Scandinavia explained

A quick guide

Mountains, northern lights, taxes, vikings, snow, wealth, welfare, happiness. The illusive Scandinavia seems to have things figured out. But what is Scandinavia, and how is the geopolitical situation in the region?


Scandinavian Airlines is the flagship carrier for Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and an example of the important political and financial ties between the countries.

There's almost as many definitions of Scandinavia as there's letters in the word (11, if you wanted to count). But the most correct definition is: Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Finland and even Iceland are often included, although strictly speaking they are not Scandinavian.

However, Scandinavia, Finland, Iceland and their overseas territories comprise the Nordic countries. The territories include:

All five countries have very strong ties culturally, politically and financially.

The Nordic countries collaborate in the Nordic council, and follow similar economic models which have leveled all membership countries to some of the highest living standards in the world. Whether you look at equality, wealth, happiness, trust, anti-corruption, welfare, education or safety you're more or less certain to find most, if not all, of the Nordic countries represented. Obviously, the region has its share of problems, but broadly speaking the countries are very well off.

Your 10 Scandinavia questions, answered

Do Danes, Norwegians or Swedes hate each other?

Short answer: No.

There's no bad blood in Scandinavia. Scandinavians consider each other brothers and sisters, which means we like to tease each other, but at the end of the day we're one big family.

Danes and Norwegians alike consider Sweden their big brother. Norway is the rich youngest sister, the other two are growing jealous of, and Denmark is the orderly and more rugged middle child.

Will Scandinavia unite into one country?

Short answer: Unlikely.

Landscape like this will probably not be shared with Sweden and Denmark in the foreseeable future
We already have the benefits of being a union through other means, and we avoid the disadvantages. At the end of the day, there's no particularly good reason for Scandinavia to unite. Through the Nordic Passport Union the citizens are already granted the freedoms to live and work anywhere they wish in Scandinavia (restrictions apply on the overseas territories for various reasons).

As for international negotations, we're already working in a collective front through the Nordic council. At the same time, by not uniting, we can take care of our own interests within our own frameworks.

Why are Scandinavian militaries so small?

Scandinavian countries are peaceful and usually opt for neutrality in conflicts. In military terms Scandinavia suffers from the disadvantage of a small population size. Despite having well-trained military personel, the region will always rely on external assitance during invasaion.

Which language is spoken?

Short answer: Norwegian, Danish and Swedish

The Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligble. They are derivatives of the North Germanic language branch. In the Viking Age, the spoken language was "Old Norse".

Denmark and Norway were united as Denmark-Norway for around 400 years, so in written form Norwegian standard language, known as Bokmål, and Danish are pretty much the same language. So much so, that Google Translate's automatic language detection oftentimes can't tell them apart. Some Norwegians have since tried to get rid of us by revising the Norwegian language into Nynorsk (New Norwegian). While Nynorsk is widely taught, Bokmål is still very much the dominant form of Norwegian.

Spoken, Norwegians and Swedes have the easiest time understanding each other, and Danes end up as a third wheel.

English proficiency is among the highest in the world.

Is it true that Scandinavians are socially reserved?

Short answer: Yes.

The average Scandinavian doesn't willingly smalltalk with strangers
Scandinavians generally don't strike up conversations with strangers, and there are a number of unwritten laws about personal space. But once you're in a group of friends, you're in for life.

The classic exampel of Scandinavian personal space takes place in a bus. If there's a pair of free seats available, and you still choose to sit yourself next to a Scandinavian, they're going to consider you a lunatic.

Is there xenophobia and/or racism in Scandinavia?

Short answer: To some degree.

It's mainly concentrated in smaller towns and rural areas. You'll have little to no bad experiences in larger cities like Oslo, Copenhagen or Stockholm, all of which are fairly multi-cultural.

It varies between countries, where Sweden is probably the most open-minded of the three. Norway and Denmark are more closed around themselves. If you encounter racism, it's very unlikely to escalate to physical violence. But the risk of verbal abuse or a judgmental stare cannot be denied.

Is Scandinavia socialist?

Short answer: No.

Scandinavia and the Nordic countries adhere to the Nordic model and are social democracies, which is far from the same as socialism. Very roughly put, social democratic nations are inbetween capitalism and socialism on the spectrum.

All Nordic countries have highly competitive, well-developed market economies. The private and public sectors are both large and strong.

Is Scandinavia a utopian society?

Short answer: No.

Scandinavia might come across as utopian, causing envy around the globe. And the envy is not misplaced, but the region is not a utopia. We definitely have our share of hardships and issues, for instance there's widespread stress and depression.

Ironically, this may partly be caused by status of Scandinavia. People are feeling a pressure to live and achieve perfect lives, which is of course not possible. You're supposed to perform at your job or studies, be a good family member, be in shape, eat healthy, and be greener than your neighbour.

Why are Scandinavians so happy?

Mutual trust, feeling of safety and work/life balance are major factors behind Scandinavia's repeatedly high scores in happiness indices.
Short answer: High human development, likely due to the success of the Nordic model.

As mentioned above, Scandinavia is not a utopia. But what makes Scandinavians happier than most other people on Earth can largely be credited to a great sense of trust and safety. If you lose your job, the social welfare net will catch you. The poor man's kid can get the same education as the rich man's kid; you're not limited by parent's means in terms of making something of yourself.

There's a great sense of mutual trust, as well as trust in the government. The police don't take bribes, rotten politicians are thrown on their asses, and political ideas across the entire spectrum are openly debated on public TV.

Work/life balance is also worth mentioning. I read a while back in a tourist guide about Denmark, that you - as a foreigner - shouldn't be surprised if a guy left an important business meeting because (s)he had to pick up his/her kids. Scandinavians work a little less than 40 hours a week and the work/life balance is of very high priority.

Which religion is practiced in Scandinavia?

Short answer: Christianity or atheism

Historically Scandinavia adhered to Norse mythology. Our ancestors believed that they would get to dine with Odin in Valhalla, if they fought bravely in battle. And who's to question that?

That was one thousand years ago though, and for the last millenium Chritianity has been predominant. In the last decades, athetism has been on the rise; There's also a growing number of people who identify as Christian, but don't actively practice it.