The first time I saw Swedish people when I arrived in Sweden was when I took the train from Stockholm to Borlänge. At the airport there were mostly foreigners around and I was wondering where all the Swedes were. In the train I had a good sleep after my numerous flights, because the people were really quiet and even stopped talking when they saw me falling asleep. When I needed to get off, a man sitting nearby helped me dig out my suitcase from the rest of the luggage. So, the first impression was very positive. On my way to the dorm the taxi driver showed me the university and gave me a short introduction to Borlänge, as we were passing by.
The beginning of my stay in Sweden was quite challenging. There were a few negative circumstances that spoiled my impression of the country. However, it became much better with time, especially after I had more interaction with the people. I’ve learned quite a lot about Swedish people during the six months I’ve lived here, and I will try to summarize my observations below:
1. Appearance. There are many blond and tall people in Sweden, or at least they are taller than average and with lighter hair color than in other countries. Most of them have blue eyes. The children are especially cute, blond and sometimes curly, like little angels. However, it is difficult to see many Swedes these days. The whole image of the country is changing due to high immigration rates. When you walk on a street, expect to see a mix of nationalities. The only place where I saw hundreds of Swedes was a hockey match in Leksand. A sports event, that’s where you can find them all 🙂
2. Behavior. Interacting with Swedish people for the first time may feel a little strange, because they have a special manner of talking and behaving. They are more reserved, shy, and slower to respond compared to people from other cultures. A friend from Argentina told me recently: “Sometimes you meet a really smart professor who has achieved a lot, but how can he behave in such a shy way while he is so successful?” And it is true, you can talk to somebody really modest, and then find out he was the CEO of a company. People in Sweden are also very careful about following the rules. For example, cars always stop at a pedestrian crossing, nobody gets in front of you in a line, and people pay for everything even if there’s a chance not to. Swedes are punctual. Don’t be late, even 2 minutes, because they will already be there waiting for you.
3. Customer service. I was quite disappointed with this one in the beginning. You can wait in a store for half an hour for someone to help you and give information about a product but no one will ever come to you and inquire if you need any help. And then you may find those employees chatting to each other somewhere behind the corner. A Swedish professor told me it happens because the shop assistants consider it respectful not to bother customers and give them freedom to walk around and choose by themselves. To approach and start offering help may be considered intrusive and pushy. Another thing I’ve noticed is that they deal with only one customer at a time for a long as needed. I once had a short question in a store and attempted to ask it quickly while the shop assistant was checking something for another customer. And guess what, he simply ignored me as if I wasn’t even there! And then kept talking to that other customer after checking something in his computer. However, when it was my turn, he spent a long time with me, and I noticed all the tired looks of the other people waiting in line. Swedes will provide the service you need, but not in a friendly and smiling manner as in the US, for example. Still, there are many customer rights that you may not find in other countries. In Sweden it is easier to return a purchased good to a store or to get your money back if you are not satisfied.
4. E-mail correspondence with Swedish people can be pretty short and dry, without emotions and personal touch. Some businesses will be friendly and detailed when they are interested in you buying something from them, but in many cases don’t be surprised if you get a straightforward reply, concise and to the point, nothing more. I wrote a complaint when I couldn’t get into my room for almost 24 hours upon arrival, and the reply I got was something like “Hello, you were supposed to get an email that tells you to notify us before coming. If you didn’t get it, you should have written to us. Best regards…” They didn’t call me by name, didn’t apologize, and didn’t even express any sympathy for what I experienced. I also wrote to the gym with a suggestion to put a scale for checking weight, as they didn’t have any. The reply was simply “no, we will not put a scale, because it is our policy, to encourage training with a smile…” And sometimes you may not even get a reply, which can make you think “did I write something wrong?” It feels especially weird when you sincerely express your gratitude and appreciation or write something more personal, and then don’t hear anything back. They probably think it’s ok not to answer as long as you are not asking for any specific information. So, take it easy if it happens to you 🙂
5. Society and individuality. Swedish society cares about its people and makes sure everyone has the basic things they need for life and that everyone’s rights and freedoms are protected. The fact that Sweden accepts and supports so many refugees is a good example of this. Also, if a Swedish citizen struggles financially, they can ask for money from the government, and in many cases it will be given to them. Still, in Sweden individuality and personal space are valued more than in other countries. For example, the least you can get renting a student accommodation is your own room that you can lock, and sharing the bathroom and kitchen with other people. In the US a few people may be placed in the same room, and it is considered appropriate. So, I appreciate it that even in the cheapest (relatively) student accommodation I actually have my own room. Swedes tend to have everything of their own instead of sharing things with others, and they are unlikely to ask for help, but try to do everything by themselves.
6. Respect. Swedish people are very respectful and will take every opinion into consideration. If you ask them for something or if you complain about something, they may be slow to respond first, but will eventually do something about it. They are very attentive listeners and it is usually among the Swedes where I can express my opinion without being interrupted or overpowered by somebody louder.
7. Cooperation. It is surprising how Swedish people manage to cooperate in so many ways! We have visited many tourism businesses within our study program and I’ve seen much more cooperation in Sweden than anywhere else. In other countries companies are usually focused on competition and how to set their businesses apart. In Sweden small tourism businesses arrange common projects and packages, making all the parties better off as a result. I was also surprised how the banks are all connected here. For example, if you receive payment to Nordea Bank, but have an account in Handelsbanken, Nordea can easily arrange a transfer straight to your Handelsbanken account absolutely for free, as if it is the same bank. And when you get cash from the ATM machine of another bank, you don’t have to pay any commission either. This tendency to cooperate has changed my way of thinking and helped me look at certain things from a completely new perspective.
This is not the end. I have more things to say about Swedish people, which you will be able to read in Part III. It will cover personal aspects, such as gender roles, etc. I’ll try to get more insights meanwhile 🙂