A few years ago, my brother-in-law and his family moved to Stockholm. His wife grew up there, so it wasn’t completely out of nowhere.
They originally intended to move back after a few years. But after a while, he changed his tune. I thought he was crazy at first, but then my wife and I went to visit.
And it all started to make sense.
While I’m not planning to make the move any time soon, there are a few things the Europeans do that I wish Americans would get wise to.
A Stronger “We” Means a Stronger “Me”
Americans are nothing if not individualistic. The American dream was forged on rugged independence and being whatever you want to be.
This reflects in our policies too, with things like single-payer healthcare and better welfare programs being denounced with the question, “what’s in it for me?”
In Europe though, there’s a much stronger sense of community identity. Sweden in particular is famous for its generous public healthcare policies. And while I was there, I asked a number of locals about it. My nephew even had a visit to the ER after bumping his head.
And in my time, I didn’t meet a single person who thought their tax dollars were being wasted. They understood that when their neighbors have access to better healthcare, they have healthier, happier communities.
This idea of communal wellness has ripples all across European society, from policy issues to public transportation. While Americans have been arguing about a high-speed rail system for decades, Europeans have been enjoying their publicly subsidized international railway.
Granted, Sweden is separated from the European mainland, so we didn’t do any border hopping. But when my sister spent a semester abroad in Spain, she would hop on the bullet train every weekend to visit Switzerland or spend the weekend in Paris, all on the cheap.
Value Means Money
In America, we talk a lot about our values.
We value hard work. We value families.
But when it comes down to it, we don’t really put our money where our mouths are. Americans are overworked, underpaid, and overstressed.
Meanwhile, Swedish workers are protected by strong unions and are paid well, despite working fewer hours.
We’re the only country in the world that doesn’t mandate a paid maternity leave (see point one: “it ain’t my kid, why should I pay for it?”).
When we visited my brother-in-law, he and his wife were still on parental leave after the birth of their son.
He was a year old.
I don’t expect the States to adopt a comparable parental leave, but anything would be better than scheduling a C-section strategically so you miss fewer days of work (some friends have had this exact experience).
You’re Not the Only Person in the World
In Sweden, there is a principle called Alle Mans Rätt, or All Men’s Rights. It’s the idea that every person has the right to enjoy the goodness of nature, so no one has the right to ruin that for anyone else.
This idea is central to the Swedish identity, and has resulted in beautiful natural spaces with a very low rates of pollution and littering.
But Alle Mans Rätthas a huge influence on Swedish cultural norms as well. It brings the understanding that you’re not the only person in the world. Your actions have repercussions that other people have to deal with.
When I was in Sweden, I saw this in action everywhere. Drivers would yield to pedestrians. Patrons would clean up after themselves at restaurants. No one left trash in their seats at the movie theater.
While America seems to be populated by roving gangs of rude loudmouths leaving a trail of trash in their wake, Swedes were, by and large, very polite, kind to strangers, and very eco-friendly—except for a snarky group of teenagers at the skatepark, but that’s to be expected.
Don’t get me wrong: I love this country. I’m proud to be an American, and I’m glad to live here.
But I don’t think it’s unpatriotic to admit that we have some work to do.