Lagom & Goldilocks

25 Sep
2010

goldilocks-lagomLagom is considered an integral part of Swedish culture and society. I translate it as “just perfect” as I do believe an English equivalent exists. It’s neither being excessive or roccoco nor sparse and shabby, lagom is looking/feeling/being at the right spot with the right amount.

But that is my opinion of Goldilocks, porridge and beds. I asked around to friends and bloggers to contribute their idea of lagom. Some are Swedes, some are Americans, and some are mere observers. A big thank you to all who shared their opinions.

If you would like to share yours, please post a comment or contact me if you have an amazing, insightful, profound, absurd idea of lagom and I will add it into the collection.

Some names changed to protect the interlopers.

Senchaholic, Sweden
Lagom is what’s right for me in that moment in time. Something which is lagom one day, may not be lagom the next. It’s deeply connected to what I feel is right, be it weather, strength of tea, saltiness, sweetness or what have you.

Juliet, USA
Anyway, I haven’t really had much encounter with lagom, at least not yet anyway (and I say that because I’m in the midst of a residence permit application to come live with my Swede in Sweden!!!!). He came to visit for two weeks at the beginning of summer, but I don’t recall him ever making use of lagom. I will also be visiting Sweden (which might include a night or two in your neck of the woods, Stockholm) for two weeks in the middle of August; that will be after your post, but I’ll remain observant!

As far as I know, I am familiar with lagom meaning “just the right amount” which kind of sounds like Goldilocks now that I think of it. I suppose lagom could somewhat go hand in hand with Jante Law, which I have had some interaction with. I remember once telling my bf something like, “Do you know how awesome and great you are?” And he said, “Actually, no I don’t,” and then he made some comment about Jante Law. However, I’ll also say that from what he tells me, he is not the typical Swede; instead he’s very out-going, not at all shy, freely expresses his feelings (at least to me). All I know about the “typical” Swede comes from your blog, so I couldn’t really say.

Daniel
Calling Sweden “lagom” is an extreme thing to do. Only Swedes do it.

The world’s highest taxes and the world’s softest judicial system. Always the highest BNP% in international aid and always the lightest weapons of the present soldiers in Afghanistan. That’s not “lagom”, that’s extreme.

Acting “lagom” is more of a deeply rooted personal strategy to achieve the proper things. To choose the safest, average and statistically proven most logical way. (To be compared with the American “if you just believe in yourself and work hard you can achieve anything!” word to their kids.)

Hans Sandberg, SACC Currents Online, USA, Canada, Sweden
The word relies on social conventions that change over time. Three men in a boat lost in the ocean will quickly define the “lagom” amount of water for each to drink. Even a single guy on an isolated island would have to negotiate the “lagom” tradeoff between his current and future needs, but here there is no peer pressure, just a matter of survival. At the core, “lagom” is about equality. We all have the right to our share, and we are all equal under law (“lag”.) If taken to the extremes, “lagom” leads to the Law of Jante where our initiative is stifled, but without “lagom,” society falls apart. Hence we need the just right amount of “lagom,” not too much, not too little.

Þorbjörn
In school for example, you’re not pushed to “do your best” or “be the best”, it’s very lagom, everyone is at the same level.

In the US, there’s a similar attitude. A company in the US wants to be biggest and best in the world while a company in Sweden wants to be the best in Sweden, that’s good enough.

Ben
If I’d be as courageous as I can be I’d say it’s both an individual form of measurement and a state of mind.

With the individual form of measurement I bring forth the individual’s state of calling a time’s work wellspent, the strife to feel that something is complete and shouldn’t be worked into excess. This connects alot to the culture, being one of quiet and reasonable strife. You reason around it and finally lay the task to rest and almost in an esotherical sense feel that this was well done and good just the way it is.

Perhaps it could be the strife for humbleness in swedish society, a surival strategy; to do just enough work but not forget your tasks which need to be made, a remnant from the days we needed fire and food to survive the winter. Perhaps the mold for swedish lagom is the humbleness almost hardwired into the country’s inhabitants. It is a very hard subject to fidget around I must admit. I would say Lagom can only be understood once you immerse yourself into the culture and on a level find the essence to what Lagom really is, it does not stay in one category, you will understand it but not grasp it. You will become a part of it.

Many countries may even have differing lagoms, different emotional factors play in here. The french feel the piece is lagom when he/she has finished emptying all his passion into it. It’s a mentality after doing a good job. To be content and live with it.

There is a calmness(at least in my opinion as I experience) which ties together most Swedish endevaours universally. For example most Swedish architecture(pondering on it on the way home from work today) does not (at least not in foreign eyes) boast and try to outshine the other(only today’s international architectural styles have made this an endevaour) but tries to in a way “get along” with one another, not dividing but uniting the townscape in it’s entirety, relying more on subtle details as you near the structures. Until the 70s(if I remember correctly) buildings above 5 stories weren’t allowed to be built anywhere in Swedish cities as many thought the great buildings would contrast and break the uniformity of the cityscape, that is a crucial point to how Lagom is perceived. To be the contrast or be part of something greater. I felt a kinship to the fictional race Tau when I thought about it (wikilink: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tau_(Warhammer_40,000) ) and their society is similar to ours in certain ways, the commonwealth, with social democracy(although much much less advanced)

I don’t mind being the contrast myself but still I do it through my own personality as I think it’s “lagom” difficult, and so I strut onward in my own pace.

Adrianne; Black Women in Europe; EurObama Blog
A good Swedish friend of mine told me that lagom comes from making sure that there is enough for everyone but some how got a bad rap for meaning just enough, or just good enough.

My Swede uses it to mean adequate. I recognize the modern day lagom attitude in everyone I meet in one situation or another. I’m not sure why the Swedes get a bad rap for it, but then again there’s a lot I don’t know!

Anne & Stu, American
We used it as part of our blog name because Stu & I really liked the concept (of course, the blog was titled before we learned much Swedish, so now it feels a little silly!) But we liked the idea of a perfectly satisfactory middle ground…life doesn’t have to be all rainbows and unicorns to make one happy.

From Swedes, I hear “lagom” often used as a way of saying things are pretty good. Or used as much as a way to maintain the ever-present Swedish sense of modesty (things could be REALLY, REALLY, UNBELIEVABLY GREAT, but they’d just say det är lagom.) I still like the word. Oddly, I don’t use it often enough in everyday conversation

Abby
So, I ask, and all boyfriend answers is with a shrug and says, ‘I guess it means, just enough, but not perfect.’ He just continues to say that it seems like it became a sort of mantra for the older generation to make them feel better about not having very much. We didn’t discuss the rumored historical significance of vikings etc. Fredrik also says that the phrase does appear in other cultures, just not ours (American and I assume British).

He doesn’t see it as a big deal, and he uses it to describe something that is just enough. For him, I don’t think he understands our discussion of it, as expats, and the fascination behind it. He doesn’t see it as a way of life in Sweden. He also took the opportunity to tease me for my complete confusion as to why someone would not aspire to be the best or want have the best, because I’m American. (My dad always tells me, if I’m going to do something, I had better be the best at it.)

So, I guess, for me, to sum it up. Lagom is an aspect of Swedish culture, that existed at some point, probably quite strongly in the mentality of Swedish people, that does not quite exist anymore. It’s a part of Swedish culture that is more fascinating to the expats living in the country than I think it is for the Swedes themselves. And when you try and ask your boyfriend about it, he just looks at you like you’re silly. :)

Richard
I am by no means an expert on this, but my friend reckons the definition in SAOB and the article in Swedish Wikipedia are fine:

http://g3.spraakdata.gu.se/saob/show.phtml?filenr=1/137/56.html
http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagom

The general consensus is that lagom means “just right”, as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and is derived in some way from “lag”, law. That is, common law, which told people what they were supposed to do.

Melena, USA
Lagom, Schmlagom….
Oh lagom, that “L” word. If lagom meant “less is more”, then I would say in my experience, that “more” part is non existent. If lagom means “enough, sufficient, adequate”, than I feel it may be a limiting concept, when it comes to relationships. Although everything is good in moderation, I have found a lagom way of communicating to be the worst kind. Every relationship is based on communication and being dispassionate about things can make the status of your relationship difficult to reassure. From what I have dealt with, the lagom way has been an unsuccessful attempt in reinforcing a warm and growing relationship. Of course we must all realize that there are cultural differences. It’s always good to try to understand another’s perspective or belief, but it doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. :)

Working man
I hear it used in business, and it’s wrong. “just enough” doesn’t work for a business. anyway, i find it’s the swedish way of saying “good enough”. It’s not quite the best, but it will do.

Personally, i give it 100% or i give nothing. 50% is just a half assed job. it may work in sweden, i mean, who’s gonna confront you, you’ll just get a strongly worded note, then next time you just do lagom+1 … that little bit more.

Lucy
The tricky thing is that at the same time as lagom means “Not too much, not too little, but just right” it also actually means “Not much, not little, but just right (which happens to (always) be somewhere in the middle)” I.e. Baked into the concept is the conception that “the middle is always the best.”
This is an ancient and hardly uniquely Swedish idea: Aristotle believed in the “golden middle way” and Taoism is based on finding just the right measure between extremes.
The real bravade with “lagom” is more that the Swedes’ minds accept this philosophy so completely that they use “this is lagom” when they in the moment of speaking haven’t given a thought to if “this” can be characterised as “in the middle,”; they just want to say “just right.” (Indeed, right now I can’t remember any common Swedish expression that just means “just right”.)
And conversely, especially in childish talking, “lagom” is used instead of “mittemellan” (“in the middle”).
So when someone tells a Swede that “the more, the better,” he may say “That can’t be (logically) right, because Lagom är bäst (Lagom is best (Swedish proverb)).

The word “lagom” is only available in Swedish
A myth!

It seems that it is much easier to create myths than to kill the same. One of the myths that persisted for many years is that the word “lagom” only available in Swedish. But it is absolutely not!

Language Board write that it is a popular myth, the word “lagom” only in the Swedish language. They wrote about the other language can express the same thing with different terms, and in such our neighboring country as Norway is also just have the word “lagom” (same word, same spelling, same meaning or used the word “passelig/ passe”), both of which bokmål and nynorsk [Norwegian language].

English:
Lagom: I adverb: just right (enough); sufficiently (tillräckligt); moderately (med måtta)
II oböjligt adjektiv: just right; enough (nog), just about enough; sufficient, adequate (tillräcklig); fitting, appropriate, suitable (passande)
Ex. “Did you have enough previous knowledge to follow the course?”

How do you see Swedes use it?

All the time they use “lagom” for everything when they talk about weather, food, clothers etc. Just for the “myth” of idea that “the word lagom is only available in Swedish language and Swedes are the best” you know.

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10 Responses to Lagom & Goldilocks

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Abby

August 29th, 2010 at 09:44

And somewhere, in this mix of conversation on the subject, we actually find the Lagom meaning of…lagom. :)

Glad you finally posted this, I was looking forward to it! :)

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Shades

August 29th, 2010 at 13:21

Lagom only applies to stuff that can be too much or too little, too hot or too cold, and similar things. A group of people sharing a pizza will take just enough that it will be enough for everyone. But when it comes to personal or collective striving, it doesn’t apply anymore. Volvo doesn’t strive to be lagom safe. They want to make the safest car. Emma Green doesn’t strive to jump the highest in Europe. She wants to be the best high jumper in the world.

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Andrea Gerak

September 26th, 2010 at 11:34

I was waiting for this post and it is very interesting to see that this one word has so many different meanings and embraces several concepts. When you asked our view on it, I got inspired and wrote it up in my blog (where I got into a discussion with one of your readers): http://www.thelocal.se/blogs/stuckinstockholm/2010/07/16/lagom-part-1-probably

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Lovedoctor

September 26th, 2010 at 15:48

Reading my input I’d definately needed another grammar check(lol) and perhaps a shorter text would have sufficed, until next time :P Lagom is very hard to define for me, and my approach was just that, the approach. Not the definion.

I think with the globalization the Swedish people’s definition of lagom has begun covering not only Sweden but the rest of the world, so I wouldn’t say that being the world’s greatest high jumper or an international company would not be lagom today.

/Lovedoctor

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Black Women in Europe

September 28th, 2010 at 15:01

Great piece! Your blog rocks. Thanks for asking for my 2 ore.

I nominated you for a Sunshine Award:
http://blog.blackwomenineurope.com/2010/09/27/we-have-been-nominated-for-a-sunshine-award/

Kramar!

Let’s fika soon.

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Dano

September 28th, 2010 at 21:57

For some reason that “lets fika soon” from one woman too another stirs my loins! :)

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Sapphire

October 4th, 2010 at 16:29

Shades – well put! I could not figure out the situations one could lagom. I agree that Saab doesn’t want to make a lagom car but I would like to be lagom full on chocolate.

Andrea, thanks for your input! Folks please read her post about lagom: http://www.thelocal.se/blogs/stuckinstockholm/2010/07/16/lagom-part-1-probably . It was insightful and personal.

Adrianne – Yes! I’m back in Sweden and can meet next week maybe?

Dano – Thanks for your twisted thoughts! Definitely not lagom. :)

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