Cultural Differences Between Swedes and Americans Explain The Gaffes
As a non-Swede but a one-time temporary resident of Sweden, I’ve followed the @sweden Twitter account for quite a while. I have enjoyed the musings of different individual Swedes who have, on commission by the Visit Sweden board, maintained the account a week at a time to give the world a little bit of their own Swedish perspective. The most recent contributor, @hejsonja, has stirred up some controversy with her remarks, some of which have been deemed anti-Semitic. While I personally don’t believe that these comments are anti-Semitic, I feel that anyone who does should consider a few aspects of what Sonja is saying and put those remarks into context with Swedish culture and Sonja’s personal situation – and, quite honestly, I think anyone who is offended should also take down their guard a bit and re-examine the logic of Sonja’s statements.
Quite simply, I believe that a difference in rhetoric, a dash of naïveté, and just being sheltered – not willful ignorance, nor hatred – are the basis of what Americans and other non-Swedes have found offensive in the recent @sweden tweets.
I’ve studied Swedish history and contemporary culture at a university level and spent plenty of time in Sweden, a place I consider dear to my heart. I continue to maintain my connection with the language, culture, and happenings of Sweden. Considering this perspective, here’s my take on some of the tweets that seem to have drawn the most ire from Twitter users.
Strong Rhetoric, But Not Intended To Cause Hurt
Before WW2 Hitler was one of the most beautiful names in the whole wide world. I know. Its as chocking as dolphin rapists.
— @sweden / Sonja (@sweden) June 11, 2012
Translation: someone who would forcibly initiate intercourse with a kind animal is just as shocking as merely the name of Hitler being put into a positive light.
So you agree, right?
- Yes, it’s “chocking” – she means “shocking,” but anyone who has spoken to Swedes in English extensively know that Swedes don’t distinguish between the ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ sounds very easily. Maybe this confused a few people.
My Take: Outlandish statement? Sure. Anti-Semitic? Probably not. Why? It’s particularly harsh rhetoric. Some people have stronger forms of expression than others. Swedes happen to be less apt to take offense than Americans, in my personal experience.
Appearances Don’t Matter But Circumcision Does
Whats the fuzz with jews. You can’t even see if a person is a jew, unless you see their penises, and even if you do, you can’t be sure!?
— @sweden / Sonja (@sweden) June 12, 2012
Translation: Why does anybody dislike Jews? There is no legitimate way to identify a Jewish person by looks. So why be foolish and judge in this manner?
She’s asking what many Swedes ask: why judge anybody by looks?
- While there is no denying that racism exists in Sweden, as it does in all societies, Swedes of the progressive mindset often insert this philosophy (of not judging a book by its cover) into discussions about immigration, xenophobia, ethnic issues, etc. We say the same thing in America.
- Swedes do not seem as prudish as Americans when it comes to talking about body parts. Talking about the penis in a non-sexual way is not considered inappropriate. This is like this in quite a lot of the world outside the United States.
- Circumcision is not common in Sweden. According to this source, there is no history of routine circumcision in Sweden and even recounts a general Swedish assumption that circumcised men are Jewish.
My Take: This is an innocent question. She even follows up with a tweet stating a lack of understanding why anyone would be anti-Semitic.
If You Don’t Know the Answer To a Question, Just Ask
Where I come from there is no jews. I guess its a religion. But why were the nazis talking about races? Was it a blood-thing (for them)?
— @sweden / Sonja (@sweden) June 12, 2012
Translation: Does this need a translation? The girl’s asking a question. She doesn’t know.
- In my Swedish-as-a-second-language understanding, using the word “Jew” interchangeably for “Jewish” makes sense in the context of the Swedish language. While this sounds coarse and offensive in English, the literal translations don’t make a difference in Swedish. “Jude” (“Jew”) is a noun and would be used to refer to a person and “judisk” (“Jewish”) would be used as an adjective, for instance, to describe language.
- Sonja mentions in another tweet that she is from Lapland. Sweden is already a relatively homogeneous country compared to the United States. Lapland might as well be compared to North Dakota. It’s isolated and homogeneous. That’s just the reality.
My take: From pure opinion, I think it’s ridiculous that anybody shamed her for asking this question. If she had made a direct statement as an insult, sure, go ahead and shame her – but if she doesn’t know the answers to this now, we might as well tell her.
Why turn a learning opportunity into a moment of judgement? I always felt like Swedes were more willing to risk what Americans would view as embarrassment in order to obtain knowledge or make a point. She’s putting herself out there as unwitting so she can become knowledgeable.
And just as people often do with social media, the knee-jerk, defensive reactions poured in.
Overall: You People Look So Judgemental
My key takeaways from all of this:
- Lots of knee-jerk reactions. Many people didn’t stop to consider the context for @hejsonja’s knowledge or opinions. Furthermore, this misunderstanding overshadowed her intent to learn more about things she might not understand. In my personal interactions with peers (i.e. Americans), I have seen many people get offended by one party asking a serious question about something they don’t know a whole lot about. That’s a high horse I feel is not worth climbing.
- Sonja might be naïve. But so what? Everybody is naïve at some point in their lives. Some don’t grow out of this. Some are this way by circumstance. Maybe she is naïve. But it is rather brave to go about learning in the way she has done so. Many of the critics probably can’t attest to this sort of bravery themselves.
- News organizations will leap on anything for some extra re-tweets and page hits. The media who featured these supposed anti-Semitic tweets generally didn’t even bother to correct themselves and didn’t research what was really said in the first place. And that’s embarrassing, as someone who earned a journalism degree and expects media outlets to publish responsibly, whether on Twitter or in traditional media. Shame on you, Slate, Time, CNN, and others who falsely reported and accused Sonja and Sweden of perpetuating anti-Semitism just for a rise in your clicks and social media exposure.
- Sonja insists that she did not intend to convey anti-Semitism. In fact, she spoke against anti-Semites. She ridiculed those who harbor hate against Jews. It should instead be applauded that regardless of her lack of knowledge about Jewish culture, religion, and history, she realizes that anti-Semitism is wrong.
- Don’t forget that mainstream Sweden hails Raoul Wallenberg, a man who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, as a national hero. While there indeed is still anti-Semitism in Sweden, mainstream Swedish culture holds Wallenberg as an example of heroism in the face of evil - even in the shadow of Sweden’s perceived compliance with Nazi Germany’s actions (and that’s a whole different story to discuss some other time).
So should Visit Sweden address this? Personally, I don’t feel that they have to. To appease some people, they may be forced to apologize. While Visit Sweden may not want to adhere to this political correctness, some Jews around the world (seemingly mostly in the U.S.) may feel slighted until they do.
All in all, I hope Sonja isn’t discouraged by all that’s been said, and hopefully others now understand that she was just trying to learn — not incite hate.
It’s interesting that the responses to perceived hate were, well, pretty hateful, too.
UPDATE: Thank you for all the feedback and thanks to @sweden/@hejsonja for tweeting about my blog post. Tell me what you think in the comments or find me on Twitter as @jennyjenjen.
Additionally, here are some of the tweets I gathered to back up my observations. Enjoy.