Greetings. My apologies for the long delay in posting. Personal business took up all the oxygen in the room for a few weeks, but I’m now back in the digital saddle.
Peter, one of our members and a resident of Stockholm, recently commented about the local upper class and their “less than Old Money” habits.
CV, an American friend of mine, is also a resident of Stockholm and a keen observer of culture and social trends.
In a recent phone conversation, CV mentioned Peter’s comment. I asked him to elaborate on the subject, and he was kind enough to do so.
His thoughts are below. (Thank you, CV. Thank you, Peter. Your contributions to the blog are much appreciated.)
You raise some fascinating points about Stockholm, and as another expat living there, I wanted to weigh in.
One cannot separate purchasing preferences from someone’s outlook on life and society. Indeed, many purchases, especially clothing and furniture, are an extension of how one sees the world and how one wishes to be perceived.
At the heart of these purchase decisions are three questions of signaling: what are you signaling, to whom, and why? We’ll address each of these in turn.
Yes, the abominable behaviors you mentioned are prevalent here. In a country long known for its common sense and egalitarian beliefs, I was shocked by the lines of people outside the “luxury” shops on Stureplan. Without naming names, these were the stores that relied heavily on products with visible logos. I was surprised by the prevalence of fake tans and bad (read: visible) plastic surgery on a people who are naturally some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
And as you mentioned, I was also surprised by the prevalence of boastful lifestyle posts on social media. Isn’t it enough to enjoy a spa day without needing to post and boast about it to one’s friends/followers?
But perhaps most disappointing was the behavior of some Stockholmers on public transit when it comes to phone etiquette in public. For a country that didn’t need to enforce a two-meter social distancing rule during the pandemic because, as the joke goes, there’s a longstanding three-meter distancing already in place, this is surprising. One cannot ride the subway, day or night, without someone nearby on a loud FaceTime Video call, a speakerphone call, or listening to a TikTok at full volume.
My reaction may come across as somewhat judgmental, but it is informed by a New England upbringing. To our eyes, these behaviors reads as selfish, self-centered, and deeply insecure. Yes, I’m generalizing. Yes, this is Stockholm and perhaps not representative of Sweden as a whole. But it’s the reprehensible behavior of new money writ large.
Back to the original three questions, these behaviors return to the notion of signaling. A truly luxurious handbag does not need a logo to signal its quality. The design and craftsmanship should speak for themselves. The logo is only there to impress other people who are impressed by such things.
The audience for this is lateral (other people who also buy such things) or downward (aimed at inspiring awe, or whatever, in people who cannot afford such things). Ditto for showcasing the renovation of one’s apartment on social media. Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book, Theory of the Leisure Class. The notion is alive and well on TikTok.
Back to the notion of plastic surgery, especially as it is done here in Stockholm. In New York City, there’s a lot of “work” done – but it’s often subtle, and the result is elegant and understated, and draws no attention to itself. Someone who has gone to one of these plastic surgeons simply looks like a fresher, more attractive version of themselves.
But here, by contrast, there seems to be an active desire to show off a garish, gaudy plastic surgery – lips that look overfilled seem to be the most common. The gaudiness seems to be the point, as much as the logos are on the clothing. It signals that work was done, that one could afford to have work done. And this is a slightly different meaning than merely having work done to correct a perceived shortcoming.
These behaviors are inherently plutocratic (new money) rather than patrician (old money). Old money will continue to comport itself as it always has – one isn’t admitted to these circles based on money, so much as how one carries oneself. A classic navy blazer, khakis, button-down and necktie will take one further than any garment covered with logos ever will. A rusty Volvo, lovingly maintained, will be regarded as inherently more desirable than a flashy Ferrari. Plastic surgery is acceptable so long as it is subtle.
But taking a broader view of this is a quality that old money ascribes to itself but upon which it has no monopoly: thoughtfulness. The behavior on the subway of the Stockholmers on FaceTime Video or speakerphone calls is inherently inconsiderate. It has that same flashiness of those who are deep-tanned to match their Louis Vuitton monogrammed luggage and large gold jewelry: there’s a “look at me” aspect to all of this.
Restating all of this in one line: listen to Byron. He knows what’s going on.