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No one likes the Swedes: Joking Relationships and National Identity Construction in Norway and Sweden

“What separates the Norwegians from the apes? – The Norway-Sweden border”

Written by: Mari Maldal
(disclaimer: the author of this piece is Norwegian)

National humor is difficult to investigate. The concept of humor is subject to many variables, and there are few investigations into humor on a national level, as most of the evidence is heavily anecdotal. Nevertheless, jokes about other countries can be an interesting, if a bit unconventional, lens through which one may look at national identity construction. It is not uncommon for countries to make fun of other countries. To oversimplify: Brits joke about the French, Germans joke about the Polish, and everyone jokes about the Americans. Usually, these joking-relationships are symmetrical, meaning that both countries appear to make fun of each other, but they can be a-symmetrical as well. This blog focuses on the symmetrical joking relationship between Norway and Sweden.

Winning isn’t everything – What matters is beating the Swedes.

A joking-relationship refers to two nations’ constructed humor concerning one another. In Scandinavia, joking about the neighboring countries is very common. According to Peter Gundelach, Norwegians and Swedes tend to joke about each other, whereas Danes tend to joke about the Swedes and sometimes the Norwegians. As a Norwegian myself, the classic ‘The Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian’ jokes were some of the first jokes we told each other as children. Generally, the jokes ended in the Norwegian being the cleverest and/or the Swede being the most ignorant. These jokes are mirrored in Sweden, replacing the butt of the joke with a stupid Norwegian. Take for instance a Swedish variant:

There once was a Swede, a Dane, and a Norwegian stranded on an island. One day, the Swede found a genie who granted them each one wish. The Swede went first and said “I wish to go home!”, and the genie sent him home. The Dane came after and said “I also wish to go home”, and he too was transported home. Then it was the Norwegian’s turn. He got very sad and cried “I wish to have my buddies back!”

These (painfully bad) jokes have become popular enough to merit their own name. Both Norway and Sweden have a special word for the jokes about the other nation; creatively named ‘Swede jokes’ (‘svenskevitser’) in Norwegian and ‘Norway jokes’ in Swedish (‘Norgeskämt’). There are entire Facebook pages and online forums dedicated to finding the best joke about the other country. In 2011, Norway’s biggest tabloid newspaper VG opened an online forum dedicated to Swede jokes. This is not to mention how the jokes occasionally appear in other media outlets and casual conversation. Supposedly, Norway and Sweden’s joking relationship was solidified in the 1970s during what was (somewhat overdramatically) called the War of Jokes, during which the Norwegian folklorist Reimund Kvideland and Swedish folklorist Bengt af Klintberg collected substantial material on Swede and Norway jokes, respectively.

What is a Swedish intellectual? – Someone who can read without moving their lips!

Whereas jokes, by definition, are not very serious, one can argue that the mechanisms of national jokes rely on the premise that the ‘We’ group is distinguishable from the ‘Other’ or the butt of the joke. However, is this what makes the joke funny? In the previous ‘the Swede, the Dane, and the Norwegian’ joke, we could easily replace the nationalities with random names and the joke would still have the same dry humor it had before. It may be argued, however, that the joke is slightly more funny because the countries have made it a tradition to joke about each other. Perhaps, in the same way that you can only partly understand the humor of an inside joke once it has been explained to you, the ‘you-had-to-be-there’ sentiment of a nationalist joke remains within the nation. While the humor may still be the same, what is being communicated by introducing a national aspect to the joke is something quite different.

How do you sink a Norwegian U-boat? – You swim down and knock on the door

How does this relate to national identity construction? Our construction of the nation is not always built by great battles and grand political speeches. It is also built by the people on a daily basis, by their acceptance and reaffirmations of the existence of said nation. Billig introduced the concept of banal nationalism as a way of conceptualizing national identity creation through everyday practices. National jokes can easily be placed under this term. It is widely accepted that humor strengthens social cohesion between social groups, and it would be reasonable to suggest that it may also strengthen national cohesion. While jokes themselves do not ‘make a nation’, it nevertheless helps reinforce the idea of the members of the nation-state being a collective social group, further implying aligned interest. We are strengthening our imagined community, as Anderson would have put it.

“Do you know what the Swedes have that we Norwegians don’t have?” –  Smart neighbors.”

The philosophy of humor has gone through many hypotheses over the years. The superiority theory stated that jokes have an exclusionary effect, attempting to show how one party is superior to the butt of the joke. Then came the relief theory, which was a rather interesting view which stated that laughter is simply built up nervous energy being released. Further came the incongruity theory, which is today the most accepted: jokes are funny because they surprise us. We suppose one thing and get proven wrong. This amuses us. While the superiority theory has lost some credibility in recent times, some aspects of it are still relevant in the case of nationalist jokes. By joking about the ‘Swedes’ we are pointing out that they, or ‘the Other’, are like that, whereas we, the ‘Norwegians’, are like this. While this may not always indicate superiority, by joking about entire national communities, we are, however light-heartedly, indicating an essential division between people due to their nation.

“Why do Norwegians carry a car door with them in the desert? – So that they can roll down the window when it gets too hot!”

Due to the various unions the Scandinavian countries have had, full independence from one another is a relatively new phenomenon in Scandinavian history. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway formed the Kalmar union in 1397, which turned into a union between Denmark and Norway after Sweden left in 1523. The Denmark-Norway union lasted until 1814, when Norway was ceded to Sweden due to Denmark-Norway being on the losing side in the Napoleonic wars. The union between Norway and Sweden lasted until 1905. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Scandinavian countries share many cultural similarities, such as language, food, crippling seasonal depression, and so on. Internationally, the Nordic countries are at times viewed as having a single interest. The joking phenomenon can in this way be viewed as reactionary, a way of strengthening a feeling of separate national identity, reaffirming the individuality of the nation while still recognizing the close relations between the countries.

Why are the Norwegians always crawling on store floors?

They are looking for low prices.

Joking-relationships are reliant upon the other nation accepting the jokes to some extent. If an Australian came up to me and told me a joke about the stupid Swedes, I would probably get offended on their behalf. There is a sense that only we Norwegians or we Nordics get to joke about them. This sentiment relates to the sibling metaphor, which likens Nordic relations to that of sibling relationships, exemplified by Norwegians often calling Sweden ‘Söta bror” (Swedish for ‘Sweet brother’). Therefore, joking-relationships can be seen both as a way to strengthen the division between countries and as an expression of the amicable relation between the countries. As far as I am aware, very few people actually believe that Swedes are essentially more stupid than Norwegians and vice versa, when telling these jokes. Perhaps these jokes are not to be taken seriously. Perhaps jokes are just jokes. Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling very Norwegian when making fun of the Swedes.

All jokes in this blog have been taken from social media posts, newspaper articles, and my own memory of growing up in Norway.

Featured image by Thor Edvardsen (Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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