Monday, November 30, 2009

Who's Swedish Anyway?

                V.A.L. Sr. and his grandkids (circa 1950) [photo by VAL]

Dear George,

My paternal grandfather, Victor August L. Sr. (1875-1959), was born in Ostersund, Sweden, and my grandmother, Olga Henrietta Olson L.  (1879-1942), was born in Landskrona.  My granddad emigrated to upper peninsula Michigan in 1893, and he and Olga met there and married on June 1, 1904, in Marinette, Wisconsin.  My father, V.A.L. Jr., was born in Marinette on Nov. 5, 1908, and he grew up at least in part as a member of the local Swedish community.  That Swedish influence, though, didn’t seem to extend much across the generations.  My dad would say a few joking words in pidgin Swedish now and then, mostly to indicate that he had no command of his parents’ native language; my mother, who was not Swedish, cooked what we were told were Swedish meatballs; and we enjoyed creamed herring appetizers on special occasions.  That seemed to be it for our Swedish exposure.


When I joined the Psych Department at UC, the only other faculty member of Swedish background was our statistician, Dick Melton.  We’d joke now and then that we shared a common heritage, and, in fact, we were rather similar sorts of persons.  One day Dick came to my office and said he had run across an article that I might find interesting.  It was a description of Swedish “national character”, i.e., the cluster of personality traits that tend to characterize Swedes.  I was shocked – there was such a perfect fit with my personality that the author could have been describing me (as well as Dick).  I’d never thought of myself an ethnic Swede, but it sure sounded like I was.


Recently I looked around for the article Dick had shown me, but I couldn’t find it.  In its place my friend Anna L., who is herself a native Swede, loaned me a copy of “Swedish Mentality” by ethnologist Åke Daun.  Daun identifies a cluster of characteristics that define Swedish behavior patterns: e.g.,  reserved, socially anxious, independent, conflict avoidant, emotionally unexpressive, rational, somber.  The picture sounds a lot like the characters played by Max Van Sydow in Ingmar Bergman movies.


For the fun of it, I paged through Daun’s book and made a list of the terms and phrases he uses to describe typical Swedish characteristics.  I wound up with a list of 22.  Then I turned half of these around so that they were the opposite of Swedish traits (e.g., cheerful rather than gloomy; outgoing rather than shy).  To provide a point of comparison, I asked several family members and close friends to think about Katja (who is of Russian rather than Swedish background) and myself and to judge which of us was more like the given trait term in question.  I didn’t make any mention of nationality or ethnicity at all.


The results were interesting. The lists below show who was judged highest on “Non-Swedish” and highest on “Swedish” characteristics for the 16 traits where there was perfect or near-perfect agreement.


Antonyms of Swedish traits (91% agreement that Katja L. is higher)

Outgoing:  Katja (7/7 raters agree)

Socially confident:  Katja (6/7)

Active in conversation:  Katja (6/7)

Spontaneous:  Katja (6/7)

Seeks attention:  Katja (6/7)

Prone to exaggeration: Katja (7/7)

Subjective:  Katja (6/7)

Cheerful:  Katja (7/7)


Swedish traits (96% agreement that David L. is higher)

Shy:  David (6/7 raters agree)

Reserved: David (6/7)

Prefers family, close friends: David (7/7)

Avoids pretending:  David (7/7)

Tends toward understatement:  David (7/7)

Values honesty:  David (7/7)

Rational: David (7/7)

Somber:  David (7/7)


As I discovered with Dick Melton’s article years ago, I seem to be a near-perfect match with the Swedish character type.  I’ve always thought of myself as powerfully influenced by my parents as unique individuals, by my siblings, by the community in which I grew up, etc.  National ethnic identity, however, didn’t even show up on my subjective list.  It sure sounds like I’m a prototypical Swede though.  Maybe the lesson is that we don’t have as much insight into the powerful forces that have made us who we are as we think we do. 


The other interesting pattern is that Katja and I appear to be perfect opposites, with Katja lower on anything Swedish and uniformly higher on the antitheses of Swedish traits. That’s not entirely surprising.  I’m reminded of a conversation at our wedding reception when my favorite Psychology professor told my nervous mother-in-law that ours would be such an interesting marriage because we were so different and so complementary to one another.  After all this time, I guess he was right. 




G-Mail Comments:

Phyllis S-S (12-6):  Maybe Jung was really right....

-Ami G (12-1): What about "droll sense of humor"?    Love.  Ami

-David L. (12-1): Sounds right to me.  However, Ake Daun emphasizes seriousness above all and cites Swedish proverbs, "When joy's in the house, sorrow's on the threshold"; "Do not jest in earnest"; "The food of pleasure is served on the platter of regret."  Droll?

Love, Dave

-Vicki L. (12-1): Hi David,  Loved your bio re. Vic's heritage and the outcome of your study - still doing Social Psych I see.  Actually it is quite fascinating.  My therapist is constantly making reference to my Swedish traits ... we laugh about it… Give my love to Katja.  Vicki 


1 comment:

  1. David - As our parents used to say, "Second verse, same as the first." Have you thought about how a similar analysis would probably have revealed about the same profiles for your Mom and Dad? The picture of the eight of us is precious beyond words. What a gift Peter gave us when he rescued your Dad's photos and - what wonderful memories I have of the general mischief-making!