The word lagom itself comes from a shortening of the phrase “laget om,” which literally means “around the team” and dates back to the Viking era between the 8th and 11th centuries. Communal horns filled with mjöd (fermented honey wine) would be passed around and everyone had to sip their own share and not a bit more. Sweden today might be known for cutting-edge design and fierce modernism, yet this Viking code of conduct remains ingrained in their mindset.
“I love lagom!” says schoolteacher and native Swede, Linda Henriksson, when I ask her what she thinks of it. “It could mean anything to anyone. Ironically, average could be many different things depending on who you’re talking to.” So the word itself is now being used in everyday settings to mean “average” or “just right.”
And the concept is adapting to a changing society. The government agency Statistiska centralbyrån tracks nearly everything that can be counted, averaged, and summarized in Sweden, including how many people are called Svensson (101,027 to be exact). Their most recent count of the 9,606,522 people that call Sweden home found that nearly one in five residents has a foreign background. That’s peak diversity for the Scandinavian country, and one might assume that they are bringing in new cultural beliefs and traditions with them, slowly diluting this intrinsic Swedish mentality.
Not so says Henriksson. She thinks non-native Swedes are drawn to this norm and pick it up pretty fast. Many of us outsiders might initially find lagom odd or even a little bit funny since it is such a nebulous concept. But once you realize you’re the only booming braggart in the room, you quickly learn how to appropriate the cultural nuance.
It feels liberating not to have to wear your accomplishments on your sleeve.
I come from two boisterously competitive cultures—Nigerian and American—where everyone grows talons and claws their way to survive, stand out, and succeed. The idea of lagom felt intensely foreign to me at first. Yet I have embraced it too. To me, it meant a cool restraint, a certain self-confidence. It feels liberating not to have to wear your accomplishments on your sleeve. I didn’t need to boast or brag about my achievements, but actually let my work do the talking for me—like everyone else around me.
My friend Fredrik Rydehäll, a lighting engineer whose job is to literally put actors, singers, and dancers in the spotlight, has worked with everyone from egocentric choreographers to outstanding yet humble ballerinas. “It is easier to stand out in Stockholm because it’s so multicultural,” Rydehäll tells me. He’s from Luleå (population 75,000), and there lagom rules supreme.
In his view, Swedes can get away with not being so lagom in a bigger city like Stockholm with larger crowds. In smaller towns, they have to be lagom to blend in with their neighbors. “It really depends on why you want to stand out,” Rydehäll continues. “If you stand out because you just want to get attention, then it’s annoying.”
What might have caused anger in other countries was met with shoulder shrugs in Sweeden.
Mats Olsson, a well-known sports columnist for daily newspaper Expressen, saw lagom at work during the 2012 European Championship soccer games in Kiev. Sweden had just been kicked out of their group pool amid high expectations, but what might have caused anger and bitter recrimination in other countries was met with a collective “oh well, next time” and shoulder shrugs. Even Swedish athletes have been conditioned to temper their feelings: not too heated, not too lackadaisical. Olsson specifically recalls ice hockey legend Peter Forsberg and soccer star Henrik Larsson, both now retired, for their exemplary athleticism.
“After amazing performances, their replies during interviews were mostly along the lines of…‘Well, I guess it was okay, it was the team that won,’ ‘If I was good, it’s for others to judge, I do my job for the team,’ or ‘As long as we win the games, it doesn’t matter who scores,’” he says. That is, of course, what athletes in the United States are coached to say. But in Sweden, it’s strangely genuine.
Lagom does have an ugly cousin of sorts: Jante. The Law of Jante (jantelagen in Swedish) is something like the strong-arming side of lagom. Instead of celebrating the virtues of modesty, it’s the part of you that says, “Don’t think you’re anyone special.” To the untrained eye in casual Swedish settings, you might not know which norm—lagom or Jante—is at work.
“A lot of Swedes hate lagom too,” Henriksson, the teacher, explains. “Mostly because of the Jantelagen aspect. Maybe you as a Swede want to be noticed, but you feel you can’t scream as loud as you’d want to because you can’t be too much or too little of anything.”
The Law of Jante is named after the fictional small town of Jante in Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose’s 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks. The town was a place where individual success and achievements were frowned upon, where individuality was seen as a threat to collective group unity. But it’s really all about deep-seated jealousy directed towards those who have found success.
Not to be confused with regular jealousy, Swedish jealousy seethes silently all the way to the grave.
Not that it would be spoken aloud, of course. “Swedes don’t openly talk about ‘Den svenska avundsjukan’—‘the Swedish Jealousy,’” my husband, a native Swede, tells me. Not to be confused with regular jealousy, which may motivate someone to act, Swedish jealousy seethes silently all the way to the grave.
Lagom can often feel like a national hindrance, and some of Sweden’s critics argue that it has increased people’s dependence on social welfare, stifles ambition, and is overly non-confrontational—perhaps explaining why Sweden has stayed neutral in many world conflicts when other nations might have expected them to act.
Maybe. But for a true demonstration of the power of lagom, it sometimes helps to watch a bunch of Swedes—when they are outside of Sweden.
That’s because when Swedes cross international borders, they often seem hell bent on leaving lagom far behind. And this may be no more true of Swedish teenagers and young adults, whose natural narcissism and hormones can run afoul of lagom at home.