Learning the Languages of Intimacy: Changing Modes and Moods in Sweden

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In his recent book, Metropolitan Intimacies: An Ethnography on the Poetics of Daily Life, Francisco Cruces (2022) explores how urbanites in Madrid, Montevideo and Mexico City handle intimacy in their social life. It is a rich ethnography of everyday activities and a fascinating analysis of how intimacy has become such a central theme in contemporary urban life. In discussing this metropolitanization of intimacy and the breakdown of traditional barriers between public and private, Cruces addresses the many faces of intimacy – “a fussy, messy and slippery concept,” as he points out (p 172).

Reading the many micro-narratives of personal relations and domestic life, I was struck by the skilful ways these urbanites explored, expressed, and reflected over intimate matters. How had they acquired and developed these social skills and cultural competencies?

A very different handling of private issues emerged in a project on urban life that I have been involved in. Together with Jonas Frykman, I have looked at changes in family patterns and domestic life among Swedes who moved from the countryside into the cities from the 1930s to the 1950s (Frykman & Löfgren 2022). This was a period of rapid urbanization but also the making of the modern Swedish welfare state.

The rural migrants came from settings where many intimate matters were hidden in silence, and emotions were difficult to express. The newcomers had to learn the city, speak the many languages of intimacy, and find new forms of self-reflection. The author Hertha Müller has captured this transition. She remembers her childhood in a poor village in Romania after the Second World War. Here, people never put words to feelings about domestic togetherness:

Maybe the feeling of togetherness was so strong that one did not experience the feeling. It was normal for everyone to belong together; one did not express it with words and gestures. It was still something evident and clear – one sits together at the table, uses the same door, the same cutlery and pots, our clothes hang together on the washing line – one belongs together, this is what the outer things guarantee… That one could speak of oneself was something I first found out later in town. (Müller 2014:15, my translation)

1930-1960 saw a radical transformation of everyday life and living standards in Sweden. During the interwar years and the austerity of the Second World War, life for many was characterized by economic hardships and poor housing standards. Most families lived in an apartment with one room and a kitchen. Still, in the 1940s, many Swedes struggled daily with wood-fired stoves, cold water, an outside privy, and makeshift sleeping arrangements. Economic insecurity and terrible housing conditions were two reasons for a very low birth rate, which worried authorities. In the intense public debate, the solution was to create modern, happy families; people had to marry early and have many children. In the government campaigns for modern family life, traditional boundaries between public and private were transgressed. Questions of domestic habits, sexuality, and couple-making became a concern of the state and had to be discussed openly. The newcomers to the city were met with a barrage of marriage advice. For people with a rural background who had no tradition of verbalizing intimate and emotional matters, this could seem both problematic and provoking – an intimidating intimacy. What we can witness during this period is a learning process, finding new ways of bringing intimate matters into the open, both in public and domestic life, but also new forms of self-reflection. And what happens when people with different social and cultural backgrounds meet, carrying very different ideas about selfhood and private matters?


Intimacy and the media

Moving to the city in search of work also meant searching for a partner with dreams of home-making. The campaigns for early marriage and modern family life also carried notions of shared intimacy as part of couple-making, but for the young, the messages from popular culture were more important than the admonitions from the state, and it is this impact I will discuss. (My empirical examples are fetched from our study.)

In overcrowded lodgings, young people often choose to socialize outside, and the media helped create new social arenas. A different world was opening up. People from very different stations in life were confronted with urban life. Not only was there a new socially thrown togetherness in public places, but there was also a mix of media and popular culture. How did they work together as a toolbox for identity work, socializing, and providing new platforms for intimacy? Let me start by looking at some aspects of the mediatisation of everyday life in the three decades of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when people learned to handle media such as the radio, the cinema, the box camera, and the weekly magazine. Texts, images and sounds flowed in and out of the home in ways that did not make the domestic scene more privatized but turned it into a laboratory for handling the outside world and organizing social relations. Novel skills and routines of media use were created.


Radio moods

When the new medium of the radio was introduced into Swedish homes during the interwar years it rapidly came to play an active role in the affective management of everyday life. The radio became an emotionally charged media, which in a way denied its structure as a mass medium. The radio voice found its way directly to the individual and into the most private corners of domestic life. The sound hit without any filtering mechanisms.

Broadcasters gradually learnt to create a more intimate atmosphere: “I am talking directly to you!” Listeners started seeing the radio as a new friend; one didn’t have to be alone now. The radio also created new forms of family togetherness, when the whole household would gather around the receiver. This was a new experience for many since family togetherness was not a traditional working-class project. In overcrowded lodgings, people socialized with peers outside the home rather than with family, men with other men, women with women, and youngsters with other youngsters, but on Saturday nights, the radio pulled the family together.

There are many nostalgic memories of such idyllic listening, but more troubling thoughts lurked in the background. People couldn’t help comparing their domestic life to how perfect and modern family life was presented in soap operas and lectures. Listening in an overcrowded kitchen, which later at night would be turned into an improvised landscape of bedding and sleeping places, it was easy to start thinking about how far removed the broadcast images of domestic life were from one’s own every day. There was happy talk of the modern married couple based on companionship and sharing, while most housewives had a husband who rarely considered helping with the daily chores.


Whom can I confide in?

If the radio developed new forms of intimacy, this also went for the popular press. The 1930s and ’40s saw a proliferation of illustrated magazines and weeklies aimed at different audiences: housewives, teenagers, and families.

The tone between journalists and readers turned more intimate. The rapid growth of “Reader’s Queries” and “Lonely Hearts Columns” strengthened this feeling of dialogue. There was a new chance of anonymously sharing intimate issues, which couldn’t be voiced otherwise. Many of the anxieties of the period surface in these magazine exchanges. There are worries about the still heavily tabooed theme of sexuality. Young women and newlyweds asked for advice in the doctor’s column. “Dear doctor, you are the only one I can turn to. I know nothing about intimate matters, my parents never talk about it, and I am forbidden to read about it.” One young woman writes, and another asks: “Can I get pregnant if my fiancée kisses me with an open mouth?” Complex questions regarding class were also vented, often hidden in issues about etiquette rules in the stifling rigidity of public life. “Can I greet my customers when I meet them in the street, or must I wait until they tip their hats?” a young saleswoman asks; or, “How should I address the parents of my fiancée?” a young man wants to know.


Getting closer

Stories of romance and passion abounded in the weekly magazines, but the cinema became an even more critical medium for depicting intimate matters. Unlike the radio, the cinema created a new public arena where strangers could share intense experiences.

A cinema ticket invited a new togetherness, especially for the young. It was also a tool for making contact with the opposite sex. “How about going to the pictures Saturday night?” Sitting together in the back rows as the lights faded, watching the passionate love stories on the screen, it was relatively easy to try to hold hands. Afterwards, a walk home together gave a chance to discuss intimate matters through the language of the film experience.

In a similar manner, new arenas of couple-making developed. One could invite a partner out to the many new cafés and make a can of coffee last two hours or, even better, visit the many new dance places, where one had the fantastic opportunity of holding a dance partner close while trying to make some conversation.


A toolbox for self-presentation

The new media offered a toolbox of possibilities – working materials for creating intimacy and unique selfhood. Media gave a chance to experiment with identities.

The inexpensive box camera was one important tool, not only a technology for producing memories, the actual photo activities themselves become part of social life and self-representations. Certain situations and events called for a photo, helping to choreograph moods of intimacy or togetherness. Being photographed or photographing others heightened awareness of self-presentation. The daily posing in front of the mirror at home also furthered a sense of awareness.

Girls began to spend more time on make-up, using tips from magazines, and advertisements showed a fast-growing genre of beauty ideals. Body movements and postures turned into more self-conscious choreography. “Who am I? Who could I become? What do others think of me?” New modes and moods of reflexivity emerged, as well as skills of enactment and staging oneself. There was a lot of daydreaming and drawing on media material. Anything could get the imagination going – a line from a popular tune, an advertisement, a sequence from a movie or a fragment from a radio programme. Underlying all this experimentation were the anxieties and challenges of being modern and developing intimate relations with friends or a new partner. Media provided a range of images and expressions, a new language of intimacy, which also was heavily gendered. One example of this was the telephone, which during the 40s and 50s, changed from a very male medium for formal exchanges and ritualized greetings to a tool for intense private and intimate conversations among women.


Gaining access to the worlds of intimacy

Learning new languages of intimacy may take different forms. I have outlined some traits in adapting a generation migrating from country to town from the 30s to the 50s. Later waves of migrants have faced similar problems of adjusting to new cultural contexts and understanding local rules and practices of intimacy while perhaps at the same time trying to defend traditions of privacy carried along in one’s own cultural baggage.

Today new toolboxes have been developed. I am reminded of how, for example, young refugees arriving in Europe during the last decades have handled this. They may find it hard to get inside the local domestic life and create more intimate relations. Or as one put it: “There are so many doors in Sweden, and most of them are closed.” For many, social media has become a tool for understanding how the locals arrange their personal lives, handle intimate matters, and present themselves to the world. Just take the example of Facebook, with its abundance of information on domestic life and rituals, as well as a rich array of modes of self-presentation. For new immigrants, social media may turn into a textbook of urban behaviour, offering insights into modes of expressing and communicating intimate matters.




Cruces, Francisco (2022). Metropolitan Intimacies. An Ethnography on the Poetics of Daily Life

Frykman, Jonas & Löfgren, Orvar 2022. Kärlek  och kärnfamilj i folkhemmet. Längtan, lust och oro. Malmö: Liber

Müller, Herta (2014). Mitt fosterland var en äppelkärna. Stockholm: Wahlström och Widstrand.

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