There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the Swedish word ‘Lagom’ and how it is ‘the new hygge’.
A lot of what has been written about the word and concept of Lagom is pretty inaccurate, though, so I thought I’d try to set the record straight a bit.
As with anything, when you are talking about something so deeply ingrained in another culture, it is hard to grasp it, understand it and most of all, translate it so that it makes sense in another language. I am sure some to the things here are not 100% in agreement with every Swede and cultural expert, but I will say that being married to a Swede, having Swedish children and pretty much being a Swede by default in my work and in the books I write, that this low-down is a good start if you want to learn about Lagom.
What is Lagom?
The word is Swedish but the concept itself is very Nordic: Not too much, not too little – just right. It applies to absolutely everything, from coffee to sweets to clothing to the car and the weather.
In one sentence: lagom relates the consumption of the right amount to equality by the equal allocation of resources.
Where does it come from?
The word lagom itself comes from a shortening of the phrase “laget om,” which literally means “around the team”. It is the median, the middle, the appropriate. Back it the Viking days, mead would be passed around, laget om, and everyone would take their sips.
Lagom today is not that different to that: There is something for everyone, if everyone just takes a lagom amount from the mead when it comes around.
How do I pronounce it?
The closest phonetic is La(r)-gum.
Is it the new hygge?
Well, it has little to do with hygge to be honest, but it might be the next Scandi thing. In lagom, you will find no need for socks, fireplaces etc.
I’m not quite sure why some people keep wanting to put hygge in bed with lagom, but okay…
Well, what does it mean, then?
It means: Not too much, not too little: Just right. The appropriate amount.
What is that supposed to mean? That doesn’t sound like anything special!
Ah, well that is where you are wrong. It’s very, very important to the Scandi psyche. It’s all about balance. There is balance and moderation in everything we do in Scandinavia – from our working hours to how many slices of cake it is acceptable to eat in one sitting. How much milk we take in our coffee, to the portion sizes of our dinner.
So, it means balance, then?
Sort of. It also means moderation. A sufficient amount so that you don’t have too much, but not too little, either.
Can I quantify it?
Not really – because it applies to EVERYTHING, from people to clothes to food to behaviour.
Is it about being frugal?
No. It’s about balance, not being frugal. Lagom might be not spending all your cash in the local deli on rare cheeses, but instead be considered and balanced where you do your shopping and how much you spend – and most definitely, buy what you need. But it is not about saving money or being frugal, only spending what you have to spend in order to satisfy your needs, not exceed them.
Is it about saving on the heating by turning down the thermostat?
No. We have seen this in some reports as being ‘lagom’ to turn the thermostat down to save money in the cold months. There is no way on this earth that a Scandinavian person would choose to be cold in his own home. We love heat. Also, it’s really, really cold where we are – it would make little sense to do that. Our houses are well insulated and cosy. Lagom would instead be to remember to put your heating on a timer so that you do not waste heat unnecessarily when you are not in the house. Wasting money – and heating – is so not Lagom at all.
Oh, so what about saving water?
THAT could be lagom. Turning off the tap while you are brushing is lagom. It’s fair usage and common sense. It’s how it should be done.
Can it be sustainability?
Yes, it can. IKEA has launched a Living Lagom project of how to get people to live more sustainably.
One of the common misconceptions about lagom is that it is just about saving money, which is why people think of it as frugal. But it is more than that – it is about food waste, not just making food and storing them in the fridge to save money. The saving is almost secondary., because primarily it is about only making the food you need – and making sure you eat the left overs.
In that sense it is also about doing the right thing for the environment – recycle, grow veg, have the right light bulbs – because these are all tings that benefit the greater community. Lagom works on a bigger scale, too.
Hmmm. So what IS lagom, then?
The ‘middle’ is really popular?
The best selling milk in Sweden is called ‘Mellanmjölk’ which means ‘middle milk’. It is not skimmed and it is not full fat. It’s semi-skimmed. It is middle milk, the one that is not too fatty, not too lean. Mellanmjölk is the best selling milk in Sweden because everybody likes the balance.
But how do people know what is lagom and what is not?
It is personal, to a point. But it is also the accepted middle ground, that people will rarely step out of. It goes back so far that a lot of these social norms are understood from childhood.
Lagom does have roots in The Law of Jante, which is a Nordic version of Tall Poppy Syndrome, although always based about ‘don’t make others look bad’. It’s about staying inside socially accepted norms of not going without things, but also not being a display of wealth, eating too much cake or being a show off.
It’s really hard to grasp…
It is, yes, if you are not used to living in a society where this is the norm, but remember, everything in Scandinavia is about the group and about taking care of everyone and making sure there is enough to go round. You do not often find Scandinavians who boast about themselves, nor drive Ferraris and wear lots of bling-bling. Those are rare, because in Scandinavia, this would be regarded as being outside – and certainly not Lagom or acceptable inside the Law of Jante..
So, in terms of celebrities… Who could be lagom?
(These are of course tongue in check. Maybe Meryl always has a third piece of cake. You just never know).
Why isn’t hygge Lagom?
Because Hygge is about being present. Lagom has little to do with being present. Lagom is not something you set out to do – it is a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking and behaving, a way of doing things. It’s in the psyche of the people.
Oh, but I thought I could just be more lagom and hygge some more in my house?
You can. But neither are mutually exclusive. If you want to hygge at home with a bowl of sweets that is totally fine – but only once a week, not every day (that last bit is where lagom come in and why we Scandies are not all as big as houses).
So what about food? What kinds of food would be lagom?
Anything that is in balance and moderation.
But Swedes sometimes have 3 cups of filter coffee in one sitting?
Lagom does not apply to amount of coffee you can drink. Ever. Okay, this is not quite true, but Swedes do like to drink 2-3 coffees in one sitting.
Can I sell products called ‘Lagom’ and if yes, which ones?
You need to shelve the Lagom Candle idea right there, sorry. Unless its a candles that are not too big or too small! In Sweden, there is a range of healthier dairy products, for example, called Light & Lagom. So, yes, there is an opportunity right there. Ah, you’re welcome.
Is lagom ever annoying?
Well, yes. But also funny. If you go to Sweden and there are plate of cinnamon buns on the table, everybody will have one. There is one left on the plate. Nobody, ever, will take the last bun, but simply cut it in half and have that. Then someone will cut the half into two pieces and have a quarter. Someone will half the quarter and have a bit of that. This continues until there is a crumb left – which will go back to the kitchen. Nobody takes the last bit on the plate in Sweden. We call this ‘Svensk Bit’ – the Swedish bite.
In Denmark, this does not happen – a Dane will happily take the last bun.
Any questions, contact me here.