The American fascination with all things Scandinavian, from hygge to the minimalist architecture and design, has been growing over the past few years and launched a number of articles and books obsessed with what makes Denmark and its northern neighbors among the happiest and highest performing cultures in the world, such as Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People. New York Times and Atlantic Journalist Anu Partanen adds to the conversation with her recent release The Nordic Theory of Everything.
A Finn who relocated to the United States as an adult, Partanen is uniquely qualified to compare the two countries. Despite her best intentions, she finds that “just a few months after leaving Finland, [she’d] gone from being a successful and happy career woman to an anxious, wary, and self-doubting mess.” When she struggles to adapt, she immediately blames herself and the Nordic culture for not being as driven and as exceptional as the American culture. However, as she spends more time in the country and begins to get to know Americans, she wonders if perhaps her anxiety was a characteristic of the American culture—and an unnecessary one.
In a balanced and thoughtful way, Partanen measures the two cultures against each other. She is as critical of her native land as she is of her adopted one, but she often finds that she prefers the Finnish way of life to the American and ultimately concludes that Nordic societies have figured out how “to take modernity even further—further than America had.” Partanen was startled to discovered that married couples are taxed together in the States as Finland taxes each individual independently, which encourages individual self-worth and discourages economically guided marriage. Moreover, she believes that “authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.” From marriage Partanen leaps into child care, disclosing the troubling fact that only two of the 185 countries surveyed do not guarantee paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea and the United States. The Nordic regions, on the other hand, recognize the connection between a productive employee and home-life and family satisfaction.
While her book is a critical condemnation of the way things are done in the United States, Partanen is trying to show that there are other ways to approach marriage, child rearing, education and more. She is hopeful that the United States can successfully adopt and adapt what she calls the “Nordic Theory of Love” to suit its own agenda and look toward the future with optimism and a renewed trust in themselves and each other. Regardless, The Nordic Theory of Everything is an engaging, insightful book for anyone who has traveled or will travel to the Scandinavian nations and is curious to learn about subtle cultural differences between the American and Scandinavian way of life.