Sunday, 19 July 2009

Inside or Outside the Whale: Xenophobe's® Guide to the Swedes

I just finished off The Xenophobe's® Guide to the Swedes the other day (see my full review at Goodreads) and thought that I would, apropos of that, talk a little about perspective.

As I mention in my review, the book is part of a a publication series (Xenophobe's® Guide), which attempts to humorously describe peoples of various nationalities, and in the book at hand, the Swedes get their treatment from author Peter Berlin. Berlin, according to the author bio, "left his native Sweden the day after graduating from university, and has always looked back since. He maintains that you have to go abroad to view your country in perspective, for how can one size up a whale from within?" However, it seems to me as if Berlin ought to have kept in mind the old adage "size isn't everything."

Don't get me wrong, Berlin is an entertaining writer and the text is a fun read to be sure, but (and this is one of those important "buts") his details are sometimes off. This ranges from (as stated in my Goodreads review) the perpetuation of pure myths (e.g. the etymology of the Swedish word lagom on pages 11–12), describing localized phenomena as national (e.g. the description on pages 42–43 of the custom of eating surströmming, i.e. fermented herring, which in actuality, while available around the country, is scoffed at by many, many Swedes not stemming from the northern regions of the country), and sometimes even, more or less, downright inventing contradictory customs that aren't there. As an example of the latter, one needs only consider the following quote (page 48):
Having made it into a Swedish home, a foreign guest is immediately faced with the dilemma of what to do with his or her shoes. A rule of thumb is that in towns and villages one takes them off, while in the big cities one leaves them on.
Now, the first bit is quite true (and you'd better believe it). Swedes do as a custom take their shoes off indoors and not doing so would mostly be considered rude (unless the host has made verbal allowances for you to step inside shoed, for whatever reason). What is off, however, is Berlin's assertion that there is a difference depending on whether you happen to be in a big city or a town/village. I've spent most of my 34 years thus far in Sweden. First growing up in a small community outside of Göteborg (a.k.a. Gothenburg) and later on, for over a decade now, living in Göteborg itself (Göteborg being Sweden's second largest city). For the record, I've also visited people in Stockholm (i.e. the capital of Sweden and also its largest city) on occasion, as well as people in other, albeit smaller, cities around the country. All that being said, Berlin's statement considering the rule of thumb suggesting a difference in the customs concerning shoes comes as absolute news to me as a Swede. And it has been equally surprising to other Swedes I've tried this "new" rule of thumb upon.

On the whole, these things suggests to me that Berlin is slightly out of touch with his topic. It occurs to me that he's simply been outside the whale too long and consequently forgotten how the inside looks. It is true that an outside perspective allows you to see things an insider does not see, especially in terms of national character or the internationally speaking odd things which are taken for granted, but the Devil, as they say, is always in the details, and Berlin seems to have lost track of his details on more than one occasion.

The end result, while definitely enjoyable, nevertheless falters due to its failure to also be informative in a trustworthy manner, and the two are not mutually exclusive by any means. As an example of a successful combination of the two, I'd like to cite Colin White and Laurie Boucke's fantastically funny and informative book The Undutchables Version 3.1 – An Observation of the Netherlands: Its Culture and its Inhabitants (the 5th edition is available from, though I'm unsure of the version number there). The difference here is that White is an Englishman and Boucke an American, each of them bringing an outside perspective with them when they're, as it were, entering the whale. That is, while Berlin has left Sweden behind (stopping by only on occasional and obviously limited return visits during the years thereafter), White and Boucke have both had to face getting into the Netherlands. In many ways, it seems to become a question of, on the one hand, remembering the inside of the whale from the position where its full size can be viewed (but where the details inevitably get blurred or lost) and, on the other hand, being faced with the otherness of the inside, of the details themselves. The latter perspective does, undeniably, seem to be a better one, even a more accurate one. The back cover of my edition of The Unduchables sport a blurb by a Johannes van Dam, Het Parool, boldly stating: "In a very exact yet funny way, (this book) discloses all the secrets about us that we really would have preferred to keep to ourselves." It is a statement, which the Dutch people I know, who have read that book, have agreed with. Personally, I have a very hard time seeing Berlin's attempt at describing the Swedes receiving any similar accolades from any Swedes.

Still, I would not want to end on the wrong foot. As I said early on in this text, Berlin is an entertaining writer and his text is a fun read. In fact, I would recommend anyone who is interested in whiling away a bit of time in an enjoyable manner to give the book a chance. Just, you know, take it with two fistfuls of salt and don't mistake it for an accurate reference book, is all.


  1. Får nog ta och läsa den, faktiskt. Har bara bläddrat lite...
    Det där med skorna undrar jag vad han fått ifrån, det kan ju vara så att han faktiskt själv upplevt att det är som han säger, men jag känner inte heller igen det. Man tar av sig skorna, som en ren reflex, oavsett var i landet man befinner sig...

  2. For some helpful perspective on the "inside of a whale", I think Jonah is the best read! ;-)