the Shy (or not) Swede

This meme has been going around recently among Swedes and the timing is pretty good for me, since I've been meaning to write this post for several weeks now. And this gives me a good image to go with it:

One of the main stereotypes about Swedes, that they have about themselves and that others have about them, are that they are shy. See them up above, standing so far apart from each other so they don't have to interact? The words "shy", "reserved", and phrases like "avoid human contact" and "pretend like no one else is in the elevator" pop up in articles, blogs and other webpages regarding Swedes all the time. You hear just as often that Americans are loud and quite outgoing.

So while I've been in Sweden, being the American that I am, the following has happened:

-I always say hi to neighbors I pass in my apartment first.
-I've seen people who are lost and approach them and ask if they need help.
-I joked around with the guy serving me at the coffee shop.
-I joked around with a parent I saw at the pizza place about their cute little toddler.
-A girl dropped her hat on the train and I went out of my way to stop her to make sure she got it back and said a friendly, Have a Nice Day!
-I was walking in the park and joked around with a guy who was throwing treats to his dog while they played in the snow.
-I offer to help strangers carry their bags.
-I chat with those sitting next to me on the train while we cross the countryside.
-I'm usually the first person to introduce myself to people I haven't met at parties.
-I saw a girl trying on an outfit at the store and spoke up and told her that she looked really good in it.

Right? Doesn't that sound like me... like an American in Sweden... actually...

Nope. In fact, all those examples have actually happened in reverse. By Swedes, towards me.

Swedes don't believe me, but I actually can be quite reserved, mostly with strangers. It is always my neighbors who say hi first. And at parties I've usually been too reserved to say hi first. There are plenty more examples where the ones above came from too. It's not like they happen constantly... like when the guy in the park called over to me to make a joke about his dog just last week, I wasn't expecting it at all. But I'm not totally surprised. The "shy Swede" who avoids contact at all costs is not the way I will ever explain Swedes. There are jokes about how Swedes will stand in an elevator with each other and pretend like no one else is there. But really, in the States it's not like everyone just chats with each other in elevators all the time, it's often quite the same as here. Plus, just the other day in the crowded elevator a middle aged Swede made a joke about us all being together on a traveling tour, crammed as if we were on a bus. Not so shy at all. The Swedes who listen to hear if anyone is out in the hallway first before they exit their apartment so they can avoid contact? I know that this happens... but I've done it too. That's the thing... I don't mind the reserve that does exist in Sweden because I can identify with it.

Now, I will not disagree with someone if they said that Swedes tend to be shy and/or reserved. I get that. The first time I ever met Swedes, I had already pointed out to friends that there was a group of them at our favorite bar (had seen plenty of Swedes before this, just never met them). The thing that clued me in first was not clothes or hair, it was the way they carried themselves around each other and on that patio. Like the group as a whole was taking up less space than a handful of people usually does. Less physical space and less noise space. You wouldn't see the same from a group of Americans or Australians or Brazilians or Hungarians. When I am with a group of non-Swedes here in Sweden I feel like we are the loudest and least shy group around us.

But it was my Swedish friends in Santa Barbara who would approach the guards at clubs and convince them to let us in first. Or chat up waiters and get their recommendations for the best wine. Or charmingly try to get the girl at the yogurt shop to give them extra raspberries. Not me, never me.

What I love, and have always loved, about getting to know Swedes is the way that they slowly blossom. I believe that Swedes truly really love people. They love connections and relationships and talking about people and hearing about people. They are such warm people inside. It's just that they don't bloom into that with people they don't know right away. They need to feel a bit more comfortable first to ask the questions they want to ask. You may think they are indifferent to you. They usually aren't. They just need time.

Often like me.

I'm so familiar with this "slow blooming" now and it is so endearing to me. Like this summer, when a friend and I joined a barbecue where we didn't know 4 out of 6 people there, and they greeted us and then seemed to not care that we were there. Later on... after roasted sausages, a couple games, a few beers, and moving on to a bar in town, one of the guys approached me and started asking me questions about California and Los Angeles, and talking about his dreams of moving there, and related things. I know it has to do with alcohol but it also had to do with the fact that he needed time. To know that I would be open to the questions and welcoming to what he had to say.

A Swedish client of mine was telling me about a trip to San Diego that she took with her boyfriend a couple years ago. "I just loved the people there," she said, "they were so friendly and kind to us, everyone we met right away, just so curious and asking us all these questions about our trip and Sweden. You wouldn't really find that here." I smiled. I've heard that a lot. What I wanted to do was describe to her what had just happened with us. I'd met her a couple days before at a workshop, we interacted just a little, and then had a couple more work discussions and a lunch together, all of which she'd been quite reserved... but then, BLOOM.  She started asking me question after question about me and my life in Sweden and California, and then she got to making some jokes... So friendly and kind. So curious. It just wasn't right off the bat.

Another moment I think about on this topic is when I was with the family of one of my best Swedish friends this past Christmas. Her younger brother was very quiet and we hadn't said much more than hi over 24 hours. As he sat in the living room and I passed by, he was playing his guitar, very skillfully. I said, "You're really good. I love listening to the guitar, it's my favorite. I really love John Mayer, I could listen to him always." He nodded ever so slightly, but without a word, and continued his strumming.

And later that night, we both ended up back in the living room, him on the guitar again, and I had come in to cozy up on the couch and read my Swedish book. And then came a strummed melody that I know like the back of my hand... one of John Mayer's. I glanced over at him with an appreciative smile, and said nothing. We didn't need to. The blooming had begun with hardly any words.


  1. How beautiful. I am glad that you like us Swedes, even though we are reserved at first. :-)

  2. I find swedes to be quite outgoing and friendly. And definitley compared to how Finns are. But americans are the friendliest people I have met, they can tell me half their life if I just ask for the way to the place I'm heading to. In California we loved that the people were so open and talkative (almost to the point of being naive as you shouldn't say everything to strangers). This means that if I moved alone to America, it would be really easy to get new friends or at least company.. And likewise, for americans moving to Scandinavia, it means harder to get quick contact with the locals. As for being loud in a bar, I haven't been on many bars in America, but I know British people get loud as f-k when drunk.

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