Life in Boston: A Swede’s Perspective

Linnéa Lundgren

Living in the United States for two years has been a quite interesting experience. I have slowly discovered not only the most obvious differences, such as the doorknobs being round instead of straight, and people asking you how it’s going without expecting an answer (my first days here I couldn’t even get hot water out of the shower), but I’ve also come to see more of the many details of a culture different from my own.

Yesterday I hosted a dinner with my closest Berklee friends, and we started to talk about restaurants and how service differs in various cultures. My first experience with American restaurants was strange. I felt like the waitress was constantly up in my face: “Hi, I’m Amber, I’ll be your waitress for the evening. Can I start with getting you anything to drink?” Once we got our food she refilled my water glass as soon as I had more than three sips and asked how we were every five minutes. “Hey, I’m eating! Give me some time to enjoy my food!” I thought. And once I barely finished eating, the check was on the table with a comment of “Just take your time! No worries.”

Ironically, when I got back to Sweden this winter break I almost felt the opposite. “Why hasn’t anyone seen that my water glass has been empty for ten minutes now? Does anyone see that I would like to pay?” I even felt really bad not leaving any tip when I was in Sweden. You see, in Swedish restaurants the tip is already included as a “service fee.” So is the tax, so there are no more payments than what you see on the menu. That is similar to many other European countries, so I started to think about if that could be a part of why the American waitress is so eager to please, and the Swedish one is more reserved.

It’s also probably a cultural difference. My view of Swedish people is that they don’t like to get in people’s way and would rather stay quiet than mind other people’s business, as opposed to the American figure that is often perceived as loud and very open to social experience.

Anyway, the tip must have a part in it. My roommate who worked in a bar in Boston earned two dollars an hour, and the rest of her pay was from tips. $2 an hour?! Seriously? That would be about 15% of my salary when I was 17 years old and worked in a breakfast restaurant in Sweden. “So, isn’t it really worrying not to know how much you’re going to make every day you work?” I asked. “No,” she said. “It’s nice to have a lot of cash, and if I wouldn’t make enough money to have $8 an hour, the bar would have to pay me that.”

OK. That is clearly different from my safe Sweden. I understand that tips are a way of trying to encourage the staff to work harder, but isn’t it nicer to give them a decent salary from the beginning?

What if one server was better looking than another? Would he/she get more tips? Does that mean he/she worked harder than anyone else? And what about the people who cooked the food? Do they get tips? Or does everyone share his or her tips at the end of the evening? And do the people who worked in the daytime when there might be fewer customers share the evening tips? If anyone knows more about this, I’m really interested in knowing how it works!

Well, the Swedish system surely also has its downsides. As I said before we don’t like to mind other people’s business, and we are pretty shy and introverted before we get to know people. Part of it probably comes from that we are trying to be very fair to each other, meaning that none of us is allowed to be special or stand out. There is an un-spoken law that tells you you’re no better than anyone else: Jantelagen, (or Law of Jante in English). So since this law or idea is so imprinted in our Swedish minds, giving one person more tip than another would be considered highly unfair and people would get upset by the favored behavior. As you shouldn’t think that you’re better than anyone else, or that you know more than anyone else, and it’s bad if you get encouraged to believe that. Of course it comes from a good point, that we should respect all people, and not try to put ourselves above others. But it can also easily clash for people who are not used to it.

My boyfriend had a recent experience with that. He visited me in Stockholm this winter break, and he felt as though he couldn’t make any jokes, because people took them too seriously. I also read about a guy from California (could that place be the complete opposite of Sweden?) who had had negative experiences living in Sweden. People had perceived him as a bit arrogant and “too American”, so he had to adapt: try to downplay his confidence. But after spending a longer time there he learned to appreciate the humility, and adapt to the society.

I even feel the difference when I am here in Boston; how I do sound a lot more insecure when I speak than many Americans. I need to think longer about what I’m going to say (I guess part of that is the language-barrier) and compared to one of my best friends from LA, I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about half the time. But it’s okay. We’re all different, and that’s really something to appreciate. How boring would the world be if we all liked the same things and thought the same way about everything? As long as we can be honest with each other and ourselves and learn to appreciate our weaknesses, we can connect and create amazing things together.