As the saying goes, “there is a first time for everything”. For my first time as a guest blogger, I am honoured to have the opportunity to make an appearance on the hugely popular RobertaPimentel.com! And what better way to mark the special occasion than by spreading the love about her part of the world: Scandinavia.
For my 30th birthday this year, I gave myself the present of a lifetime: the opportunity to discover the Land of Everlasting Happiness. From Denmark’s cosmopolitan dynamism, to Norway’s scenic wonders and Sweden’s architectural charms, it didn’t take me long to register why various polls over the years have consistently ranked the region as one of the happiest, least corrupt and most egalitarian societies in the world. So, armed with little more than my own experiences and Michael Booth’s hilariously insightful “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”, I will endeavour today to unmask one factor which I believe single-handedly underpins all forms of Scandinavian happiness and prosperity: Trust.
Trust as the social glue
Having travelled many parts of the Orient on my own (cue: stolen wallets, phones, MP3s and essentially any items not buckled down to your underwear), my initial reservations as an unassuming Asian female travelling solo in Scandinavia seemed to be well-founded. However, reservations dissipated almost as soon as I landed in Billund, Denmark, with many a sighting of children roaming wild and unattended and parents seemingly unaware of the perils of leaving their babies (and all that Lego!) in prams.
In fact, Booth has chronicled in his book similar “frustrations”. Norway came up trumps with the “sleeping on the train” test, with Denmark and Sweden not far behind (the idea is for a foreigner to sleep on a passenger train without being robbed blind). TV producers were equally frustrated in Denmark and Norway in begging for their wallets to be stolen. It turned out that such honest, law-abiding citizens of the north would instantly pick up any (intentionally) discarded wallets and come running after them to return the property!
It became abundantly clear to me at this point that in all of this, the role of trust as the social adhesive is profound. From economic opportunities to national security, the freedom to be is one of the major stalwarts of Scandinavian social equilibrium. The happy folks are also just as happy to regularly trade in circa 50% (or more) of their hard-earned kroners for the safety net of “social welfare”, all in the name of trust in the public sector.
The elephant sitting cosy in the room, of course, is how can a region with extortionate level of taxes and outwardly dull / insular / austere personalities lay claim to being the most trusting group of people on earth? Alas, the evolution of trust works in more insidious ways than first meets the eye.
Evolution of trust
Stepping into Scandinavia is like stepping into an environ of classlessness, conformity and homogeneity, which I envisage is not far from the birthplace of egalitarianism and trust. As a foreigner, it can enshroud you in a warm embrace if you at least look the part (i.e. fifty shades of blond). As for me, I stood out like a sore thumb (more of this later).
The universal free education, a redistributive tax system and relative freedom from poverty are commonly cited as evidence towards the Scandinavian classlessness. In peak hour traffic, for instance, you would be hard-pressed to distinguish the clean-shaven man with casual shirt and chinos as belonging to the C-executive, or the classy lady with impeccably coiffed hair as the administrator of a school canteen. On a more superficial level, my own initial meet with the Trafalgar travel director whom had the fortune of guiding our group through his backyard produced a first-hand impression of Danish informality (folkelig). With a face worthy of any Danish prince and suited up to a tee, he appeared – as perhaps any Danish man would – suitably unnatural (excuse the pun). Changing his gear to casual / informal made all the difference. Such is the Danish way, that defines people by your capacity to blend in, than your ability to stand out.
Scandinavians are predominantly a homogenous, neighbourly bunch with common grounds and shared values. Of course, the Danes and the Swedes have expressions to encapsulate this: hygge (“cosiness”) and lagom (“appropriate”) respectively. Contrary to the English or American way (and to a certain extent, the Australian) where individualism is applauded, ascribing to the same social and moral compass is deemed prerequisite to a comfortable life here, and any oddball or idiosyncratic behaviour will be shot down with sure-fire rapidity.
Not all is a bed of roses
Trust is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to social cohesion. However, not all is a bed of roses, as my own personal experiences in Denmark can attest. With my clearly non-European looks, I have on many occasions been passed in as a “fobby” Chinese tourist, or even worse, an invisible Chinese tourist. The demarcated lines of trust (and distrust) can be a harsh reality call, with many of my requests for basic amenities from taxis, restaurants to public bathrooms going unanswered. The fact that I had to open my mouth and reveal my Australian accent to earn trust provided cold comfort at best. (To be fair, it probably doesn’t help my cause that the Chinese have often patronised the Danes about their lack of international clout and the difficulty of pinpointing Denmark on a map; whilst the Danes were forever keen to teach the Chinese a thing or two about human rights!)
On a global scale, the Oslo bombings in 2011 (perpetrated by one of their own) not only shook Norway to the core, but threw a spanner in the works with respect to the hitherto watertight theory of social trust. Furthermore, the integration of a burgeoning migrant population poses its fair share of challenges ahead for Swedish multiculturalism. Both serve as a reminder that things are not always what they may seem, and that sometimes it takes only a casual scratch to unveil the social unrest lurking just beneath the surface.
At the end of the day though, Scandinavia is still Scandinavia. It stands as a bastion of progressive harmony, with its happy, trusting and prosperous people set amongst an aesthetically blessed landscape (and oh, what a landscape!). And when all is said and done, I must admit that the Scandinavian happiness is still very much alive, and dangerously infectious.
Jolene Hsu is a banker by trade and a writer at heart, not to mention an Adult Fan of Lego (otherwise known as Denmark’s gift to the world). She is an “occasional” blogger and a first-time guest blogger. You are welcome to peek into her life, her adventures and her (mostly positive and G-rated) musings on SoMuchToTellYou.