What is Lagom?

I noticed it once while dining with a couple world-class violinists and two bassists. There was a certain air about them that denoted contentment. No one shared any personal achievements until asked. They each spoke an average of 3-4 languages fluently, but still felt they weren’t good enough because they weren’t native speakers. Some of them had traversed the globe many times.

None of this was voluntarily shared. I had to ask first.

Another time when arriving into Arlanda from Norrbotten, our luggage was at least 45 minutes late off the plane. Passengers stood in pin-drop silence, staring at the stationary conveyor belt. I slowly glanced over my shoulder at the frozen mass. If it had been D.C., at least passengers would have started commiserating with each other.

While running late for a class once, I had prepared my explanation, but was promptly advised by a local – “no need”. I didn’t need to explain myself.

So, what is Lagom?

Lagom (as defined by Wikipedia) means “just the right amount” in Swedish.

No need for excess, bragging, exaggerations, unnecessary public displays, or showiness. Far from denoting complacency, it actually carries with it an air of appropriateness. And it makes sense in such a social state where equality and moderation on all levels is promoted.

I discovered an article titled “Lagom is best or is it?“, which further delves into the concept. To even begin understanding the Swedish psyche, you have to come to terms with lagom.

As an avid traveler, I seem to quickly pick up on cultural norms and somehow avoid the resulting culture shock. As a West African used to loud booming voices sharing their stories and achievements, assimilating into a culture where no one speaks or shares unless spoken to has been quite the learning experience.

So, what is lagom? To learn more, read my in-depth article for Slate called Why Are Swedes So Quiet?

  • svenskaanna

    Having grown up speaking Swedish, lagom happens to be one of those words that I am always frustrated because I can’t translate it into English. Like you said, “to even begin understanding the Swedish psyche you have come to terms with lagom.” It is true that lagom is very representative of Swedish society; nothing is ever overdone or underdone. Interesting how just one word comes to represent so much.

  • For starters, that is a beautiful picture on top of this post. wow!! amazing.

    The Swedish are quite a stoci group of people. I’ve traveled with many and even dated one and it was always weird to see how reserved they are. They are not a showy or outgoing people and this concept seems perfect for sweden. very interesting post lola!

  • Very cool! Thanks for sharing this, Lola. I also recently heard an etiquette expert (American) say that one should never offer an excuse when he or she is late. One should strive not to be late, but in the event that it happens, the manners maven said something to the effect of “When you make excuses–even if they’re true– you put a burden upon the other person to have to pardon you, and you’ve turned your problem into theirs.” I’d never thought of this before, but I found the idea interesting.

  • Wait till you get to Lagos ;-p

  • Randy Burge

    What a wonderful short essay on humility and the spectrum of its expressions across cultures. It seems the cultural influences towards reserve deepen the further away from the equator one goes. Perhaps the trait comes from the necessities of staying in and staying warm during the dark frigid days of the year across the evolution of the culture. Braggadocio expends too much energy and is tiresome in close quarters as we all know listening to a loud person on an airplane.

  • sdg1844

    Quite a cultural contrast and definitely one of the things that keeps life interesting. Enjoy yourself.

  • I lived in Sweden for four years and I think the concept of lagom is very and pleasantly Buddhist.

  • This is a concept Jeff and I talk about fairly often and try to figure out. Even though he’s a holder of a Swedish passport, he still can’t get completely around the idea. It’s certainly very contrary to the way much of the rest of the globe thinks.

  • tope

    see you in lagos !!! no lagom o !!!