I did a lot of research about Swedish culture before my trip there last fall and one of the things that every article and blog mentioned is that Swedes keep to themselves to an extent that Americans cannot even imagine.
As my father and I waited for our flight out of Kansas City, one of our compatriots helpfully provided what would prove to be stark contrast with our Swedish experience. Apropos of almost nothing, the young woman across the aisle from us in the waiting area told us all about the stuffed bear she carries with her on trips and then filled us in on her upcoming travel plans, her current health and probably a lot of other stuff that I missed when I stopped paying attention. It was clear that she would continue talking whether we provided encouragement or not, so the torrent of oversharing went on until we got in line for boarding.
Swedes are not like that AT ALL. If I've ever wondered where my introversion genes came from, the trip to Sweden provided my answer beyond all doubt.
During the trip, we mainly stayed in a newer residential area of Stockholm popular with young professionals. There was a train stop right outside our apartment building, so we had an easy time getting around the city for the most part.
As soon as we ventured out, it was obvious that Swedes do not:
- Make eye contact with people they pass on the street or encounter on public transportation.
- Stand anywhere near other people when waiting in lines.
- Chat with strangers.
It was glorious.
In fact, only once did a stranger speak to us on a train unprompted. We had taken a day trip to Uppsala, which is a university town, and were heading back to Stockholm. A young American student overheard us talking and realized we were Americans as well, so she eagerly started a conversation that lasted until we reached her stop. Those talkative Americans.
That's not to say that the Swedish people weren't friendly. Any time I needed to ask someone a question, I got an unfailingly polite and helpful reply. It may have been mixed with a tinge of pity that I had to ask it in English, but that never showed.
One thing I hadn't read about but noticed on my own: a slight variation in greeting depending on how familiar you were (or might be expected to be) with someone else. For example, when I entered a shop the person behind the counter would say, "Hej!" (Pronounced "hey"—it means "hello.") However, when someone else from the apartment building where we were staying passed us in the hallway, they would say, "Hej, hej!" I noticed our relatives greeting their neighbors that way as well.
Around friends and family members, of course, everything was much more sociable. Admittedly, everyone spoke Swedish most of the time even though they knew we didn't understand them, but it didn't bother me. Everyone in Sweden under the age of, say, seventy had learned to speak very decent English in school. The wife of one our cousins reported that her elderly mother kept rattling off conversational snippets directed at me and would then say (in Swedish), "But of course you can't understand anything I'm saying!"
For the most part, I just felt like I'd found my people. Any time I don't want to make small talk, now I know I'm not antisocial, I'm just Swedish.