Cold Fish or Friendly Strangers?

I could point you to many sources that support my claim that Swedes have the reputation of being cold and stand-offish. When I arrived, I had already heard the rumors, and I certainly developed an understanding of why they exist. Even though there aren’t many people on the street, people don’t generally acknowledge or greet those they pass by. You don’t look at, smile at, or strike up conversations with the folks you encounter at the bus stop, the people you are sitting next to on the train, etc.

However, over time I noticed that this “coldness” in temporary encounters was balanced by warmth and familiarity in interactions with “familiar strangers” at work and your child’s school. In other words, while folks don’t engage in friendly banter on the train, they, from my perspective, are extremely warm and engaging when they make a call to a stranger in another office at work, prefacing a discussion of business by asking how the person is doing, talking about the weather and then discussing business in the most friendly and familiar manner possible.

You could even say that this difference in what encounters people turn into quality interactions is another example of efficiency. Chatting it up with the person beside you at the bus stop doesn’t generally accomplish anything but passing the time. Your bus will come and you will probably never speak again. Instant familiarity with people with whom you share lasting institutional ties, however,  will be more likely to be followed up with further contact and yield lasting positive results. In other words, it is effort well spent.

There is another aspect of typical behavior that can be read as part of the rumored Swedish coldness. This is the fact that folks don’t typically go out of the way to help each other. For example, you wouldn’t automatically offer your seat on the bus to an elderly person (if it wasn’t in the designated area for seniors), stop to help someone who falls, or offer a ride to an acquaintance who doesn’t have one. I think this choice not to offer help is separate from the choice not to engage strangers, however. Instead, folks tend to shy away from offering assistance because to do so could be read as a suggesting that the person requires assistance – that they are not capable of managing on their own. Such a suggestion is exceedingly insulting. So much so that I have observed that when people could actually use a bit of help they can be grumpy and reluctant in accepting it.

Americans may think they have cornered the market on independence and self-sufficiency, but they have that all wrong.

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One Response to Cold Fish or Friendly Strangers?

  1. Pingback: Stepping in it: preface to a risky post | Vermont 2 China

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