‘We never had a single conversation with a Swede’

UK native Suhail Din reflects on why Swedes refused to talk to him and his family during their recent visit to Stockholm on holiday.

'We never had a single conversation with a Swede'
Suhail Din's family poses at Drottningholm on a July 2011 visit to Stockholm

My wife and I visited Stockholm in 2003; we had a wonderful time and promised that we would return with our three children.

The vacation decision this summer was left to my daughter; it being the occasion of her graduation and 21st birthday.

When asked, she said she preferred a European city holiday rather than a beach holiday; and each city European city has so much to offer: Tallinn, Paris, Warsaw, Florence – all of them are great.

I, however, suggested Stockholm.

I knew it was worth seeing being one-third water, one-third urban space, and one-third greenery.

Not only would a visit to a Nordic country be something unique, but experiencing the longer days (even though we live at the 55th parallel in Newcastle) would be something new as well.

And we were all aware of the enormous impact many people from Sweden, even with its relatively small population, have had on the global stage.

So, we thought, it would be quite interesting to see the centre of it all and learn more about what makes Swedes tick.

We were all very excited about traveling to Sweden. We booked the hotel and the flights; we bought tourist guides and even ordered the Stockholm Card.

Now, we are always good guests, we always talk in English and not in Punjabi, and we dress just like any other European family.

We also mess around and laugh and carry on like any other family out enjoying themselves.

In Stockholm, we stood patiently in line and said ‘Hello’, ‘Hej hej’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Tack’ and even the American-style ‘Hi, how are you?’

In other words, we were obviously tourists.

We went to Gamla Stan, visited an Italian restaurant and were served by a Turkish guy posing as an Italian.

We also enjoyed great service from the black Brazilian taxi driver, the Turkish kebab house owner and the pleasant girls in the Efva Attling jewelry shop; one Swedish, one mixed blood, both stunning.

The young Swedish girls in McDonald’s were great, as were the chefs serving us in Åhlens.

All over the city, every financial transaction was polite and professional. The Swedish girl at the Modern Museum was especially attentive.

We carried out extensive visits to Gamla Stan, Norrmalm, Södermalm and Djurgården.

It was first on the street, then in the National Museum and then at Drottningholm, however, when we began to notice that matters were a little off key.

We were often stared at in the street. We could not understand why as we dress as everyone else, except that we are brown.

We were the only non-whites in the National Museum’s Atrium restaurant. The Swedish couple at our table made no conversation even though we said ‘Good morning’.

They were replaced by a mother and daughter from north London, who were I believe Greek or Greek Cypriot, and we had a great chat.

Later in our trip, sitting in the cafe at Drottningholm, my wife noticed that we were being stared at again.

At one point I felt like I should explain that Indian people also appreciate beautiful places and fresh air and green trees and the superb cultural heritage of Sweden.

On the tram I offered an adjacent seat to an elderly woman accompanied by her husband; she didn’t acknowledge me and moved down the tram.

Sitting directly opposite a couple in a deserted tram I tried to catch their eye to exchange a greeting; they looked straight through me.

Waiting in line, a young blonde mother dropped one of her baby’s possessions.

I asked my wife to retrieve it, by now assuming the mother wouldn’t take kindly to me.

She didn’t say thank you.

Again on a crowded tram a woman was very curt telling us to move further in towards the middle.

At Gröna Lund, waiting for my daughters to get on and off a ride, we were surrounded by Swedish people, but once again there was no conversation or as we like to say ‘banter’.

We smiled and cooed at babies in their prams. Anywhere else in the world this would result in a smiling pleased mother.

In Sweden we got a hard stare.

We kept doors open as we went through them.

No one noticed.

A family in Skansen sat at our table, they did acknowledge us, but their whole conversation was in Swedish; they made no effort whatsoever to interact with us.

My daughters went out on our last Friday night, the night of the great tragedy in Norway.

I texted them to be very careful and come home in a taxi from their last venue; I was following events on TV and Twitter.

By this time I was getting paranoid. Whey they finally arrived back at the hotel they told me they had a great time but never got to speak with any Swedes, instead feeling forced to spend time with some more outgoing American tourists.

In fact, aside from in a professional setting, we never had a single conversation with a Swede.

This is a matter of great sadness to us.

It seemed to us that the Swedes seem were using the Swedish language as a barrier to discourage exchange, even though most speak excellent English.

They did not seem interested in a social discourse with non-Swedes – or non-whites, maybe. Many Swedes were off hand, cold, and very few acknowledged us.

In my hometown Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, we now have some one hundred nationalities living, working or studying, and we have very little communal tension.

Most of us speak Globish; a truncated version of English with a vocabulary of some 5,000 words, which serves you virtually everywhere.

In Newcastle, a visitor is sure to receive a warm welcome and a kind word from any member of the community, black, white or brown, Chinese or South Asian.

My daughter would love to live in Stockholm but my advice is that there are many easier cities for someone like her to make her home – especially our own.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Sweden launches bid to become world’s top tourism destination by 2030

Forget the pyramids, the canals of Venice or the Eiffel Tower – the Swedish government has presented a plan to make Sweden the world's most attractive tourism destination by 2030 – but it's not yet clear how.

Sweden launches bid to become world's top tourism destination by 2030
Many tourists are attracted to Sweden because of its nature. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

In a press conference on Monday, Sweden’s Minister for Business, Industry and Innovation Ibrahim Baylan outlined the new strategy, which aims to make Sweden “the world’s most sustainable and attractive tourism destination built on innovation” by 2030.

Baylan referred to Sweden as a country which “is usually ranked as one of the world’s most innovative countries”, which he argued can “create value for the tourism industry”.

According to Baylan, the strategy builds on “sustainability’s three dimensions – it has to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable”. The strategy will also “tie into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030”, he said.

Topics covered by the new tourism strategy include the climate impact of tourism, equality and inclusion in the tourism industry and the importance of preserving shared resources such as national parks and sustainable nature tourism such as fishing and hunting.

The press release highlights the importance of natural tourism, explaining that the pandemic has led to people visiting natural and cultural environments “to a greater extent than before”, increasing wear and tear to natural areas.

DISCOVER SWEDEN: The Local’s guide to Sweden’s top destinations and hidden gems

Tourism is an important industry for Sweden, providing employment in both urban and rural areas, as well as generating wealth – before the coronavirus pandemic, the tourism industry represented on average 2.7 percent of Sweden’s GDP per year. The tourism industry also employs a high amount of people from foreign backgrounds – making up over a third (34 percent) of all employees in the industry.

During the pandemic, overnight stays declined in almost every Swedish municipality, with the biggest declines seen in Sweden’s larger cities and border municipalitites.

The government’s plans also include a focus on jobs and skill development, so that workers have the right qualifications for the industry – this reflects issues currently faced by the restaurant and hotel industry in finding skilled workers in the wake of the pandemic. 

There are currently no details as to how the government will achieve this strategy, or indeed how it will measure success. But Sweden is aiming high if it wants to be the world’s most attractive tourist destination by 2030. In 2019, it was ranked the 54th top tourist destination in the world by the UN World Tourism Organisation.