You Might Have Heard of Danish "Hygge" — But What About Swedish "Lagom?"
Is there such a thing as "just the right amount?" If you ask Swedes, many will say "ja" and tell you all about their mysterious word "lagom." Learn more about this concept and the place it holds in Swedish culture.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re Swedish and that you’ve invited your good friend Lars over for dinner. Lars has arrived, and the two of you are sitting in your minimalist Ikea kitchen discussing the latest episode of the Swedo-Danish crime series The Bridge, when your stomachs start to grumble and you decide that it’s time to start eating. The polite host that you are, you serve your guest first, heaping a generous amount of potatoes and Swedish meatballs onto Lars’ plate. Then you reach for your favorite Scandinavian condiment — lingonberry jam — and ask Lars: “Hur mycket sylt vill du ha?" ("How much jam do you want?"). Lars pauses to think for a few seconds, then finally delivers a response: “Lagom mycket, tack" (“Just the right amount, please").
If you had come from somewhere else, you might have been bewildered by this reply. You might even have wondered, “Is this Lars’ idea of a joke?" Luckily for you, you’re from Sweden, so you’re intimately familiar with the concept of lagom and know exactly what amount of jam Lars expects to receive. So, you give him, accordingly, a moderate dollop of jam: neither too large nor too small (more or less the same amount that Goldilocks would have asked for if she’d been your dinner guest.) Smaklig måltid! ("Enjoy your meal!")
What does lagom mean?
Lagom, just like the many Icelandic words to describe snow, or the specific Danish version of coziness known as hygge, is one of those quintessential Nordic words (and nearly untranslatable). What makes lagom difficult to translate isn’t just the fact that it’s a specific product of Swedish culture, but also that it’s a measurement and a value-statement in one: It means both “a moderate amount" and “just the right amount." The assumption that a moderate amount is the right amount is woven into the very fabric of the word.
You might be wondering (as many of us do when we encounter an unfamiliar concept in a language we don’t speak), "Have I been missing out on a unique and valuable way of viewing the world? Is the notion of lagom one that the English language should consider adopting?" Well, maybe not — if you go straight to the source and ask the Swedes themselves, you’ll find that lagom has its fair share of both detractors and defenders.
What is the story behind lagom?
The Swedish attitude towards lagom is, to some extent, a generational divider. If you were alive to see Sweden place second in the World Cup of 1958, chances are you slip lagom into your sentences fairly frequently, whereas if you were born after Roxette released their first record in 1986, you probably use it with a bit more caution. Lagom is a tradition that has its roots in a pre-industrial peasant society and its place in 21st century Swedish culture is up for debate.
So, what is älskvärt ("loveable") about lagom? Well, lagom is essentially Aristotle’s golden mean condensed into one word. It rejects reckless excess and paltry deficiency and holds that the best value is found between any two extremes. Lagom encourages restraint and compromise, and you could argue that aspects of this philosophy have left subtle traces on everything from Swedish design, which is simple and avoids frills, to Swedish politics, which have traditionally been characterized by pragmatic negotiation rather than confrontation.
Lagom sounds pretty underbart ("wonderful"), right? Just imagine: if you injected a bit more lagom into your life, you could have a slick and clutter-free Scandinavian home and more constructive conclusions to disagreements with your friends, family and coworkers. Now who would object to that? Well, quite a few Swedes, actually. In fact, they might go so far as to use the term livsfientligt (“hostile towards life") to describe lagom, arguing that the philosophy of “everything in moderation" is an austere killjoy. Lagom, they would say, is a whispering reminder in moments of rapture and creativity that seems to issue the soft warning: “It’s okay to scream with joy, just not too loudly," and “new ideas are fine, but don’t think too far outside the box."
How is lagom seen today?
If any one object exemplifies lagom in the minds of Swedes, it is mellanmjölk ("semi-skimmed milk"). Mellanmjölk has been sold in the same green paper cartons since the early 1980s, and with its 1.5% fat content it represents the perfect compromise between creamy and lean. This particular variety of milk was also featured in the title of Swedish comedian Jonas Gardell’s 1990 stand-up show På besök i mellanmjölkens land (“On a Visit to the Land of Semi-Skimmed Milk.") The premise of Gardell’s show was that he, as a loud, colorful and openly gay artist, was a perpetual outsider in his own country. However, the enormous success of his skits bears testament to the fact that he was not the only Swede who felt this way about the conformity and self-restraint that lagom imposes.
Beyond being considered stifling to individual expression, lagom is also losing ground due to the vagueness of the term itself. Fifty years ago, when Swedish society was more insular and homogenous, it was clearer what “just the right amount" might be considered to be. Today, as a result of globalization (with immigration to Sweden and increasing numbers of Swedes spending time abroad), many different ways of viewing the world exist side by side, making a definitive definition of “the right amount" of lingonberry jam, baba ganoush or cilantro sauce harder and harder to pin down.
Is lagom, therefore, a rigid and outdated idea best relegated to the historical trash heap? Or can it play a positive role in modern Swedish culture — and in your life? Well, it all depends on which aspects of lagom you choose to embrace! If you feel like dancing ecstatically to music you love, or talking loudly and excitedly about an idea you believe in, then by all means forget about being lagom. But the next time you have a disagreement with a friend, you might want to let lagom serve as a reminder to meet in the middle. Practicing a bit of moderation before serving yourself more than you can eat won’t hurt you and won’t hurt the environment either (especially since lagom doesn’t forbid second helpings). As a Swede might put it: A lagom amount of lagom is probably the right amount.