A Finnish journalist living in the US reveals the biggest misconceptions about Nordic countries

Journalist Anu Partanen moved to the US from Finland in 2008.

In the nine years since, she’s noticed Americans hold a number of misguided views about the way Nordic countries operate.

She detailed many of those misconceptions in her 2016 book,“The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life.”

Here are the biggest misconceptions she’s found.

Nordic countries aren’t as altruistic as they seem.


Nordic countries are famous for their universal policies: healthcare, daycare, paid parental leave, and higher education, among others.

But what people don’t understand about these policies, Partanen said, is they are self-serving.

“The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship,” Partanen wrote for The Atlantic in 2016. “This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me.”

Citizens don’t feel they live in a nanny state.

Flickr/Moyan Brenn

In “The Nordic Theory of Everything,” Partanen addressed the notion that Nordic citizens feel dependent on their government for basic necessities, large and small.

The truth, she said, is people reap a lot of benefits from their universal policies, but don’t feel reliant on them. The example she used was the Finnish baby box. New parents in Finland receive a pre-loaded box of baby clothes and toiletries, and they can use the box as a crib.

“Just in case an American might assume that Finnish playgrounds each winter become a sea of identical, government-issued snowsuits that call to mind a communist children’s brigade,” she wrote, “I can assure you that Finnish parents swap, inherit, and buy most of their children’s clothing beyond what comes in the box.”

Big business is alive and well.

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

In contrast to outsider views of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway as quaint countries with little going on, Partanen noted in her Atlantic piece that many multi-national corporations are based out of Nordic countries.

“Nordic nations have produced what is, by any metric, an impressive output of successful entrepreneurs, international businesses, and brands,” she wrote. Those include Spotify (Sweden), IKEA (Sweden), H&M (Sweden), Nokia (Finland), and Lego (Denmark).

“At the most basic level, what the Nordic approach does is reduce the risk of starting a company,” Partanen wrote, “since basic services such as education and health care are covered for regardless of the fledgling company’s fate.”

Countries aren’t nearly as homogeneous as people think.

Outsiders sometimes view Nordic countries as having mostly fair-skinned populations that lack ethnic diversity.

Partanen concedes the point to an extent, but she’s pointed to the fact that Norway and Sweden have a greater portion of foreign-born residents than the US: 13.9% and 16% compared to 13.1%.

Many of the nations now deal with the same influx of refugees as the US, if not in greater droves. Research has found the countries have begun offering more chilly responses to these migrants.

The countries have strong social policies, but are not socialist.

Ultimately, one of the biggest misconceptions is that Nordic countries are somehow socialist in nature. Partanen takes issue with the claim: Even if there are strong universal policies, the countries are still very much capitalistic, she said.

“In fact,” she wrote in The Atlantic, “as capitalist economies the Nordic countries have proven that capitalism works better when it’s accompanied by smart, universal social policies that are in everyone’s self-interest.”

It’s not true, Partanen claimed, that social policies involve some measure of great sacrifice, or that they’re “anathema to the entrepreneurial, individualistic American spirit.” They’re actually essential to it.

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