Yes, Swedes eat a lot of meatballs and equip their homes with IKEA furniture. Many drive Volvos and listen to ABBA. But there are some cliches about the Swedes that are simply wrong. Here are five of the most common myths about the Nordic country, where President Barack Obama made a stopover Wednesday on his way to a global summit in Russia.
MYTH 1: ALL SWEDES ARE BLOND
There are still plenty of fair-haired people on the streets of Stockholm, but immigration from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia is rapidly changing the makeup of the nation. About 1.5 million of Sweden's nearly 10 million inhabitants were born in another country. Many others have foreign parents, like Sweden's most famous athlete — dark-haired soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has a Croatian mother and a Bosnian father. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has immigrant roots; his great-great grandfather was an African-American circus artist.
MYTH 2: SWEDES ARE SOCIALISTS AND PAY THE WORLD'S HIGHEST TAXES
Sweden no longer looks like the bloated nanny state it was in the 1970s and '80s. After a crippling banking crisis 20 years ago, Sweden took steps to make its economy more competitive, deregulating energy, communication, transport and other sectors and lowering taxes. Since taking office in 2006, Reinfeldt's center-right government has accelerated the move away from socialism, selling off state-owned businesses including the maker of Absolut vodka, trimming welfare benefits and income taxes and abolishing the tax on wealth. Sweden still has a relatively generous welfare system and taxes still account for about half of the economy, but neighboring Denmark's tax rates are even higher.
MYTH 3: SWEDEN HAS THE WORLD'S HIGHEST SUICIDE RATE
That's never been true, though Sweden ranked high in suicide surveys about 50 years ago. Experts say part of the reason was that at the time, many other countries, including the Soviet Union, didn't report such statistics accurately. Nowadays, Sweden's suicide rate is close to the European average. Contrary to common belief, suicides are more common in summertime than during the cold and dark winters.
MYTH 4: SWEDEN IS A NEUTRAL COUNTRY
By staying out of military alliances, Sweden successfully avoided being dragged into both world wars of the 20th century. But its neutrality was never absolute. The Swedes looked the other way when Hitler's troops in Nazi-occupied Norway used Swedish railways for transit. During the Cold War, the Swedes officially didn't take sides but were counting on NATO to help out if the Soviets were to attack. Since joining the European Union in 1995, Sweden can't even pretend to be neutral because member states are obliged to help each other in case of an armed aggression. While Sweden still hasn't joined NATO, its military now trains regularly with allied forces and Swedish fighter jets took part in the NATO-led air campaign over Libya in 2011.
MYTH 5: THE SWEDISH SIN
For some, Sweden is synonymous with unbridled sexual lust. That reputation stems in part from sexually explicit Swedish movies that drew international attention in the 1960s. However, their relaxed attitudes toward sex and nudity don't mean Swedes are more promiscuous than other Europeans — or Americans. Swedish views on sexuality have been strongly influenced by women's emancipation and gender equality. Projections of women as sexual objects are frowned upon. That's reflected in Sweden's mixed feelings about pornography, which many see as demeaning to women, and the country's unusual prostitution law, which outlaws buying sex but not selling it.