One of the first impressions a stranger to Sweden might get is that the average Swede is very aloof and reserved. This is often seen on the streets where nobody smiles at each other, makes eye contact, or in any way acknowledges the existence of the other…unless of course they are really good friends. This is often perceived by outsiders to be rude. (At least outsiders from the North American continent and other friendly places.)
Today, at precisely 6:13pm I realized why this is the norm of behavior in Sweden. It actually has nothing to do with being rude, but instead it is a collective cultural norm to help everyone save face. Essentially, this practice is a form of social evolution to allow individuals in this society to suffer less embarrassments and awkward moments.
Now, last year I did not realize this and I was quite frustrated with the “unfriendly” Swede and went out of my way to make eye contact, smile, and say ‘Hej’ to anyone I passed on the street. This is a typical adjustment strategy I use when first moving to a new country. And this strategy got me nowhere in Sweden…except for that one time when I basically pinned another hemmapoppa in the corner of the Systembolagat. Anyways, last year I was new here, I did not know anybody and I thought this would be a good way to show I am friendly and approachable. (Hint Hint Swedes…I am looking to make some friends.)
It was not until just today that I figured this all out. Though I just had a conversation with some new colleagues who explained that they get quite confused and startled if anyone they don’t know says ‘Hej’ to them, I still didn’t get why they did not greet acknowledge others on the street, until this happened:
I was walking out of the Chinese restaurant, taking some yummy Asian noodles home for K (who insists that Asian egg noodles are the best possible food in Almhult), and was about to cross the street where I almost cut off a bicyclist. We both stopped, made brief eye contact…as we were about to collide I think it was appropriate to have that sort of communication, but then it happened! I think I knew that person…but I couldn’t quite be sure. So I said nothing. I ignored her, waited very tensely for the crossing light to turn green, and hoped that I really did not know the person and was being quite rude. And that is when I realized why Swedes don’t make eye contact or greet people on the streets…you never quite know who you are talking to.
Remember, this is Sweden. The sun has set at 3:30 and it has been dark for over two hours and it is only 6pm. So it’s dark, not a big deal until you then realize it’s December in Sweden. This woman had a big wool hat pulled down half over her face, a matching white fluffy wool scarf covering the other half of her face, so the only distinguishing feature visible to make a positive ID on this person were two blue eyes and blond hair down past the shoulders. Hmmm…blond hair and blue eyes pretty much describes ¾ of the population here.
So here I am, having nearly knocked over this woman on her bicycle, at night, in the cold, impatiently waiting to cross the road hoping that I actually didn’t know this person cause I could not be certain of who she was to begin with, because I couldn’t see her bloody face through the wool and night sky!! And I couldn’t rightly say ‘Hej’, cause if I really didn’t know her then I would be that rude foreigner going around saying Hej’ to everyone like we were best mates or something!!
Yes, I see it now; it is much safer to go about your business in town and not acknowledge anyone and if everyone rightly follows this practice, then no one ever will be considered rude…unless of course they decide to look at you, smile, and say ‘Hej.”