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Rationality Valued, Study Says : Swedes Keep Their Cool About Emotion

February 05, 1989|ALAN ELSNER | Reuters

STOCKHOLM — Can an entire nation banish emotion from its political, social, even its sexual life?

According to Ake Daun, ethnography professor at Stockholm University, Swedes have done just that. The result is an efficient, rational but somewhat cold and impersonal society.

In a book due to be published in March called "The Swedish Mentality," Daun draws on a battery of psychological and sociological studies measuring and comparing the emotional responses of different nations.

His conclusion: "Swedes give a low value to emotion and a high value to rationality. Strong emotions are suppressed or repressed and emotion is kept out of the life of the society."

"There is no Swedish equivalent of the French 'crime of passion.' Strong feelings are not to any great extent seen as extenuating circumstances," Daun said in an interview.

More controversially, the researcher also suggests that Swedes not only value emotion less than other people, but actually seem to feel things less strongly.

Most Swedes questioned about this disagreed strongly. They may not exhibit temperament as much as other people, but deep down their feelings are just as strong, they said.

But if Daun's theory were true, it would explain a great deal about Sweden--its well-organized but impersonal welfare state, the weak hold of religion on its people, its unflappable tennis stars who never seem to lose their cool, even its uninhibited and unsentimental approach to sex.

"Sex," says Daun, "is seen by many Swedes as a mere bodily function. Whereas for many people elsewhere, sexual satisfaction is mixed in with many other levels in a relationship, here it is looked at as something technical."

Daun's researches also suggested that Swedes go to greater lengths than other people to avoid conflict. Daun said a visit to a Swedish maternity ward was revealing.

"While in labor, Swedish women groan as little as possible and in many cases afterward ask if they yelled too much. If they find out they didn't, it is seen as positive," he said.

When Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986, 24% of adult Swedes admitted crying while 44% of first generation immigrants to Sweden said they wept. In 1963, 53% of adult Americans cried after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

This attitude, prizing the rational above sentiment, also sets the tone for Swedish politics and business life. Swedish firms are avid appliers of new technology and ruthless in scrapping what is old and inefficient.

Labor unions, which are often represented on the boards of companies, often do not oppose job cuts if there are rational arguments to back them.

"If a social reform or an industrial innovation seems to be backed up by rational argument, you can't oppose it in Sweden just by being angry or appealing to the past," Daun said.

"The fact that a person really dislikes free abortion for example is hardly ever considered a legitimate argument. Only objective arguments are considered valid."

Rationality leads many Swedes to believe that it is the duty of the state to care for the sick, the old and the infirm. Old people are hustled off to institutions where they receive excellent care.

Why are Swedes so Swedish?

Daun supports the theory of British social scientist Richard Lynn, who argued that national differences in neuroticism depended on the amount of stress to which a particular people had been subjected.

Stress was caused by factors such as military defeat and occupation, political instability, economic disruptions and climate. Judged on all these criteria, Sweden scores low.

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