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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Welcome to Sweden: Episode 3

This week's episode was slightly tamer but still there were some funny nuances to ponder and of course, the dynamics between a cross-cultural couple came more clearly into focus. Being both Americans, Doug and I did not share the struggles and joys of trying to fit into each other's world's as a cross-cultural couple nor have to face the headaches of obtaining the proper paperwork in order to stay together in a foreign land.
That said, the entire commentary on neighbors and not talking with them was pretty funny. While it is definitely a stretch to believe that people here look out the peep holes on their door to ensure that no one else will be in the hallway, I can confirm that chatting up your neighbors or even worse yet, strangers on the street or on the subway is a big time no no here in Stockholm! If you chat too much with strangers on the street they will think you are A) Drunk. B) Mentally Ill. C) American. Americans in particular have a very hard time with this cultural nuance as witnessed by Bruce's repeated attempts to break the barrier. Our own interpretation of this stand-offish-ness is that Swedes are rude. Over time we've come to realize however that Swedes often find the American over the top friendliness disingenuous and fake. Somewhere between rude and disingenuous perhaps lies the truth. I've come to understand that Swedes respect people's personal space too much to interrupt it with chatter. Funny enough, sometimes they aren't so generous with personal physical space and will crowd you in a line or crash into you with a baby stroller and never once utter a meager excuse me, because to say excuse me would mean to break the code of silence when it comes to talking to strangers. Silence is not uncomfortable for them and relationships are cultivated when, well, an ensuring friendship is actually a possibility. And yet, this is likely one of the cultural realities that I continue to struggle with after 16 years. I still find that the Swedes lack of casual social interaction feels very cold to me and it's hard for me to not read more into it than I should. Then again, when I'm in a very bad mood and don't feel like talking to anyone, this social behavior comes in very handy! It's totally acceptable to put your head down, keep that scowl on your face and trudge through your daily business!
We've lived in our building for 16 years. In that time, we've said hello to most of the others who live here but we've only been invited into 2 other apartments for a social gathering and those were from others who worked at Immanuel Church. To be fair, we've not done any inviting of others into our abode either. Why? I don't know.
We do chat casually. The dog has definitely broken down barriers and opened up new avenues of communication, but there is no inviting each other in and I'm not sure we could actually tell you the names of everyone here nor could they tell you our names!
I did really laugh at the end of the episode when the older gentleman is genuinely stuck in an elevator and Bruce, finally not wanting to buck the social trend, simply runs on by with a hej hej! There is a downside to all this social distance and being ignored while needing to be rescued out of a broken elevator would certainly fit that description!
The funny thing however about this is that once you have broken into a Swede's social circle, their hospitality is over the top. That's why if you come to Sweden and visit relatives or friends, you will likely not catch this nuance, unless of course, you find yourself in downtown Stockholm trying to share you trip details with every Swede you see. Then you will definitely confirm in their minds that you are indeed drunk, mentally ill and American.