How being modest is a sign of lagom

There is a Swedish proverb that says “Eget beröm luktar illa”. It claims that self-praise smells bad. That could not be more right, huh? Swedes (as other Nordic people) hate bragging or showing off. And there is another Swedish proverb that suggests that praise makes a good person better. And yet another one that says that over-praise is a burden.  Too much Nordic wisdom put together, right?

If one tries to identify what is hidden behind all this, guess what! The word lagom pops up. This unwritten yet so powerful (dominant we would dare say) law in Sweden. Yeah, yeah, you already know about lagom, that is about balancing things for yourself like food, work, obligations etc.

But what about social interactions? How does lagom affect the way people behave on social occasions? What is there to learn? Read on!

How do Swedes celebrate their achievements?

Well, they don’t… Just kidding. Of course, they celebrate them but in a more moderate way. Quiet too, we would add. You can observe that when Swedes win a medal in a world championship. Most probably, they would prefer no press conference to be held, so they don’t have to talk about their achievement. But yeah, in case they can’t avoid it, here is how they would most probably comment:
  • It was not me, it was because of the team behind me
  • It does not matter who wins, it’s about the game.
  • I did it for the team, we are as one.

And any variation of the above. On a more personal level, a Swede would probably never mention a huge achievement of his or hers. They would prefer their success to speak for itself, rather than they would talk about it. Actions, not words matter.  Even on dates, each side would have to thoroughly investigate the other side and ask questions back-to-back in order to reveal any details about their life and best moments.

How do Swedes perceive others’ bragging?

They definitely frown upon it. It makes them feel uncomfortable. Take a TV show for example. When the final winner is revealed and he or she gets in and/or under the spotlight, you should see the other’s reaction to this. They perceive it as something too much. Not lagom at all. “Who is he to be the winner and get all the attention?” they might subconsciously think. “We are all equal and worth the same” could be another reaction. Also, the winner would most probably feel awkward to talk about how he or she won.

What is behind all this?

There are two things to say: lagom and jante. Actually, they are the two sides of the same coin. The coin is equality. This is the binding force between them. Lagom talks about balance. So, one should not show off his or her achievements and talk about them too much. Let the actions do the talking. Behind that is the Law of Jante, perhaps the most dominant unwritten(or should we say written?) law in the Nordics. No one is better than others and no one has the right to think he is better or smarter than the others.

Digging deeper, one finds that all this is about the greater good. People feel they need to be modest and give everybody their fair share of everything. Be it success or recognition or other benefits. Bragging creates two groups: the winners and losers. This creates a gap in society and although this may be pleasant on a personal level (to celebrate one’s triumphs), it is bad for society.

Also, bragging most often includes exaggeration or distortion of the reality and this ruins trust. So, being modest builds trust. Next time, your peers find out that you achieved something, they will know it is for real and you were worth it.