16 August 2016

Debunking Utopia #4: global trends of the daily grind


Recently Business Insider ranked the 19 countries around the world which have the best reputation, in terms of being nice countries with thriving economies. Not surprisingly, Sweden topped the list. The magazine explained: “Sweden has it all: high-quality exports, a tolerant society, low crime, beautiful cities to visit, a high standard of living, a mild climate, and a strong sense of business”. Norway snapped the 5th spot: “When the UK negotiates its Brexit, there’s a lot of talk about it following the ’Norway model’, which allows for a degree of access to the single market without voting rights. It seems to work very well for Norway — the country is an export powerhouse thanks to large natural resources and a popular tourist destination in its own right.” Finland followed closely behind on 6th ranking and Denmark on 8th.

As I have written in my previous columns in this series, Nordic countries are often upheld – not least by the global left – as role models for others to follow. One reason is that these countries, due to their admirable social outcomes, top various lists of being the best countries in the world. Another is that they are seen as perhaps the only socialist role models that are actually successful, not only in theory but also in practice.

However, as I explain in my new book ‘Debunking Utopia – Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism‘ – which officially hits the book stores in the US today – these ideas are based on misunderstanding the true roots of Nordic success. The root of Nordic success is not socialism, but rather a combination of free markets and unique norms related to work, co-operation and individual responsibility.

Last week’s column dealt with the fact that the admirable social outcomes of Nordic countries in fact pre-date big government. Already in 1960, when Nordic countries had low-tax models, they were ranked as having very high life spans and very low child mortality. In fact, since introducing large welfare states, they were slipped in the international rankings somewhat. Clearly, the scope of welfare state policies does not explain Nordic success in terms of health. The explanation lies in culture. The Nordic people like to take long walks in nature, eat a healthy diet with lots of fish, and avoid indulging in unhealthy treats. And subsequently they live long and healthy lives, even on inhospitable climates such as that of Iceland. The economic success of Nordic countries is also linked to their unique culture. A key reason for why Nordic countries top the international lists of countries with good reputations is that their cultures are uniquely suited to successful businesses.

If you have ever visited Nordic countries, you might have noticed that people who live there have a unique way of interacting with one another. For example, a strong sense of cooperation exists in most workplaces. Employers and employees pull in the same direction, and therefore management practices are often relaxed. Nordic companies can give employees a lot of freedom without sacrificing efficiency. The book ‘Understanding Cross-Cultural Management explains:

“The Viking heritage of self-sufficiency, fairness, egalitarianism and democracy is reflected in the way Scandinavian business is run. In most companies, bosses are seen more as team leaders and groups facilitators as opposed to being decision makers who delegate tasks to others. As such, employees are often encouraged to express their opinions freely at meetings and everyone’s opinion is given consideration when making decisions.”

People from the Nordics are valued as employees abroad, since the concept of strong Nordic work ethics is widely recognized. When directly asked, the large majority of workers in the Nordics see themselves as totally committed to their employer. As the table below shows, this is not the case for most other countries in Europe.

debunking #5 1

Perhaps you have noticed that your Swedish friend is always on time? And when you are five minutes late, she has a disappointed expression on her face. This is also a typical cultural trait. In the book ‘Cross-Cultural Business Behavior‘, we read:

“Business people from the four Nordic cultures definitely share a monochronic orientation to time. They value punctuality, follow meeting agendas and tend to adhere to schedules.”

One of the first things I teach my friends who move to Sweden is that they have to respect the clock. In other parts of the world, promising to show up for dinner at eight o’clock means that you will be there somewhere between eight or nine. In Sweden, it means that you should be ringing the doorbell exactly when a few minutes have passed after eight (since being early to dinner is a greater sin than being late). If it is a work meeting, you should instead be there a few minutes in advance. Another cultural feature that is connected to working life, and difficult to miss, is the Nordic obsession with coffee.

debunking #5 2

When David Kamp reviewed Stieg Larsson’s hit Swedish crime trilogy for the New York Times, he expressed surprise about how many of the scenes revolved around servings of coffee:

“Larsson’s is a dark, nearly humorless world, where everyone works fervidly into the night and swills tons of coffee; hardly a page goes by without someone ‘switching on the coffee machine,’ ordering ‘coffee and a sandwich’ or responding affirmatively to the offer ‘Coffee?’”

Roberto Ferdman replied in the Atlantic that “the coffee obsession has much less to do with Larsson than it does with Sweden.”

Indeed, the Nordic countries top the global rankings when it comes to the average number of coffee cups consumed. Finns, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians gulp down more cups than Brits, Americans and every other society for which data is gathered. Turkey and Italy, famous for their strong coffee, don’t even come close. In these countries, small cups of thick coffee are consumed. In the United States, coffee is often served in large cups but is frequently quite weak. In the Nordics, the cups are both large and filled to the rim with strong coffee.

debunking #5 3

Researcher Taija Ojaniemi explains that the high rate of coffee consumption in his home country of Finland might seem as something of a puzzle. Coffee cannot be grown in Finland, or anywhere near it. Over the years, coffee consumption in the country has been restricted by legislation, economic crises, and periods of warfare. So why are Finns so addicted to the beverage? Ojaniemi theorizes that the culture of coffee drinking can be related to historic attempts to ban alcohol, as coffee can be seen as an alternate social drink. Another theory is that coffee consumption is related to working culture:

“An average middle-aged Finn drinks most of his or her coffee during the statutory coffee breaks at work. These breaks are important social events that maintain the employees’ working morale and group spirit. At many Finnish workplaces, the coffee is free and workers can drink as much as they like.”

The historical fear of coffee as a productivity inhibiter, and its modern embrace as a productivity enhancer, is a vivid example of the long-term obsession Nordic societies have with creating a culture focused on hard work.

Coffee was introduced in the seventeenth century when Finland was still part of the Swedish Kingdom. The new drink was suspected of deteriorating the citizens’ work ethics and the productive capacity of the nation. Ojaniemi explains,

“Coffee was banned altogether four times in the eighteenth century on the grounds of its negative effect on the national economy, public health and work ethics.”

The historical fear of coffee as a productivity inhibiter, and its modern embrace as a productivity enhancer, is a vivid example of the long-term obsession Nordic societies have had with creating a culture focused on hard work.

You can certainly make the case that Nordic countries have good reputations as favorable countries to do business in due to sound economic policies. Indeed, in Debunking Utopia I explains that the Nordic countries are much less socialist and much more market-oriented than foreign observers give them credit for. However, an equally important point is that a uniquely work-focused culture underpins their success.

The Nordic culture of cooperation and commitment to employers, which enables efficient business without the need for strict hierarchy, the unique punctuality and the obsession with drinking coffee to work hard are all examples of this unique culture. As is the fact that Nordic societies have amongst the highest trust levels in the world. These cultural traits, as much as sound economic policies, explain why the Nordic economies have such good reputations. This simple observation teaches us a simple lesson: society is not merely formed by political dictates, but in fact also deep-rooted cultural attributes that evolve over generations.

Dr. Sanandaji’s latest book, ‘Debunking Utopia – Exposing they myth of Nordic socialism’, is published on the 16th August by WND books, RRP £12.97.

Dr. Nima Sanandaji is an author and researcher of Kurdish-Iranian origin who migrated to Sweden as a child, and grew up with welfare support. He has previously written twenty books, a number of which have had considerable international attention. Nima is president of the European Centre for Policy Reform and Entrepreneurship.