A country needs ‘lagom’

2010-03-17 00:00

MENSCH, joi de vivre, kitsch, touché, panache, and zeitgeist are just a small sample of the many wonderful words of foreign origin that have taken up permanent residence in the English language. They have no direct English equivalents, and are not directly translatable. All add value to the English language, be it a richness of meaning, depth or complexity. This is why we need them, this is why we use them.

Well, here is one that you are very unlikely to have heard of, but one that I believe we should urgently add to our list. It is the Swedish term lagom. I know, it sounds terrible, like the name of a tacky seaside resort, or a line of cheap Chinese-pirated golf shirts. But what this word may lack in Germanic gravity or French flair it more than makes up for in substance. It also represents a value that I believe is sorely missing in South African life at the moment.

Lagom is a Swedish word that roughly translated means “just the right amount”. For the Swedes it is the belief that for everything there is an optimal, proper amount, and shouldn’t be confused with a simple minimalist or scarcity mentality. It is an all-encompassing notion that permeates everything Swedish from design, politics and lifestyle to family life. Implicit in the notion of lagom is a strong sense of egalitarianism, so while lagom serves as a natural restraint against greed and unbridled desire (too much), it also serves as a remedial mechanism for the poor and powerless (too little).

A traditional Swedish proverb states that “Lagom är bäst”,” which literally means, “Lagom is best”. The notion of lagom as a guiding principle is so embedded in Swedish culture that it has led social commentators to claim that if there is a single word to describe the Swedish national psyche it would have to be lagom. In many aspects not too bad a thing I think.

Once you start appreciating how deeply the values of optimal amounts and egalitarianism are embedded in the notion of lagom, and how close this philosophy is to the hearts of Swedes, you begin to understand why, despite having no deep historical ties with South Africa, Sweden was at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and how truly offensive a system it was to them.

You also begin to appreciate that the types of behaviours promoted by the values implicit in lagom h ave contributed in no small way to Sweden’s current situation — a country with a very high standard of living, incredibly low corruption levels and an established and effective democracy. Sadly, you also begin to realise that South Africa is a country almost totally devoid of any sense of lagomness, pitching rather between excess and deprivation, as even the briefest comparison with Sweden illustrates.

In Sweden many senior politicians use public transport to get themselves to and from work. Others simply drive themselves. For many of our politicians, travelling unaccompanied by a hugely expensive menacing blue-light brigade would be unthinkable. Swedish politicians (like their captains of industry) are also grossly underpaid by our extravagant standards (although seemingly more capable). Yet their police force, nurses and teachers (treated with scant regard here) are far better off, and more valued than our own.

But perhaps the starkest and most disappointing difference between ourselves and Sweden are our respective scores on the GINI Co-efficient, an internationally recognised measure of the income disparity between a country’s rich and poor. Out of over 100 countries analysed, we have the second widest gap; Namibia has the largest. Sweden and Denmark have the lowest. Worryingly, the gap between rich and poor in South Africa has widened since 1994 and this trend is showing no signs of abating.

Despite its many positive aspects, many people, including Swedes themselves, are critical of the stifling conformity that a lagom-type lifestyle can cultivate, how it can foster the tall poppy syndrome and dampen individual ambition, especially when applied overzealously to a an already prosperous First World democracy. In our current situation, however, characterised by division, violence, and extremes of excess and depravation these are the kinds of challenges we can only wish we were facing.

Many of our politicians and business leaders would benefit greatly from having lagom fed to them intravenously through a drip, and I believe that as a nation we would benefit from embracing many of its positive and remedial aspects. Language is very much a part and expression of culture. We don’t have a word for lagom because we don’t practise it. We should find a place for it in our national culture, and add it to our lexicon.


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