Book Talk

True or False: Scandinavians Are Practically Perfect in Every Way

Thanks to big government and high taxes, Scandinavia is a success story—mostly.
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When asked why Danes are so happy, British author Michael Booth replied: "They're sexy and gorgeous and beautiful." Here, a reveler at a Danish street festival enjoys music and beer.


To an outsider, Scandinavia can seem like a group of small, difficult-to-tell-apart Nordic countries. Frequently derided by right-wing politicians as an example of everything wrong with Big Government, the Scandinavian countries are, in fact, some of the richest, most successful societies on Earth, with exceptionally high levels of education, health care, and safety.

Talking from his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, British journalist Michael Booth, author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, explains how a "warrior gene" may make Finns susceptible to alcohol, why Greta Garbo's famous line about wanting to be alone holds true for most Swedes, what the United States can learn from the Nordic countries, and why he loves flødeboller.

At the end of the movie The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, there is a shot of Stockholm at night. In addition to Stieg Larsson, we've had a slew of other internationally successful "Nordic noir" exports. What's going on?

I think the reason that people in Britain and America fell in love with Nordic noir is that they look different. They had an instant visual appeal, and they were showing people a part of the world—and that's what I try to do in the book—that most people don't know very much about, that few of us go to. We don't speak the languages; we maybe buy some of their products from time to time and listen to their music, but not a lot else.

Shows like Forbrydelsen (The Killing) or Borgen showed different lifestyles, different gender roles, different ways of doing politics. Then there's the appeal of things being dark and terrible in countries that are supposed to be Utopian.

When you told your friends in Scandinavia you were writing a book about them, they said: "Why write about us? We're boring." What made you persevere?

Yeah, they have a pretty low self-image, particularly in Sweden. I got that a lot. I also got it from my British publisher initially, who said: "Who's really interested in Scandinavia?" Like everyone, I tended to lump the "Scandis" together into this homogeneous bunch of bearded, recycling, progressive, liberal hippies. I had no real idea of the distinct differences within the tribe. So, the root of the book was to help people tell them apart, and find out what we can learn from them, because these societies are very successful.

If you think of them as a family, the Norwegians have traditionally been the country cousins, while the Swedes have been the big brother—the head boy. Then you've got the Danes, who are considered a bit [like] the black sheep of the family: the younger brother who likes a drink or a toke on a spliff. Then you've got the Finns, who are kind of like the mad aunt in the attic.

In numerous polls over the past decade, Denmark has ranked as the "happiest" country in the world. (The U.S. is number 17.) The country also has the second highest consumption of antidepressants. Are these two statistics connected?

They also have among the highest levels of alcohol consumption, eat the most candy in the world, and have among the highest consumption of pork products. It's a really potent cocktail, isn't it? The antidepressant thing is actually a bit of a red herring. You could argue that they're oversubscribed, or there's a better awareness of mental health problems.

But it's not just the past ten years. The Danes have been topping these quality of life polls for decades. Unfortunately, since 2008, their happiness level has plummeted. The latest poll, which came out in December 2014, showed that the Danes who said they were thriving had gone from 83 percent in 2006 down to 67 percent in 2014. So the take-home seems to be, unfortunately, that money does make you happy. [Laughs]

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The Danes have been at the top of the quality of life surveys for decades. This group is enjoying a relaxed afternoon by the docks in Copenhagen.


The New York Times called Denmark the best place to be laid off. Why does anyone bother to work?

A lot of people don't, and that's one of the big problems Denmark is facing right now. They have this fantastic welfare state that has traditionally supported people from cradle to grave. If you get sick or lose your job or just fall by the wayside in some way, it's there to pick you up. As a result, there is a disincentive for people to take menial, low-pay jobs.

Depending on whose statistics you believe, it can actually be better paid not to work, also in Sweden. They're trying to change the system. In Denmark, you have roughly a third of the workforce working in the public sector and the other third receiving benefits in some way or other. So, for them to vote to reduce it is like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Danes also work fewer hours than anybody else in the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development]. So, when people ask me why the Danes are so happy, I answer: They're sexy and gorgeous and beautiful, and they don't work. [Laughs]

Right-wing U.S. politicians like to cite Scandinavia as an example of everything that is wrong with a high-tax, welfare state. But Scandinavia proves that government can work, doesn't it?

I often get asked whether you could take this template from Scandinavia and apply it to America. But that would be ridiculous. It's a site-specific system. Big government, high taxes, redistribution of wealth on a grand scale has worked fantastically well up here. They call it "the bumblebee economy" in Denmark. In theory, it shouldn't be able to stay airborne. But it does.

Greta Garbo, the iconic Swedish actress, famously said: "I want to be alone." According to you, it's a national characteristic. Explain.

I always thought that was just some movie-star shtick. But it's so Swedish: wanting to be alone—as well as Finnish and Norwegian. The Danes are very different. But there is a kind of isolationist tendency in these people. When they're out and about, they don't like to make eye contact, they don't want to chat. There's no time for any of that because it's too bloody cold! [Laughs]

To outsiders, they can seem very rude, very locked in, almost autistic. For English people, with our baroque codes of manners, it can be deeply traumatic coming to Scandinavia. [Laughs]

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Norwegians feel a deep connection with the landscape and take any opportunity to experience it, like this couple cross-country skiing.


Every nation has a neighbor it dislikes. The Poles dislike the Germans; the French joke about the Belgians. But no one likes the Swedes. Why?

It has historical roots. There is a sense that they turned their back on everyone during World War II. They were never invaded. They were supposedly neutral, and yet they did very well economically selling iron ore and other raw materials to the Nazis. There is even talk that German trains were allowed to cross Swedish territory. The Nazis, of course, invaded Denmark and occupied Norway. They fought with the Finns and against the Finns.

But throughout all this turmoil, the Swedes managed to stay aloof and take advantage of the situation. When the war ended, while the rest of us were licking our wounds, the Swedes had an amazing head start. In the fifties and sixties, they were one of the fastest growing economies in the world. That paved the way for this great, social democratic experiment.

When asked what the richest country on Earth is, most people would say Switzerland or one of the oil sheikhdoms, like Kuwait. It's not, though, is it?

Norway now has, not just per capita but in absolute terms, the biggest pot of gold in the world. It's called the sovereign wealth fund, but it's nicknamed the oil fund, and it's up at something like $600 billion to $700 billion. Of course, in the past six months we've seen the oil price plummet, which has made Norway begin to rethink having all their eggs in one basket.

Oil has also had a big impact on the Norwegian character. If you look at how many sick days they take, how much holiday they take, how much they're working, how much innovation and new industry is being set up in Norway, the figures are really bad. They now have very high expectations, but they don't especially want to graft for it, particularly in the lower paid industries that they used to be very strong in.

You won't find a single Norwegian working in the fish processing industry, for instance. They're immigrants from the Philippines or from Sweden. If you go out in a restaurant in Oslo, you will have Swedish people waiting on you. Young Norwegians all want to work in the media.

You say Norwegians are "cemented to nature rather than culture." How does that manifest itself?

One of the main things that distinguishes the Norwegians from the rest of the region is this deep, umbilical connection to their landscape. Every weekend, it's a matter of pride, when you come back in the office, to say you've been out in the countryside, climbing mountains or hiking or cross-country skiing. Any opportunity, they want to be out in their nature. It's understandable. Norway is one of the most beautiful, spectacular countries on Earth.

Alcohol is a problem everywhere in Scandinavia. The Finns give binge drinking a whole new meaning, don't they?

As an Englishman, I'm hardly in a position to point the finger about drinking too much. But the Finns have this reputation. If you look at the figures, they actually drink less than the European average of pure alcohol per year, per capita. But the problem is they do it all on Friday or Saturday night. They are epic bingers, and it's given them all sorts of problems.

Alcohol is now the number one cause of death for male Finns. They also get a bit "fighty" when they have drink in them. Some people believe they have a special gene, which reacts badly to alcohol, called the warrior gene. They have some of the highest homicide rates in Western Europe. So it's definitely a problem.

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On February 14, a terrorist killed two people in Copenhagen, one outside a synagogue—a shock for a nation proud of its safety record and openness. Two days later, tens of thousands of Danes gathered to commemorate the victims of the shooting.


Ten days ago, thousands of Danes marched in Copenhagen to protest the fatal shootings at an event promoting free speech and at a Jewish synagogue. This goes back to the publication in 2006 in Denmark of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. Is Scandinavia going to face the same problems with Islamic terrorism as France or Britain?

It's happening, and it's terrifying. It was just announced that the gun used by the murderer was stolen from the Danish military, and that there are about 70 such weapons unaccounted for in Denmark. At the same time, other people of Arab origin in the area of Copenhagen where the gunman came from have been openly saying he was a hero: "We support him." "I understand why he did this." There are probably hundreds of radicalized Muslims in Denmark and in Sweden, as well, who are very angry and motivated. So I think there will be more of this, unfortunately. It's very worrying.

What are the things you love—and loathe—about Scandinavia?

I love what they call "eye height," where you can look everyone in the eye, this sense of equality. I love it and loathe it. If you go to a restaurant, the service will be appalling because the teenagers who are working there to finance their way through university think of themselves as an equal to you, so to serve someone is beneath them. But you have to admire the equality they have achieved up here.

I also love this chocolate thing they have in Denmark called a flødeboller. It's like a chocolate-covered marshmallow on a shortbread base. That's one of the great gifts the Danes have given to the world: the flødeboller.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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