In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a Swede born and bred, though I have lived some years abroad and might do it again some time. Because of this and because of working in an international environment I meet a lot of foreigners and get to hear their views on us. I find this pretty fascinating. This post will not be bursting any bubbles in particular because a lot of the observations made by non-Swedes are actually accurate. This is, rather, more of an educating (or so I hope) post which brings some of these things to light, explaining why they’re there- perhaps.
You think this doesn’t belong on my blog? Perhaps not. Though my blog is about dispelling misconceptions and that is what this is too.
Are we really that neutral, sitting on the fence, while at the same time freely discussing sex related questions?
How come this is the case, then? I have no bloody idea. Let’s examine some of the stuff we do. I picked out what I think is most common.
The first thing foreigners usually point out is that we are reserved. Are we? I have pondered this a lot lately and to be perfectly honest I don’t know. The thing is that the foreigners pointing this out come from cultures where it is normal to be more outgoing, perhaps using more hand gestures when speaking, emphasising with your voice, have heated discussions et cetera. It’s true that a Swede, normally, won’t do any of those things in conversation. We do use hand gestures when speaking but typically much smaller ones. We don’t have a big body language which is all over the place and uncontrolled. To others this may seem reserved, but that is in comparison to what they are used to. For me, Swedes are not reserved, you just need to learn to read. Most of the Swedes I know are pretty curious, we just don’t express it the same way. Don’t judge the book by its cover!
Again, compared to what? When we know someone we have warm discussions, where pretty much any subject will be brought up. We just don’t have those kinds of discussions with people we don’t know. Why would we? Also, we hate to interrupt: it is so impolite! I have found myself in situations with foreign people where I don’t get a word into the discussion because I don’t interrupt by default, whereas that is their natural way of speaking to each other. I have actually had to teach myself to interrupt others the last couple of years, to get over this obstacle. Why don’t we interrupt? Because we really value the other person’s right to talk.
One foreign person once told me we are impossible to discuss subjects with because we will go to great lengths to not be rude and fall out. If we don’t agree we probably won’t say it aloud, though if you are adept at body language you will notice. The consequence is that we won’t find ourselves in heated discussions, because they might be interpreted as being fights with others which is not okay.
What is this ‘personal space’ thing?
It’s possible that this is the most difficult thing for foreign people to grasp. Just don’t intrude on my personal space. Like, really. I mean it. In many cultures people stand close when talking. We don’t (unless it’s really crowded or you know the person well). I think that an arm’s length (a long arm) and a bit is a good distance. If someone steps closer than that, unless it is necessary, we freak out a little. Once in a staff meeting at work we were sitting on two sofas, and one of the guys sat down a little bit close to one of the other girls. She turned to him and said, very politely mind:
Could you please move away? You are intruding on my personal space.
He duly apologised and moved away. Nobody reacted. The only reason I did is because I have spent time abroad, I imagine. Anyway, imagine the personal space like a (large) bubble. Unless the situation requires it you are to stay outside the bubble. Easy-peasy. Please, see my illustrations!
We don’t always have direct eye-contact when speaking. If you continuously try to catch our eye when speaking we will grow uncomfortable and wonder what the heck you are up to. We just don’t have that kind of culture, and I think this can be interpreted as a lack of interest by some. However, did you know that less eye-contact in a conversation actually signifies a deeper trust to the person talking? If you don’t feel you have to keep an eye on the person you are talking to, this is a good sign. And again, who said that looking each other in the eyes all the time when talking is the norm and to not do it is strange? People who stare at each other more, of course!
Don’t dwell on the past
When I come across foreigners staying here I usually ask them what they think about Sweden, and what they think is most noticable in Swedes with regards to traits. A foreign man I met this summer said that he has noticed that we don’t discuss our pasts. I asked what he meant, of course, and he said that when you get to know a person in Holland, where he came from, you ask them questions about their past and childhood. I raised an eyebrow and asked why ever you would do such a thing, and he said it is to understand the person better why they are the way they are today. Admirable, to be sure, but surely it’s not necessary to pry?
I told my mum about this and her response was absolute surprise and then she asked:
Why would I do that? It’s not polite to ask about a person’s past. If they want to share I would listen, but otherwise I would never ask.
I think she hit the nail on the head. I would never actively decide to ask a person about their past. I never even reflected upon this before this man commented on it. It comes up naturally as time goes by, and your friendship deepens. Also if someone started asking me about my past I would grow uncomfortable. I have even have boyfriends whom I have basically never discussed childhoods with, until details arose naturally. Quit snooping. If I want to tell, then I will. Otherwise you will, literally, never know.
Emotionally cut off?
I was dating a guy some time ago who once suddenly blurted out that he thinks Swedes are emotionally cut off, at which point I got pissed off (see! This at once proves he was wrong). His reasons? Because we don’t discuss our emotions openly and my friends hadn’t told him about their lives when they met him the first time. Excuse me?
Why would anybody discuss their emotions openly? Why would I want everyone to know what I am feeling? Maybe that is my private stuff? If I want people to know, I will tell them, otherwise I will not show it or talk about it because it is my business, nobody else’s. It’s true that we are more reserved and don’t talk about our emotions, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. I find that Swedes generally contemplate their emotions a lot in silence and we have complex emotional lives. Read any poetry by Swedish poets and you will see this at once. Besides, in the most quiet waters…
My reply to him was, without any understanding:
Why would my friends discuss their lives with you? They don’t know you.
And that’s just it. We love to discuss things with people we know. We just don’t do it with strangers.
Aha! You think now, that you have found the fatal flaw: if we never discuss things with strangers, then how do we get to know new people! It is impossible!
It isn’t impossible at all, it’s just that in the beginning of the friendship, we don’t speak about deep stuff. Then it is more defined by practical things, doing stuff together, then as it deepens and trust follows, we open up. This is nothing we do to strangers, which I think is, frankly, pretty healthy.
No Touchy Feely
This is another thing I have noticed quite a few foreign people having problems with: Swedes generally do not use touch as an emphasis in conversation. The same ex I mentioned above said that because of this our communication is faulty, that we can never convey as much as people in cultures where people are more tactile.
I’m not certain why we touch less than other cultures, but I am pretty certain that this does not affect the communication value because as a people we simply put significance on different communicational cues, rather than a touch to the arm. So be very careful with this. I remember at my first job in London, the other receptionist sometimes helped me with stuff and she used to stand really close behind me (unnecessary invasion of personal space) and also sometimes touch my arm and linger with her fingers. It freaked me out massively, but in retrospect I have realised that’s just how people sometimes communicate. Swedes just don’t do it.
On the other hand, once we actually touch sparks may fly. I was flirting with a guy some time ago and he with me, and then the first time he touched my upper arm it was so intense we both stopped moving- because we don’t generally touch each other. It means something to us, a great deal in fact. It’s not just a touch to emphasise something in a conversation but genuinely means something important.
Sex in the Forest?
With regards to the above points I find it pretty funny that foreign people also think that along with us being really reserved and stiff, we are also sexually promiscuous. It’s absolutely true that in general we don’t have any problems at all discussing sex in detail, and in public! It’s all fine. Though some of the things I hear foreigners think are well… way out there. The funniest thing I heard was pretty recently when a Colombian girl, who is working here for a bit, sat at my table for lunch. After a while she said, in a hushed voice, that her husband was really worried. I asked why of course, and she told me that:
He’s really worried that I will cheat on him, because he has read that in Sweden the Swedes go out in the forest and there they have sex with each other! So he said I cannot go into the forest!
I was almost dying, choking with laughter, before I asked where this awesome forest was located. I tried to make her tell me where he has read this fantastic little snippet of information, but she didn’t know. Of course I have tried to google it, but I can’t find where. The only thing I can think of is that he has read some legend about the Huldra and completely misunderstood the meaning of it!
I mean, because the legend about the Huldra is exactly that. It’s folk lore and not actually real, you know that right? We don’t have women with fox tails luring men into the forest. Honest.
Yes, to many we are a strange people. Distant, aloof, stiff, neutral… but beneath that, once we trust you and open up, there is actually a great depth of emotions, seas of sarcastic humour and an intense curiosity about others and their lives. Give us a chance!