Wednesday, August 17, 2011

(Not) Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law

I love stereotypes. I like to play with them. I like to joke about them. Sometimes I even like to live up to them. One stereotype that has always kind of surprised me is the Swedish law-abiding citizen. Usually this stereotype plays itself out in an everyday example. Cross walks. Apparently, Swedes never cross against red. Which is a damn dirty lie.

I learned earlier this summer that this same stereotype carries over to other countries in Scandinavia. Namely, Denmark. I found myself on a tiny little back street in a tiny little town with a tiny little American man with Danish ancestry. As I walked across the street against a very red light, he hustled slowly behind me. And yes, he hustled slowly. You know exactly what I mean. Because as he hustled slowly, he called out to my heels, you know, this is illegal. My cousin told me that he knew someone who once got a ticket for doing this late at night. Aah. Well in that case, we should always believe the “a friend of a friend of a friend told me once that” story. Those are always credible sources. I called out that I liked my chances of not getting a ticket. Lo and behold, I was not ticketed.

I tell you this story to demonstrate that this stereotype is alive and well in at least two Scandinavian countries. But last Sunday, I found myself staring at the stereotype come to life. I was back in Sweden. One last time before heading back to the US. I had a lovely meal with my family, but before seeing them, I tried getting a bit of shopping done. And by shopping, I mean candy buying.

I wandered into an ICA and found my candy of choice. And I paid. I was slow to pack up because I was too cheap to buy a plastic bag so it was necessary to shove everything into pockets and the (free) produce bags they offer. I managed, but in the meantime I watched a scene play out in front of me that I’m still not sure I witnessed.

A mother and two sons came up to the counter, maybe five and seven years old. They had a few things to purchase and two winning scratch-off lottery tickets. The mother was holding one ticket, the older son the other. The cute little kid held out his scratch ticket to the woman behind the counter. She looked at him then looked at the mother. I can’t accept this. You must be 18 years old to play the lottery. Ha ha I thought. Very cute. Cracking a little joke on a Sunday afternoon. What a friendly Swede. But I think we all know where this is going. I wouldn’t be writing about this if this was where the story ended. The mother chuckled a bit, I assume because she had a similar reaction to mine. The cashier did not chuckle. Stone-faced.

As the cashier continued to stare blankly at the mother, not reaching for the ticket, the mother simply asked, are you serious. Yes. Yes she was serious. The mother, quick thinking as she was, grabbed the ticket from the son then attempted to give it to the cashier. Again, the cashier made no move to reach for the ticket. She looked at the mother and said that once the child had touched the ticket, she was not allowed to accept it. You know, because you have to be 18 to play the lottery.

The poor little boy watched in confusion and eventually tried to explain that it wasn’t really him that was playing the lottery. He didn’t actually buy it. He was just holding it. Farmor bought it. Farmor is way older than 18. Surely she should be allowed to play the lottery. The cashier was unmoved. I don’t make the rules she said.

It was a mind-boggling display of following the letter of the law. The child clearly had not purchased the ticket. The mother had clearly just handed the child the ticket to hold as they waited in line. There was nothing sinister about it. Yet still, the cashier would not budge. While I'm sure there was a hint of, I'm working, I have to do this, it did not shine through at all. Instead she seemed to revel a bit in the ability to fall back on the excuse that someone else was making these rules. She was just the poor soldier following orders.

Finally, in exasperation, the mother asked if she would at least accept the second lottery ticket, the one that she was holding. She did. Of course, for all we know, that ticket may have been null and void. At some point, a child under the age of 18 may have possibly, maybe, accidentally touched the ticket. And you know, children under the age of 18 aren’t allowed to play the lottery in Sweden.

Welcome to Sweden. And law-abiding citizens.

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  1. Omg. What's wrong with the cashier?

  2. So completely silly and pathetic of the cashier! Paragrafryttare as we say in Swedish!
    But you know, it is not true that Swedes don't cross when there is a red light - I do it all the time and so do most people in Sweden. HOWEVER, Danish people don't. They say that if you see a person crossing the street when there's a red light in Copenhagen, you can be sure it is a Swede!! Reason: in Sweden you don't really get fined, you might be told off if the police sees you but nothing more. In Denmark, yes, you will get fined if caught.

  3. Petra H, Exactly, it's a law without punishment in sweden. A way to regulate who is to blame if an accident occurs.

    Hairy, The lottery thingy isn't even a law, just a rule made up by Svenska Spel.

    Grinig kassatant helt enkelt... ;)

  4. LOL, a funny and strange tale. Although I wonder if this incident reflects the legendary Swedish 'unresponsive/poor customer service' stereotype as much as the law-abiding Swede :o)

  5. @Nico - if only I knew. maybe she was grumpy because she had to work on a Sunday.

    @Petra - true, the Danes are very careful about crossing!

    @anonymous - that makes it so much worse...

    @Samantha - good point, didnt even think about the customer service aspect.

  6. @Samantha: only the unresponsive/poor customer service stereotype is not a stereotype. It is real. All too frighteningly real.

    But yeah, I agree that it probably had something to do with her reaction as well.

    ~American Hustru

  7. the customer service does struggle at times to say the least.

  8. This is actually a pretty new law. I work extra at ICA four times every month and I usually "forget" to check their ID since I think it's a silly law. However sometimes they have people just faking to buy one just to check if we ask for ID, and if you don't, you get busted for it.

    Though the silliest part of all this is that the person doing the "fake" buying HAS to be over 18, since it's illegal for people (including the government) to ask a minor to buy stuff with an age limit on (aka breaking the law), which he would do if he was under 18 and managed to buy a lottery ticket/cigarettes/alcohol.

    So when you "forget" to ask for ID or fail to ask for an ID, you will see a notice on the notice board in the staff room where it tells you who failed the test and who didn't. I guess they can fire you if you get too many

  9. I kind of figured that the fear for the job was what was going on, but the fact that the kid was so young, and was only holding the already purchased lotto ticket just made it all a bit surreal. and ridiculous.

  10. I frequently walk against the red light. Not only that. I also bicycle without lights after dark. Does that make me Public Enemy #1? Yes, I know. I'm a very bad evil person. Undoubtedly worse than Hitler. LOL!

  11. I had almost exactly the same thing happening to me last summer. I was visiting a friend on the island Öland and we went to Systembolaget to buy a bottle of wine for dinner later that evening.

    My friend, who is 35 years old, held the bottle and approached the cashier to pay. Turns out she'd forgotten her ID card and she wasn't' allowed to buy the bottle. I had brought my driving license so I asked if I could pay for it (I'm 34) but I was turned down with a comment that I might be a 'langare' to my friend.

    I just couldn't believe it - we were both clearly at least ten years older than the age limit and yet still, we had to drink lemonade with dinner that evening. sigh.

  12. @Robin - rebel without a cause.

    @Linda - I understand that employees have rules to follow and they are afraid of losing jobs and blah blah blah, but that is ridiculous.

  13. Ugh, hatar verkligen ica och deras personal. Jag fick inte köpa allergitabletter en gång för att jag inte hade leg med mig. För du vet, ungdomar kan ju börja missbruka det annars... Så det fick bli att ligga o klia sig i ögonen hela nästföljande natt :(

  14. we always buy lottery tickets at our ICA with the kids picking out which kind they want. no one bothers. i think once you get out of the bigger cities and towns, the stereotypes fade quickly. the extreme law-abiding swede is quite scary, but i've found that most people aren't that way, fortunately.

  15. The first few times my (Swedish) husband came to NY to visit me he was very scared of jaywalking, hesitating, worrying, paranoid, then running. Now he hardly looks. I on the other hand am still not used to cards stopping when pedestrians are at a marked cross walk, I fear getting run down. It all depends where you are from and where you are.
    - Meg

  16. @Rayna

    And who are you to judge?
    Perhaps the stereotypical ignorant American trying to impose your "correct" culture values on the rest of the world? Let's say you just made my stereotype of the American very true! Very funny indeed.
    I'd recommend you to pick up a book about Swedish culture and customs before you post things on this next time. I think that will make your little battles with Swedish customer service a little less rough.


    In Sweden, and I think this can be said about Europe in general, the customer service works differently than in the States. Both work great in their respective cultures so I'm not dissing anyone of them. Let's say they're just different.
    Anywho. In Europe peoeple don't want to get things thrown in their face just as they step inside a store. That would be considered as plainly blunt and make the customer feel annoyed and almost chased. Instead, if the customer wishes help HE/SHE ASKS. If you learn how do that I'm sure you'll get by and will get all the help you'll ever need.

  17. You used to get fined for jaywalking in Sweden, but it was one of those laws that got broken so regularly that it was deemed an Wundemocratic fine" - so they kept the law but removed the fine. This basically means that while not "legal", jaywalking is "decriminalized" in Sweden - the law is only there to apportion blame in case of an accident.

    On that note, I once went from mainland China (NO respect for a red light) to Hong Kong (British customs), and almost got lynched when I jaywalked on an empty road, with clear views for a mile, by 50 Hong Kong Chinese...

  18. @Linda Bliss

    Take it as a compliment! .. It's not the cashier's fault your friend forgot her ID.
    The staff has a policy to not sell to anyone without an ID if they consider them to look younger than 25 to be on the safe side. Some people may look much older than they actually are, so it's very hard to make a correct general judgement. I'm sure the laws regarding buying booze is quite strict in the US as well.