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Switzerland Is Not Sweden (But It Might As Well Be)

We pay different attention to things close to home than we do those farther away.
Switzerland Is Not Sweden (But It Might As Well Be)

Greetings fellow travelers.

We had not noticed anything amiss on our prior trips to the U.S. Whether traveling for business or for family trips, for years it somehow never came up. But in the last couple months we cannot help but noticing. We tell people we have moved from Switzerland, and they say something like "Oh, I've always wanted to visit Sweden!"

This has happened to us so frequently that it's clear something is going on. Switzerland and Sweden are so completely interchangeable in conversation that people don't realize they're referring to different countries. Based on some quick research, I see we're not the first ones to notice this.

During the 2018 World Cup, the confusion was so rampant that Swiss and Swedish authorities exchanged public statements on Twitter explaining the differences. Some of the Tweets are quite funny (it's Germans who have no sense of humor): see Sweden vs. Switzerland – the countries have taken to Twitter to make sure you know the difference. I particularly like the idea to merge the flags using the Swiss design with Sweden's colors. And speaking of flags, the New York Stock Exchange prominently flying the Swiss flag upon the occasion of the listing of Spotify (which is Swedish) led to another public explanation that the countries are distinct. The comments to the article reinforce the idea this problem is widespread: see You're Swiss – Stockholm is so beautiful.

Some people try to explain the confusion by describing the many similarities between Switzerland and Sweden. Although there are some, I think this cannot be the explanation. Why? Because to attribute the mix-up to similarities requires assuming people know overlapping details about both countries. To which I raise the objection, "Purported facts not in evidence, your Honor." Do we really think Americans confuse Switzerland and Sweden because they know so much about both places? No, something else is going on.

I disagree with those who would lay the blame at the feet of poor education. If we're honest, people in many places would struggle to distinguish all the world's countries, let alone correctly identify them on a map. This includes big countries with much larger populations than Switzerland and Sweden. Algeria vs. Angola? Chad vs. Chile? Malawi vs. Malaysia? Tanzania vs Tunisia? Even if you're geographically-minded, and so able to say with confidence that some of these pairs aren't even on the same continent, you might agree that it's not always easy to keep countries separate.

No, I think the confusion comes down to two factors: similarity in pronunciation, and relevance to your daily life. We employ all sorts of mental tricks and shortcuts to remember things, and how something sounds can be quite important. A common mnemonic device is a jingle or song that you replay in your head or sing out loud. Think of how we teach children the alphabet by way of their ABCs. It seems that ABBA is not the only memorable sound to come from Sweden. Switzerland seems to sound the same, or similar enough in any event, to be associated with how Americans learned the country names originally.

And as to why so many cannot tell the two apart, despite having learned them both at one point, I conclude it's just not necessary or important to know the difference. The whole world is available at our fingertips thanks to the Internet. Because of this, we don't expend effort to remember things we can look up. Further, what happens in our city, our state, and our country is vastly more important to our daily life than what happens on another continent. As such, we pay different attention to things close to home than we do those farther away.

As for me, I am struggling with keeping Charleston and Charlotte clear in my head, to say nothing of Charlottesville. I suspect fellow Southerners have no such difficulty. I can therefore understand them mistaking Sweden for Switzerland. It's a reminder that even though our two countries have a greater population and GDP than all but four U.S. States, we're just not that important in American eyes.

Thus, I can not only understand, but also forgive the mix-up. That said, the next time someone tells me they moved to the area from Tallahassee, Florida, it will be hard to resist the temptation to say "Oh, how nice. I've always wanted to visit Tennessee."

Be well.