There is a veritable selection of books about the Swedes – sociological insights into their cultural quirks and how to get to know them better, or how to get to know them at all. Indeed, making friends and acquaintances in Sweden takes time. I’m celebrating my 9-year anniversary in Stockholm this month and that’s enough to boast numerous good relations. In the book Swedish Mentality, noted ethnologist Åke Daun refers to “shyness” when it comes to social interaction with the Swedes.
“Shyness…..has been little investigated in Sweden, despite the well-known stereotype of Swedes as rather shy, reserved, withdrawn, stiff, and in many cases not very interested in approaching someone they do not know.”
In Modern Day Vikings, Christina Johansson Robinowitz and Lisa Werner Carr hit the spot. “In Sweden….silence is a trait to be valued. Swedes are generally uncomfortable with small talk, finding it unnecessary or, worse, intrusive.”
This generally holds true until becoming a mum, I found. A sure-fire way to get random strangers talking to you at the bus stop or in the supermarket is to equip yourself with a stroller. Only yesterday, a kind lady reminisced about her now grown-up children with me in the frozen vegetable aisle. So a stroller is a key conversation starter. Put a cute baby in it and you’ll even get your neighbours to chit-chat and pass the time of day with you. Amazing.
Yet, Robinowitz and Werner Carr continue. “…(Swedes) see conversation as something that should have a purpose. When they do communicate, however, they can be surprisingly blunt.”
Sometimes, I’ve found their chosen words are simply just unwanted advice, badly timed at those crisis moments when you’re unsuccessfully trying to settle your crying baby. I’ve had people tell me he needs picking up, share their knowledge of preferable sleeping positions and the pitfalls of pacifiers.
There is a Swedish proverb: “Tala är silver, tiga är guld” – To speak is silver, to keep silent is gold. I used to moan about missing a friendly few words with passers by, but after nine years in Sweden I got used to holding my tongue. Now there are moments when I wish they would stick to being the solemn silent types I have come to know and even love.