It may seem like a totally different era, yet there certainly was a time during which we carelessly and enthusiastically travelled the world. A time during which adventures seemed like the way to go and one during which we weren’t afraid to blend in with the crowds, even if that meant that we were shoulder to shoulder with strangers. A time during which we shared hostel dorms with twelve people we didn’t know, only wondering about how the hell we could get a bit of sleep with our neighbor snoring away.
Last year, all of that changed. With the arrival of Covid-19, a certain distrust saw the light of day. All of a sudden, we didn’t get to spend hours in crowded bars and you know what, most of us didn’t even want to. There was tension in the air and even though we’re almost afraid to say the word for the thousandth time, that tension was created by Covid-19 and the knowledge that anyone could infect us at any time and anywhere, really. We started to wear masks, to avoid other people when we saw some on the street. Even the most outgoing people, who previously stopped to have a chat with a total stranger, now thought twice before they did so. Having a chat with someone you didn’t know seemed like an unnecessary risk and even those who had the chance to travel, found out the whole experience had changed.
Whereas before it was fairly easy in most cultures to get to know the locals and to get guided around by them in their city, people were all of a sudden (well, maybe not that sudden) a lot more closed. They only spoke to their families and friends and stayed far away from those strangers who might bear the virus. But those who have travelled to Scandinavia and more precisely to Sweden in the past, might know this is not so strange high up in the North.
According to an article for BBC by Björn Nilsson, Swedes just aren’t a fan of small talk. And they’re certainly not keen to talk to strangers, apart from a shy ‘hej’ if you’re lucky. That might seem like an exaggeration and there certainly are a lot of Swedes who are into getting to know you as a tourist or an expat but I have to say, there certainly is some truth to it. Having travelled to Sweden myself, I started wondering about Nilsson’s text. Did I really experience it that way? Were they really so distant as he claims them to be? And I have to say, I can’t disagree with the man. I visited the country just before going to university and I was certainly eager to get to know new people but every single person I spoke to turned out to be non-Swedish. Whether they immigrated, were on holidays or had another reason to be in town, they weren’t Swedes. Even though I tried really hard to make some local connections in order to be able to go there over and over again.
As an outsider, it’s quite difficult to point out why exactly they don’t speak to you. I thought maybe it was the language barrier, maybe they didn’t talk English. But, let’s be honest, that doesn’t do them any justice. And it wasn’t for lack of trying either, like I already said. So what could it be? What did I do wrong?
Nothing, according to Björn Nilsson. Turns out, Swedes just don’t enjoy small talk or dödprat as they like to call it (literally translated that means dead talk). Even though the term probably says it all, I’ll explain a little more. Apparently, Swedes like their conversations to be practical and meaningful. If you’re just talking to them about the weather or ‘how they’re doing’, it’s not going to work in your favor. Nilsson says they even have a certain way to avoid eye contact when crossing someone on the street, which is considered as normal in the Swedish culture.
But why the Swedes? Why are they so against small talk, which is a totally normal part of daily life in most countries? Well, apparently it could have something to do with Sweden’s geography. It’s a vast country and very sparsely populated, which meant, for a long time, people didn’t really get in contact with people from outside their local community. Moreover, until the sixties, Sweden didn’t have high immigration rates. So, other than on holidays, the Swedes never really had a lot of contact with other cultures, in which small talk actually was important. Maybe they just weren’t really aware of the fact something like that existed at all.
So, following Nilsson’s advice, just don’t try to chit chat about random things with a Swede. They will always be polite yet small talk just isn’t their cup of tea. And that’s ok, just like it’s ok for you to like talking about the weather – even though we all know it’s just a way to beat the awkwardness.