University of Oslo
The Scandinavian countries are usually considered a homogenous cultural region. Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are languages so closely related that Scandinavians are able to understand each other. During long periods in history the countries were joined together in unions. These and other common features make the Scandinavian countries especially interesting for systematic comparison.
In this article I will focus on the different use of symbols in everyday life. First, I will give some examples of the different symbolic patterns in the three countries. These are as follows: 1. top and bottom, 2. formality and informality and 3. order and disorder. Second, I will give some historical and social explanations for these differences.
A few words on methodological questions. First, why study symbolic patterns of everyday life in the period 1918-1940? The interwar period is close and distant at the same time. Close in the way that everyday life then differed not too much from everyday life today; distant in the way that Americanisation and World Culture had not yet influenced and changed the symbolic patterns. This only happened after ca. 1960. However, examples from the time after World War II will not be used to a large extent, because of the different experiences in the Scandinavian countries during World War II. Unlike Sweden, Norway and Denmark were invaded and occupied by German troops.
Second, I would like to outline from which source material I have reconstructed the symbolic patterns of everyday life. First and foremost, there are everyday life experiences and observations of foreigners in the three countries. Foreigners were outsiders, who were able to see what insiders could not see. Everyday life experiences and observations of foreigners will render an almost anthropological insight into these societies (1). To illuminate the symbolic patterns of everyday life, foreigners from Germanic Central Europe (e.g. refugees from Nazi-Germany in the 1930s) held a special position. These foreigners had a cultural background which was not too distant from and not too close to the Scandinavian cultures. Travellers from Asia or Africa would not be able to understand the cultural patterns in Scandinavia, but merely experience these as ‘exotic’ (2). On the other hand, to base an investigation entirely on reports by Scandinavians, travelling through their neighbours’ countries, would not provide satisfactory results. There had been conflicts between the three nations which had shaped stereotypes and prejudices. Nevertheless, if observations made by Scandinavians were congruent with other foreigners’ experiences, Scandinavian sources have been used here as well. In addition to this source material etiquette books from the interwar period and recent ethnological or social anthropological research were drawn in to complete the picture .
The most basic definition of a symbol is that it represents something else. In this case the symbolic patterns of everyday life represent power. These patterns were formed in class struggles between élites and non-élites in the pre-bourgeois times. In the age of absolutism, the nobility had lost its social function as a class of warriors. The aristocracy’s social position was threatened by the new, rising bourgeoisie. At that historical point, the aristocratic élites began to use symbolic actions to mark their nearness to the king, their privileges and their status of power in contrast to the bourgeois outsiders. The emergent symbolic patterns were refined when the threat to the aristocracy’s position of power grew. Etiquette, savoir vivre and way of life became a means to show one’s social distinction. However, these symbolic patterns became a national standard, when the bourgeoisie became the hegemonic class in society. Symbolic action ceased to be a public affair, but became part of the private sphere. Symbolic actions lost their social function to distinguish between insider and outsider groups and were replaced by money (3).
On the 'close reading' of the symbolic material from the three countries, one finds differences in these patterns between Western and Eastern Scandinavia, i.e. Denmark and Norway on the one hand, and Sweden on the other. They can be explained, I will argue in part two of the article, by the different course the development of society and state took in these countries. The Swedish symbolic pattern of everyday life was to a larger extent dominated by military norms and values than its Norwegian and Danish counterparts.
It seems as if most cultures have a ‘need’ to express the kind of relation existing between people. A common way to do so is to employ different modes while addressing one another in speech and writing. In every language, the choice of which form one should use while speaking and writing seems to depend on norms of status and intimacy (4). In contrast to the modern English language, most of the European languages have taken over the Latin pattern by using the pronoun in third person plural to mark status, social distance and lack of intimacy. In German and Spanish, the respective pronouns Sie and Ustedes fulfil this function. The equivalent words for the English personal pronoun you can be used to mark inferiority. However, in case of an atmosphere of intimacy, words like Du and tú can be used as well.
The Swedish language had differed from this pattern from the time of King Gustavus II Adolph (1611-1632). The Swedes had no such specified pronoun like the French Vous, the German Sie or the Spanish Ustedes. Instead, the Swedes started addressing each other by using titles and indirect speech (5). The importance of titles is well documented until the end of World War II. It is only slightly exaggerated to state that one was not allowed to speak to a person without being introduced to him or her, that is to learn that personīs name as well as title (6).
"Usually, one should use both when addressing. [...] Where one without ceremony would say in Danish: 'Will you come back soon?', the Swedes say: 'Does director Johansson believe that director Johansson will be back soon?' A Swede demonstrated this to me by quoting a sentence in which 'director Johansson' appeared 5 - read five - times" (7),
a Danish journalist observed. You would not even use a form of direct address when asking a taxi driver to follow a certain way, he added.
In Denmark and Norway it was not common to use titles to such an extent. In the Danish etiquette book Intercourse with People (1930) we can read the following passage on how to use titles correctly in letters and on the outside of envelopes:
"It is [...] correct to refer to the addressee's occupation and title. But an exaggeration is both ridiculous and insulting. Nobody can win the heart of a postman by calling him Mister chief-of-the-post-office or a graduate's by calling him Dr. med. (In Sweden, people have the strange habit of anticipating academic titles, e.g. a student is called Mr. Bachelor, a Master Mr. Dr. phil. In Denmark we do not overdiscount the future.)" (8)
Still, it seems as if introducing oneself was much more common in Norway than in Denmark. In a Norwegian etiquette book (1941) a person complains that greeting "has been so dominant that it was considered almost incorrect to exchange just a few innocent words with an unknown person, unless one first had conventionally exclaimed that 'my name is Hansen'." But unlike Sweden this habit was gradually losing importance in Norway: "Lately, this fortunately has relaxed a little, and now you can talk to your neighbour on the train, the boat, in queues and on park banks without introducing yourself." (9)
The strict observance of conventions in Sweden is further illustrated by a young man's complaint, which was published in Madame Etiquette's question column (1953) in a popular Swedish magazine. He wrote:
"The undersigned would really like to know one thing. I am employed in a laboratory. Our offices are on the same floor, and there is a girl who is in her twenties. I myself am 25. We have a lot to do with each other. She has never shown any signs of willingness to stop addressing each other with titles. Is it me or her who should do this?" (10)
The Swedish strictness called forth resistance. Already in the middle of the 19th century the fight for a "you reform" started, against "the annoying titling" (11). Address conventions were discussed constantly. People founded associations where members should address each other with "you" like in England; they introduced small buttons which marked its owner as a member of such an association. However, these ideas did not get a hold on Swedish society before the 1960s and 1970s.
Of course, titles were used in Norway and Denmark too. Nevertheless, the stiff style associated with their usage was soon becoming old-fashioned. Already in 1919 the Danish etiquette book Tact and fashion wrote:
"Titles are one of the most difficult things to learn to use correctly. [...] There are so many curiosities. Kammerjunker (valet) is e.g. a refined title, and the same is Jægermester (gamekeeper), whereas Kammerjæger (vermin exterminator) is not automatically connected to a courtly way of living. [...] You may call a countess NN. instead of Lady NN. but you should never use this title extensively in a conversation. [...] If you mean to have a good friend in a noblewoman, just use her title when talking about her and on the outside of envelopes. Using the title when directly addressing her will give her the impression of distance, which will grieve her and may change the relationship." (12)
The Danes and Norwegians lacked the formal and stiff attitude which many foreign travellers regarded as typical for the Swedish way of life. In the thirties, German exiles complained about the Danish "rhubarb language" where the indistinct articulation symbolised the typical Danish "dawdling" (13). In Norway, an exile reacted in compliance with "his German love of order [...] against his Norwegian comrades' tendency to what he called gipsydom." (14) On the other hand, foreign university-bred men (their reports are published in systematic surveys) considered the Swedish society as declining, depressive, pedantic, monotonous, boring and formalistic. (15)
All in all, kindness seemed not to be conceived as a typical Swedish trait. "A Swede is usually not kind towards somebody he does not know. At this point, it is worth while emphasising that the expression 'not kind' is not the same as 'unkind', which is a feature certainly not applicable to the Swedes. 'Not kind' is neutral, 'unkind' is hostile." (16) A German refugee recalled "the cold and reserved attitude of the Swedish public, the labour movement included" (17); the Swedes responded to them in a "neutral, not unkind" manner,"just annoyed since they [the refugees, FM] all were considered alien elements" (18). When the same refugee came to visit Oslo, Norway, he noticed with surprise the nearness of top and bottom in Norwegian society; Oscar Torp, Minister of Social Affairs and secretary of the Norwegian Labour Party sat down informally at a stranger's table and participated "in the discussion as if he himself were a journalist or an anonymous civil servant in an authority" (19).
There had been a long tradition of symbolic representation for humility, submission and servility in Swedish everyday life. In 1814, the Norwegian civil servant Peter Motzfeldt wrote bewildered about the conduct of a Swedish delegation, which assisted at the opening ceremony of the Norwegian parliament:
"Now, the Swedes arrived, namely: Rosenblad, Wettersted, Mørner, Wirsén and Rosenstein. They bowed for a develish long time. They kept on standing like the Assembly. The first of them addressed us: 'Noble Sirs and Norwegian men!' and read up a well formulated Swedish speech. [..] The rest of them was silent, but bowed in unison every time he mentioned the noble Sirs and Norwegian men." (20)
In the 1930s bowing still was a frequently used symbol of courtesy and servility. "The Danish waiter in a restaurant does not bow - in spite of his being named 'servant' - five or six times like his Swedish colleague when he tells the customers that this or that titbit is on the menu. The Dane simply expects the customer to be able to read himself." (21)
When examining the frequency of etiquette books, i.e. more or less systematic surveys on habit and manner, it is surprising that there where at least seven such books in Sweden in the 1930s, compared to two or three in Denmark and Norway.
The Swedish way of living differed from the Danish and the Norwegian one by the high standard of affect control. In all cultures their members internalise rules for expressing emotions, and in addition, they learn a specific way to interact. Rational behaviour and the control of emotions were esteemed highly in Sweden. Emotions seemed to belong to different areas, like love and art (22). "Any kind of spontaneity is unusual, disliked, and in a way an expression for not being well-bred." (23) This point is emphasised by the Swedish anthropologist Orvar Löfgren:
"One is supposed to keep feelings out of politics, the public work, the areas of production and organisations, which all are considered 'serious'. [...] Argumentation should be calm and impartial. The participant who is getting too involved runs the risk to make a fool of himself and be considered too immature to participate in political debates." (24)
In contrast to the Swedish control of conduct one can observe a relatively high degree of formlessness and use of emotions in public affairs in the two other countries, especially in Denmark. Nevertheless was the Danish lack of form not necessarily considered something positive. As mentioned above, German emigrants in Denmark experienced "dawdling" (25) to be a typical Danish feature. The Norwegian and the Danish society lacked the strict, hierarchical, aristocratic and almost military structure which was so typical for the Swedish one. The gap between intimacy and formality was narrower in Denmark than in Sweden. Thus, the Danes lacked a differentiated spectre of reaction patterns. There was no room for big contrasts like e.g. "the overwhelming form", and Danes "can, amongst other, feel poor and uneasy when running out of words, when they want to express strong admiration, we long for the grandiose form in the Swedish language." (26)
The Danish way of life was in a way anarchistic. It had its advantages and disadvantages. Thus, what the Danes considered sarcasm irritated foreigners, as there was no meaning behind it. Therefore many did not know how to deal with the Danes. "The Swede suspects and seeks a different meaning behind the Dane's sarcasm, [...]. The Swede understands that there is some space but he is not really able to explain it. But space can mean the same as elasticity, and elasticity is easily considered unreliable." (27) On the same lines one can place the so called Danish scull, a sudden and unforeseen change of mood. "In a wider sense this term means an unmotivated revulsion from intimate friendliness to the entire opposite, even in a very rude or rough kind." (28) These problems often put an end to closer acquaintance with Danes. Cosy talk, jokes and snug often appeared affected and artificial when suddenly replaced by earnest subjects or serious behaviour. To foreigners such conduct could give the impression of capriciousness, and make the Danish way appear slightly superficial.
Order is a mechanism to reduce social complexity, thus order gives a feeling of security in moments of political, social or economic disorder. Order makes orientation easier. Maybe order was the foremost feature of Swedish society in the 1930s. Order held (and holds?) a superior and unique value to Swedes. In a report by Richard Sandler in 1930, order was the foundation of "basic values for the reorganisation of society [...] security, freedom, efficiency, growth of wealth" (29). Such words had the connotation of being honourable; at the same time they did not give any instructions about what to do. Thus, order was a formal and not a contentious category. "Clean, polished, shining, elegant, easy going, perfect functioning, in kind of best order, punctual like a time table: almost everything here is like that" (30), wrote a Dane who had settled in Sweden. The symbolic language in Sweden indicated that one had to do with a perfect machinery. One will look in vain for similar recollections among foreigners in Denmark. "When we e.g. saw the Danish military, the way they looked, the way they walked, then we said, you can never fight a war with these guys" (31), or: "Well, there is, with the exception of Vienna, no other place in the world, where so much phlegmatism, navel contemplation, clumsiness and stubbornness can be found as here" (32), thus German emigrants described the Danish way of life.
Concerning order there is a difference between the Norwegian and the Swedish way of life. Unlike in Sweden, informal networks meant a lot, if not everything, in Norway. "Contacts, bribes, rhetoric, agressivity, charm, helps you less in Sweden than anywhere else in the world. The secondary relations can be reduced to a minimum." (33) In principal, there should be the possibility of tracing back any decision to rational choice. This way of thinking includes both advantages and disadvantages. A Danish observer noticed how much energy Swedes spent on being punctually. At the same time "people spend the time they have thus gained to write down details of pieces of information they had come across. [...] E.g. how shop-keepers carefully wrap up things and write receipts. Not to mention calculation and control systems in restaurants requiring a lot of running to and fro and other fussiness, which slows down the waiting procedure." (34) Examples like these bear witness to that the Swedish way of life was more instrumentally rational (zweckrational) than the Danish and the Norwegian one. In that context, one could call the Swedes the Prussians or Japanese of Scandinavia (35).
The pronounced Swedish inclination to keep order bore strange fruit. A German refugee who stayed in Norway in the 1930s fled to Sweden when Norway was occupied in 1940. In Sweden he was arrested, and the encounter with the police differed a lot from what he was used to from the Norwegian police. "What I supposed was meant to be a routine examination, ended with my being arrested. My declarations did not seem to satisfy the officers. The examination was repeated during the following days. [...] The cell was shining clean, it literally smelled of sterility." (36)
Maybe this cell was an extreme example. But also in a wider sense German refugees in Sweden felt unwelcome and left to governmental arbitrariness. The Swedish bureaucratic apparatus made them feel their lack of power. "Swedish was the name of all bureaucracy that I got acquainted with in the following years" (37), a former German emigrant in Denmark concluded. In his memories, he tells about being arrested in a Swedish internment camp where it was forbidden to write. The Germans complained, and the authority arrived at the following solution. "Some wise men in the Department of Social Affairs had, in a really bureaucratic kind and manner worked out a form where one should sign only. [...] I stay as a refugee in Sweden. I am fine. If you want to write to me send letters to the Department of Social Affairs, Stockholm." (38)
This Swedish rationality became most apparent in the camp system introduced for the purpose of accomodating foreigners. Before April 1940, when German troops occupied Denmark and Norway, Sweden was the only country with a camp system (39). In Denmark and Norway, people were accommodated collectively as well but the system here never was executed on lines similar to the Swedish way of control, management, discipline and the like. The collective lodgings in the West-Scandinavian countries were more spontaneous, improvised and short-lived. The Swedish camps became an "iron cage" (40) of rationality.
Already before April 9th, 1940 (the German invasion in Denmark and Norway), Swedish authorities sat up the internment camp Långmora, Dalarna. This institution used to be a work house for social misfits, i.e. negligent providers, criminals and alcoholics. The culture of discipline was thus so to speak already inside the walls when the institution changed content. Essentially, the old camp regulations were maintained and the staff of the work house reluctantly became accustomed to the new category of internees. Already in the first months of 1940 the internment camp was used for intern political refugees. The main purpose of their stay at the camp was to teach them "respect for the condition Sweden made for their stay here: on no account they shall pursue political activity" (41) - In other words, Långmora was a reformatory, where the inmates should be disciplined and adopt the Swedish norms and values.
There was collective lodgement in Denmark and Norway as well. But there never was any kind of reformatory. In Copenhagen, liberal citizens established a refugee home at the town hall square, where some entertainment and housing took place. "Lessons in Danish and English were given there. There were parties and 'Bierabende' [...] The main task of the Danish head was to arrange contacts between the emigrants and Danish families all over the country in order to provide housing for the refugees. Additionally, money was raised from these families." (42)
In Norway German exiles from Bohemia, who in the first time after arrival lived together in the Labour movement's holiday hut, praised board and lodging. "We had a fine time at these holiday huts, even a very fine time and a lot of comrades had never had it so well before. Food was sufficient, and there was also some pocket-money so that we could keep a calm holiday-life and recover." (43) Norwegian workers came with flowers and fruits so to speak daily. And they even broke into the hut to deliver cakes, sweets and a note, where they expressed the hope the food would taste. All in all, Swedish society made an entirely different impression on foreigners compared to the Danish and Norwegian one. This is also expressed by a final witness, the Dane Bergsøe, who was not a refugee but travelled through Sweden around 1950.
"The more I saw, the more I was convinced that I lived in the most sterile, all-organised and well-bred society in the world. Literally, I never saw dirty or poor people, and drunken guys were, in spite of a harsh prohibition, quite seldom. If there was one occasionally, he was chased by a police squad with searchlight and radio cars, like a murderer and robber. Apparently, everybody seemed to respect the law, nobody committed crimes - I naturally talk about minor delicts - such as one can see. Traffic regulation, prohibition laws, dog laws and what so ever were apparently vaccinated into all the citizens from infancy. You quickly become well-bred in this country. Here, I would rather spit into my own pocket than on the pavement, I would never dare walk over at red or yellow traffic light, I felt like a school boy, obeyed, stopped thinking and submitted." (44)
Above, I tried to describe differences between the symbolic patterns of everyday life in the three Scandinavian countries. The Swedish way of conduct seemed to be particularly formal, instrumentally rational, unemotional and disciplined. Many people, both Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian, would agree on this description. But what are the reasons? It is at least as important to find out why things happen as to find out what happened.
In the following, the argumentation rests on two premises. First, symbolic patterns of everyday life have a relatively high degree of stability. They are historical phenomena of longue durée, i.e. their pace of change is low in relation to e.g. the pace of political events and even fundamental processes of change, like industrialisation, urbanisation and the like. Symbolic patterns of everyday life exist irrespective of the individual. These symbolic patterns (in opposite to e.g. human genes) belong to the superindividual field of general communication. All humans are born into these symbolic patterns, live their lives inside them and leave them, while the symbolic patterns continue to exist, almost entirely unchanged by the individual life (45).
Second, symbolic patterns can not be understood as pure phenomena of the history of mentalities. The history of mentalities can not be written independent of social history. Symbolic patterns have their origin in conflicts of interest between social classes. In these conflicts, symbolic action is used as an instrument of distinction. Savoir vivre, etiquette, life style are social codes which help to distinguish between those who are inside the High Society and those who are not (46).
More to the point, differences in class contacts and class clashes in the Scandinavian countries are the reason for differences in the symbolic patterns of everyday life. The relation between nobility and bourgeoisie is the key to understanding this phenomenon (47), and this relation differed strongly in the three respective countries. As an heritage from Early Modern history, there was a fundamental gap in the social structure between the Eastern Scandinavian and Western Scandinavian region, i.e. Sweden (and Finland) on the one hand, Denmark and Norway on the other. Round 1800, only in Sweden (and Finland) an estate-type society (ständische Gesellschaft) could be found, while it was rudimentary in the two western countries (48).
In a long perspective, Norwegian society was the most egalitarian. This has to do with the decline of the Norwegian aristocracy in the late Middle Ages and the special kind of rule in Early Modern time. In Norway a quite unique cultural, economic and political élite was established as a result of the amalgamation between Norwegian bourgeoisie and Dano-Norwegian civil servants. There were no unbridgeable gaps between top and bottom, between authorities and subject. Traditionally, class borders were permeable in Norway and, compared to other countries, social mobility was high. Out of these circumstances, a peculiar egalitarian principle grew. Hierarchy was, compared to continental feudal societies, less marked. Peasants felt equal to each other and to the authorities. This egalitarian principle was reflected in the symbolic language of the Norwegian society, where symbols of oppression, submission and humility lacked (49).
The opposite was the case in Sweden. Here, aristocracy played an important role in society. Attempts to break down the Swedish aristocracy's power failed, like e.g. the Stockholm Bloodbath (1520) under king Christian II. The aristocracy's lasting importance was expressed by the rise of a court society in Early Modern time. Courtly conduct started to penetrate all classes. The aristocratic way of life became the model for the bourgeois, and even in the most peripheral part of the country court ceremonies set the tone. The symbolic patterns of the authority and the upper classes became an ideal for all social groups in Swedish society (50).
Social formation was more complex in Denmark. There was nobility like in Sweden. But the Danish nobility mainly were landed proprietors, who lived secludedly on their estates. They had little contact with either the king and the royal court or the municipal bourgeoisie. Thus, there was little amalgamation of the different classes, and therefore bourgeois behaviour was never penetrated by aristocratic etiquette. Unlike in Norway and Sweden, the Danish peasant lived in bondage until the reform period around 1800. Compared to Sweden and particularly Norway the peasants’ conditions were miserable. In 1786-87 a measure "forbade landlords and their bailiffs to inflict physical punishment upon their tenants by using long whips or fetters, by making them ride the wooden horse, or requiring them to go around encased in a barrel commonly known as the Spanish mantle" (51). Bondage was abandoned in 1788 but did not apply to all age-groups until 1800.
The peasant looked upon the noble landowner with a slavish respect. This was no expression of admiration but of fear. When the Danish peasant was franchised from bondage, his reaction was to show the landowner that he was equal. He never had the inclination to imitate or adopt the nobleman's behaviour and symbolic language because he resented him. The modern Danish symbolic pattern of everyday life was an amalgam of the peasant's modest and proud conduct and the urban bourgeois culture (52).
In addition, there is one moment of instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität) which formed the Swedish symbolic pattern of everyday life. Perry Andersen has pointed out that the Swedish military occupation of the Hohenzollern-territory forced the young Prussian emperor Frederick Wilhelm I to organise his army in order to withstand the Swedish military imperialism in the Baltic. Thereupon the Prussian emperor built up a throughout hierarchical, effective and highly rational administrative capacity to collect taxes. In order to finance his army, he perfectionalised the coercion system. The Prussian state and army were reshaped after the Swedish model. In other words, it was the Swedes who taught the Prussians to be Prussian (53).
From the time of Gustavus Vasa (1523-1560), Sweden became an expansive and aggressive power. The peculiarly warlike, military and aristocratic way of behaving penetrated Swedish society from top to bottom, and became a long-time heritage to Swedish civil society in the 19th and 20th century. The continuance of this peculiar way of behaving was first and foremost due to the state administration and institutions which experienced an almost unique continuity from the 16th century onwards, with certain reforms, but no revolutionary turning-points (54).
With regard to expansionism the Swedes developed a particular kind of rationality, which had its origin in war economy. The main challenge for the state was to mobilise resources to the maximum extent. The permanent warfare lead to a particularly intensive, efficiency orientated and instrumentally rational way of investigating, administrating and applying the national resources. The fact that the Swedish state in 1749 was the first nation to establish a nation-wide census, is a good example in this regard.
Finally, I would like to emphasise that this article's aim is not at all to paint a black-and-white picture, showing the good, happy, funny and open Norwegians and Danes on the one hand, and the reserved, dull and snobbish Swedes on the other. The aim was to show the connection between symbolic patterns of everyday life and the long-term rise and break-through of civil society. The higher the share of aristocratic elements in the amalgamation of aristocratic and bourgeois conduct was, the more refined and distinguished became the symbolic pattern of civil society. In close connection with the aristocratic elements there was a peculiar kind of rationality in Sweden. It had its origin in the intensive and brutal mobilisation of resources in the Early Modern period. War is father to the state, it is said. But war is - in the Weberian tradition - father to rationality. The bigger the threat, the bigger is rationality. In Weber's notion, Sweden was closer to the occident than Denmark and Norway.
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