEA furniture. IKEA furniture seems quite fun in the showroom – trendy, practical, inexpensive. You can easily take it home and put it together using just one tiny allen key. Sometimes, IKEA is just right. But occasionally, you want a handmade, artisan piece – maybe something retro and charming. Then going to IKEA and getting a flatpack can seem a bit, well, boring. Being lagom can be a bit like that too. It’s not uncommon for Swedes to cancel plans or duck out of social obligations because of the lagom approach to life. Don’t take it personally though – they expect you to do the same if you need to.
When I first came to Sweden I was amazed at how honestly people would cancel pre-arranged meetings or party invites. Having been used to clawing my way across London in rush hour with a cold and two shopping bags to go to a baby shower and pretending I felt fine – it was refreshing that I could say I felt too tired to go for a drink or couldn’t make a meeting because I wasn’t feeling well. There’s no need to force yourself into something if you don’t want to. If the shoes don’t fit, don’t wear them.
But lagom is more than just turning things down. It also means finding the right balance. It’s important to make the fair amount of effort with your work, hobbies, friends and family – giving them all the right amount of time, attention and focus. With a lagom mindset, you understand what you need, and also what the people around you need too.
Your office colleagues appreciate that when you see your family and go to your favourite salsa class – it makes you a better worker. Your partner knows that when you see your friends and go to after-work drinks, it makes you a happier family member. It’s all a gentle balance.
The thing that surprises a lot of people is lagom at work. In many workplaces in Sweden today – old and new – a lagom approach to HR is adopted. In the Swedish office, you will find yourself being asked by any good human resources leader or decent project manager if you have too much work to do. You’ll also be asked if you’re stressed at all. If you have children, you’ll be expected to leave and collect them. In many workplaces, every single workday, you’ll be encouraged to stop whatever you’re working on and take a fika. Even the boss comes to fika. If you decide you’re not in a coffee-and-bun mood, expect to be asked a lot more about your overworking and stress levels because you didn’t turn up to fika that day.
Around the world, growing stress levels, longer work days and higher expectations are driving people into the ground. The effects of stress on the body and mind can be devastating – high blood pressure and heart disease, anxiety, poor diet and obesity, irregular or bad-quality sleep, a weakened immune system, fertility problems. It’s beyond finding a ‘work-life balance’. It’s become an international emergency.
Historically, working hard and long has been seen as a noble pursuit. ‘I’m busy’ is the honourable refrain of the modern business person. But studies show that the time put in to work doesn’t necessarily reflect the outcome – in fact, the opposite is true. It turns out that reducing free time actually has a negative effect on productivity.
This isn’t a new thing. People have been trying to sort out their work-life balance since, well, probably since we started working. In ancient Rome, Seneca tried to draw away from the lure of overworking when he wrote: ‘Believe me – it’s better to produce a balance sheet of your life than one of the grain market.’ During the industrial revolution, factory owners limited working time to eight hours to reduce mistakes from fatigue – including Henry Ford, who doubled his workers pay and reduced hours from nine to eight. The Ford plant saw a direct increase in production and set the standard for the eight-hour day.
Recent studies have shown that people work longer hours to try and prove their value in a role, when as Seneca tried to tell us – the real value is in a well-rounded life, not just finishing work tasks. The best thing about taking time off and having less time to do your work is: you actually get more done.
The strong capitalist drive to work and achieve success hasn’t slipped by Sweden, despite the country’s global reputation as a socialist paradise. There is an ever-growing industry of young new businesses, fashion designers, property marketers and entrepreneurs in Sweden. So how do they do it? The Nordic Model in Sweden includes a welfare state, social mobility and democracy; with famously high income taxes (around 60%). While labour taxes are high, the state benefits are generous. Citizens have access to free education, all the way to PhD level; heavily subsidised healthcare; child benefits and childcare allowances; up to 16 months parental leave; 16 public holidays and a state pension.
More recently, there’s been a lot of talk about a six-hour workday in Sweden. It’s not the law yet, but it’s already a reality for many people who request a shorter work week. And why not? Studies showed that six-hour workdays lead to more energetic workers, less reported sick leave and better perceived health and productivity.
In a world where ‘I’m busy, but that’s good I suppose’ has become the riposte du jour and overachieving is the new normal, a lagom approach to work feels healthier, happier, more focused. Perhaps lagom is the secret to ‘having it all’.
It’s well-known that Brits are overly polite. The thing is – you can’t really appreciate, as a Brit, how polite we are until you leave Britain and go somewhere else. Like Sweden, for example. Over-politeness is not lagom.
The first time I realised how British I was, was the moment a door closed in my face after the person in front of me didn’t hold it open. The second time was when I asked if a sweater was available in another size in a clothes shop and received the clear reply ‘no’.
The lack of over-politeness made me feel a bit homesick at the start. I liked that Brits waited an embarrassing amount of time to hold a door open for the next person, even if they were a bit too far away. I liked that shop assistants would try and up-sell you something you didn’t ask for, or suggest you tried the wrong size ‘just in case’.
In Sweden, there is no need to say ‘thank you’ seven times during a purchase. You can just say it once. You don’t need to hold a door open unless the person behind you is carrying something or has no arms. You don’t need to apologise if you accidentally bump into someone – of course you didn’t mean it.
To me, the most wonderful lagom element of Swedish politeness is silence. Don’t be put off – if you strike up a conversation with a person at the supermarket, they will gladly talk. Most people are very friendly. However, on a long trip or a work lunch, you might be startled by some long silences. Rest assured! Your Swedish compadre is comfortable and not at all worried about why the conversation has dried up. It’s not lagom to continue to talk if you’ve run out of conversation. Plus, the silence can be rather nice.
Lagom at home
Largely unaffected by the Second World War, Sweden became a leading producer of goods for post-war Europe. In the 50s, this meant a large number people moved Sweden’s cities to work during the economic boom. At the time, the city infrastructures were not ready to support such an influx and left many people living in old properties that were unfit for housing as many as they were. The Social Democratic Party who lead the Swedish Government at the time decided to invest in a large scale urbanisation project which proposed to build one million new homes – despite only having a countrywide population of eight million. Not terribly lagom, you may think.
Each of these homes was to be affordable, safe, modern and practical; offering one- to three-room dwellings in small blocks and complexes. In addition, the homes were part of a wider community-focused programme that featured churches, schools, art galleries and small theatres, hospitals and civic spaces – many of which still function in their original purpose today.
Amazingly, the programme hit its target and created much of the landscape of Swedish cities that we see today. I live in just such an apartment block – with a shared laundrette room, storage space, bike garage and community space. For many of the blocks, renovation has been required, asbestos removed and windows replaced; but they remain to be functional, affordable housing. Perhaps then, it’s more lagom than it first looks.
The energy behind the Million Programme lingers in Sweden today. The homogeneity of style and design – simple, natural, minimal, practical – is a priority for Swedish home-owners.
Bring a bit of lagom into your home. Swedes are well known for their high standard of decoration and interior design. Having seen some of the photos on the property websites in the UK, I was struck dumb by the Swedish state-run housing website, Hemnet. Go on it. It’s amazing. The industrial light fixtures, the lemons-in-vases, the cool marble windowsills. Almost every single place is immaculate; regardless of size, area or type. It’s because they follow a simple formula.
Multiple studies have found that untidiness contributes to stress and can inhibit good eating and exercise habits. In Sweden, every apartment or house has a big underground storage area. Everything you don’t need every day goes down there. But storage is only half of it. Hoarding is not lagom. So before you tidy everything away, be sure you really need it first.
Nature is important to any Swede, even inside the home. Natural wood furniture – preferably birch or oak – makes it cosy but unfussy. Next, at least three types of plant. The Swedes’ favourites are the elephant ear, at one point so popular in Sweden that you couldn’t buy it anywhere – you had to wait for a friend to give you a cutting; the string of pearls, preferably hung in a crochet cradle; and a swiss cheese plant.
White is the paint colour of choice in Sweden. Occasionally you’ll find a stylish matte blue or green, maybe a single wall of patterned wallpaper from the Borås Tapeter company. On the whole, though, it’s white. In older properties, the floor will be white too. White is clean and simple and doesn’t go out of style. It allows your natural elements and little trinkets stand out.
Lights are important in a country where it can be rather dark for half the year. Strike the perfect lagom balance of warm, cosy light in your home with a diffused main ceiling light – woven rattan, paper moons and feather orbs are popular in Sweden; together with a few smaller lamps hung over the windows. In Christmas, a ‘julstjärn’ Christmas Star can be hung in the window too.
With all that wood, you’ll need some soft, fuzzy seat-pads and a nice fluffy blanket to keep you comfy and cosy. Most apartments and houses have wooden floors, so a good rug will keep your feet happy in winter. Keeping a basket of spare slippers isn’t unusual in Sweden too – so your guests can keep their feet toasty during colder months.
6. For a bonus point: a Dala horse
The Dala horse is a symbol of Sweden, originally from the Dalarna region. A small wooden horse, usually red, handpainted with flourishes and flora in traditional ‘kurbits’ style, is present in many Swedish homes. It’s a historical item for Swedes – a memory of past generations who originally carved and painted wooden horses for entertainment in cold and dark days, and later traded them for important household goods.
Lagom might get a bad rap sometimes – and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes it’s exciting to go to extremes or lose yourself while dancing at a gig. Most of the time, though, it’s better not to drink too much, or buy too much, or go out for a hike when there’s a snowstorm. It’s great to feel supported by your community and it’s healthy to have a respect for balance.