Timst’s Happy Place

Distinguishing Scandinavian Countries for Dummies

by timst on June 27, 2016

Ok, so I’ve been around Scandinavia for four years (three years in Sweden, nearly one in Norway), so I’m starting to appreciate the differences between the countries. However, if you’re anything like me before I moved here, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, there are differences? I usually just use the names interchangeably, as in “It’s so cold in the apartment, I feel like I’m in <Finland>!” or “Bernie is going to make this country more equal, just like in <Sweden>!””. Well, as it turns out, yes, there are some quite stark differences in some aspects! Though you’re right, overall it is pretty cold (and equal).

First things first, a table of comparison:

Country EU EEA Scandinavia Nordics Nordic family language

I’m obviously mostly familiar with Sweden and Norway, so I will focus on that. However, you can already notice a few things:

  • “Scandinavia” is not a synonym for “Nordic countries”. Nordic countries are often lumped up together (even here: I “taught” a Swedish friend about the distinction some years ago). But strictly speaking, only Sweden, Denmark and Norway are part of Scandinavia proper. The extended deck – often referred to as “Nordics” – also includes Finland and Iceland, along with Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The widest definitions even add in the Baltic countries, who have been trying to join the club (and get away from Russian influence) for some time now.
  • The language situation is a bit more complicated than usually pictured. As I mentioned before, Swedish, Danish and Norwegians are mostly intelligible (with some caveats; see below). Icelandic is of the same family, but so far removed that understanding more than a few words here and there is very hard for most Scandinavians. Finnish is something else entirely, in its own family (“Uralic languages”) with Hungarian and separate from the Indo-European languages of the rest of the continent. So yeah, Spanish has more in common with Swedish than Swedish has with Finnish.
  • Norway and Iceland are not EU countries and are doing pretty well, a fact that was often used by the Leave side during the Brexit campaign. They, are however, part of the “EU-lite” that is the EEA, meaning that most EU rules and rights still apply here. In fact, even Norwegians were quick to point out that this is actually a pretty shitty deal, as they still have to apply the majority of EU regulations, without having any say in them. Ah, and they also pay into the EU budget. Hilarity will certainly ensue when Britons realize that the same will apply to them if they want continued access to the single market.

Now, let’s explore more in details some differences between Sweden and Norway:


This is Oslo during the Norwegian national day on the 17th of May:

OSLO 20070517: Barnetoget gÂr oppover Karl Johans gate i Oslo 17. mai. Foto: Kyrre Lien / SCANPIX .

Photo: Kyrre Lien / SCANPIX.

Now, imagine that, but repeated over the entire city. Add a marching orchestra of school children. Add fifty more orchestras of school children. Add thousands of national costumes, millions of champagne breakfasts to kick off the day, and an amount of flags that even Kim Jong Un would think is over the top.

Compare with the Swedish national day. I won’t post a picture because haha, there is no such thing. I mean, yes, there is an official national day on the 6th of June, and there probably are some small-scale celebrations in Stockholm, but for most of the country and most of the people, it’s a complete non-event.

Though Swedish people like their flag poles, it’s as far as it goes in term of patriotism, at least in most circles. Norway, on the other hand, is hardcore. Anecdote: my (Norwegian) girlfriend was studying in France for a year. When came the 17th of May, she took a train down to the southern town of Toulouse, and joined hundreds of other Norwegians to march in the streets for the occasion. I have to say, not once did it occur to me to do the same here.

I’m not a historian, but I think this fierce patriotism likely results from one thing: while Sweden was the region’s top dog (or co-top dog) for most of its history, Norway has always been a colony, vassal, dependency or otherwise subjugated to Danmark, Sweden, both, or, for some time – while Sweden was happily profiting from the trade opportunities – Nazi Germany. The famous 17th of May marks the creation of the Norwegian constitution, which made Norway mostly independent, save from a limited union with Sweden that was dissolved in the early 20th century. Now that they’re fully autonomous, this is a proud people indeed, and they never shut up about it.


Both Norway and Sweden are rugged, cold and relatively resource-poor countries, and indeed have been fairly miserable for most of their history. Sweden managed to pull its own after a while thanks to the aforementioned war trading and some very successful entrepreneurs (where did you buy furniture most recently? Yeah, exactly). Things were tougher for Norway with its mountainous terrain and low population. And then, in 1969, this happened:



Photo: Jarvin, Wikipedia


And boom went the economy:


Nowadays, Norway’s GDP is almost equal to Sweden’s (513 vs 580 G$ as of 2013), but with almost half of the population (5.1 vs 9.6 M). And it shows. Wages are extremely high: in 2014, the average yearly revenue after taxes was 3 347€ (compared to 2 578€ in Sweden, 2 524€ in the US, 2 225€ for Germany, 2 180€ for France, and 756€ for Poland). This, combined with a great regional attention to income equality (both Norway’s and Sweden’s Gini coefficient are in the mid twenties, the among the lowest in the world), means one thing: most Norwegians are loaded.


And it shows. Taxes and prices are high and nobody complains about either because everybody can afford them without issues. The streets are rampant with Tesla S (sticker price: 50 000 – 130 000€) and other expensive cars. The west side of Oslo is chock full of expensive restaurants, fancy bars and specialty shops. A beer in a pub costs 9€, a meal for two in a mid range restaurant with wine easily reaches the 100€ mark, and it goes on and on. I also got the impression that donating to charity is something of a national sport here: around Christmas time, the airwaves get flooded with NGO ads. It’s hard to walk anywhere in Oslo without being pestered by countless Red Cross, UNICEF, or Amnesty volunteers asking for donations. TV channels unite once a year to organize a huge charity event that benefits a different cause each year. In 2015 it was the rain forest, and boy, even without a TV, it was absolutely impossible to escape the massive coverage this thing had. I’m going to go ahead and guess the large quantities of disposable income that most of the population enjoy have something to do with that.


Now, I’m not saying that Sweden is poor (see the above comparison of wages: they’re still a good 15% above western Europe levels), but it’s definitely a step lower, to the point where a popular activity for stingy Norwegians is to drive over to the border to shop for cheap meat and alcohol (yes, Swedish alcohol is seen as cheap there). Conversely, Oslovian (demonym for Oslo. I know, right?) cafés are inundated in Swedish waiters and baristas coming to make a quick buck. In many ways, the dynamics between the two countries are similar to the US-Mexican one, or, in a less extreme example, the border area between France and Switzerland.


This is your average Swedish landscape:


Meanwhile, in Norway:



And now, here’s a map in (exaggerated) relief:

Photo: Anton Balazh

Photo: Anton Balazh


All those pictures of Scandinavia you see with mountains and fjords? Probably Norway (unless the mountains are spewing smoke, in which case it’s Iceland). The ones with snow-white forests and plains? Sweden (or Finland).


Now, there are of course some mountains in Sweden. The Åre skiing resort (that borders Norway) is popular even among Norwegians. There also are flat areas with some good farming happening in Norway. Overall though, Norway is much more mountainous than its neighbor. That had (and still has) some important effects, notably on linguistics (Norway has a much greater variety of regional variations and accents, with two different written forms and an uncountable amount of dialects) and sports (Norwegians love cross-country skiing and ski jump; Swedes are more about ice hockey and floorball). Also, if you’re afraid of tunnels, don’t come here. You can’t go anywhere in Norway without going through a hundred tunnels, including the longest road tunnel in the world.

What about Denmark?

I haven’t lived here, so I’m not an expert, but you can also find some small differences. Off the top of my head:

  • Though the written language is extremely similar to (the most common form of) Norwegian, the spoken form is very different, and widely made fun off in the region. As a result, spoken Norwegian feels like a synthesis of Danish and Swedish, or, as the saying goes, “Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish”;
  • Denmark is the most southern country of the group, not only geographically, but also in temperament.
  • As a consequence (maybe?), Denmark has more relaxed alcohol laws than the rest. You can buy liquor in supermarkets!
  • Denmark also used to be an important world player, but unlike Sweden who lost some but still ended up in a pretty good position, the Danes really ate it. Borgen, the famous Danish TV show, opens up on a quote by Danish author Johannes V. Jensen that reads “The Dane is a skeptic, because Denmark’s history is the story of the downfall of a powerful tribe”. Speaking of which…
  • Danish TV is really good TV. Borgen, Forbrydelsen and Bron/Broen have had huge successes both locally and internationally. The same cannot be said of Swedish and especially Norwegian TV.


Beyond those and the unbalances that remain in their relationship (Swedish pop music, TV, literature and society in general are quite popular in Norway; the opposite… not so much), the countries are very similar and fit most Scandinavian features you can imagine, including deep respect for nature, great gender equality, low corruption, freezing and dark winters, awful food, etc. Indeed, all three of the countries (and their Nordic companions, Finland and Iceland) have spent most of their history alternatively conquering, occupying and uniting each others (which is to say, Sweden and Denmark did, while the rest were the subjects of these events), so there has been a very large amount of cross-pollination of culture, ideas and customs.


There is probably a lot more that remains to be learned though. I look forward to get deeper!