Culture clash

One issue with being a Scandinavian woman in Britain is that you haven’t learnt to play The Game. You don’t know how to turn the tears on at the right time, to act cute, or to appear suitably helpless. In the part of Sweden I grew up, you end up being seen as a bit of a wet rag if you do that.

It is very confusing, even after all these years. Especially as all relevant experience has shown me that a woman who chooses to appear helpless on the outside rarely is so on the inside. Quite the contrary. That’s where the cold, hard steel tends to be concealed.

I don’t mean to suggest it doesn’t happen in Sweden. Of course it does. But I don’t think it is a norm as such. And criticising it is acceptable; people will understand what you are talking about. And if you want respect, it is generally not a good strategy.

Being helpless and coy one moment and competent and dependable the next obviously comes across as a bit schizophrenic.

I believe the infrastructure has a lot to do with it. In Sweden, it is more or less expected that you will work, before and after having children. Childcare is available and affordable. A working mum is not an anomaly, it is what you expect. Motherhood and a professional identity are not mutually exclusive.

If you divorce or separate, shared custody is the norm, and whoever has the children most can expect a proportionate financial compensation for their upkeep. But it is not the norm to receive a maintenance for you as a grown-up. I still have in fresh memory the puzzled look on my solicitor’s face when I asked why on earth I would want maintenance for me when we were drawing up a divorce agreement. I really had no idea how things are done here.

I know many capable and competent women here who cannot afford to work, as they are in a relationship and hence will not get any help with the cost of childcare. They have to become dependent, whether they want to or not. Is anyone naive enough to think that it doesn’t affect the dynamics of relationships?

I recall a pitiful conversation I overheard in a toy shop a year or two ago. “Rock chick” behind the counter was talking to her friend “techno chick” who had come in for a chat on her lunch break. They were discussing their friend, who was not present, and her choice of men.

TC: “I mean, she shouldn’t be with a guy like that.”
RC: “No, he’s a loser.”
TC: “What you want is a guy who can support you and look after you, who’s got money, but who is still a bit rock.”
RC: “Yeah, I know – like a guy in a suit, with a city job and long hair.”

When I was about to pay up and leave, “Rock chick” spotted the press card in my wallet and burst into action. (“Techno chick” had left at this point.)

RC: “Um, er, I couldn’t help seeing that you’re a journalist. Is it difficult to get into writing, like, how long does it take?”
Me: “Well, it is a fairly competitive field, and not that easy to make money. I can’t really say how long it might take you.”
RC: “Yeah, well, er, I want to be a writer for a music magazine, you know, and interview rock stars and that.”
Me: “I think you will find there is a lot of competition in that field. Maybe start out somewhere local, with more of a chance to learn the job?”
RC: “But what I really want to do is write about music.”

I have to say she didn’t come across as the brightest star in the firmament. Not likely to swing her way to the top of the tree by her brains. Of course there are other talents that might get her backstage, but not necessarily published – unless she sticks at it sufficiently long to gather enough scandalous anecdotes for a bestseller. She wasn’t particularly good looking, so I guess she’d have to develop some quite exotic skills.

Clearly I am not cut out for working as a career adviser for the young and stupid. I paid up and left.

I am still, after all this time in this country, clueless.

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