A few years ago, the show Hipp Hipp ran an episode called “Bli Svensk.” It featured a mock class for immigrants on how to act like a Swede, how to fit into Swedish society.
Here’s one of the many etiquette rules the teacher shows her class: she looks out the peep hole before stepping out of her apartment.
When she sees a neighbour going into her apartment at the same time, she instructs the class to wait until she is gone, “because we don’t want to risk meeting up with someone unnecessarily, right?”
Then, when the hallway is clear, they tip-toe out.
I think comedian Fredrik Lindström has also done segments on this theme. He peeks out the peep hole, waits until the hall is clear, double-checks with the door still chained and then sneaks out.
When, despite precautions, he does meet with a neighbour in the elevator, they don’t talk.
Whether it’s true or not, the stereotype is that Swedes avoid chatting with their neighbours.
And, at first, the stereotype felt true.
Before moving to our current house, we stayed in a small coast-side development of about 15 homes. The homeowners lived close together and governed the neighbourhood organization together, which made decisions about the shared waterfront and beaches.
But here’s what surprised me: the homeowner we stayed with didn’t know the names of most of the other neighbours.
He went to the yearly community meetings, participated in mandatory clean-ups and helped plan for the docks to be put in, but the relationship stopped there.
Even at the community’s little beach, he, like everyone else, carefully kept to himself.
Here are some of the explanations I got for this phenomenon: “We don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy,” and “It’s hard (jobbigt) to keep making small talk.”
A particularly gregarious mother offered the following explanation: “If you’re friends with a neighbour, they learn about your private life. But what happens if you have a falling out? Then you have to see them every day, and they still know everything about you. And they’ll talk.”
Of course, a few conversations can’t capture the mindset of an entire nation. I’m sure many other Swedes would adamantly disagree with these rationales, and many Swedes have strong neighbourhood communities.
Still, these sentiments gave me a starting point for understanding what might underlie what I had seen as a lack of community within this community.
As an American, my cultural habits lean in the other direction: I’ll talk to anyone.
From what I’ve heard, we’re generally known to be open, talkative, loud and curious. While I obviously can’t speak for each of the 300 million Americans, for the most part, we suburban families are known to chat with our neighbours.
On one hand, I like the idea of a home as an oasis from the demands of the outside world (although I have to note that, with two young kids, it’s not always the outside world that is the most demanding). I also understand the desire for privacy—there are certainly moments in our family life not made for public viewing.
On the other hand, working part-time from home and spending the rest of the time with the kids, the neighbourhood community is important to me. Without a community around me, I start to feel disconnected to the world.
But I have another reason, beyond simple companionship, to nurture neighbourly relationships: I never know when I—or they—will need support from the community.
Like when one of the four-year-old twins that lived next-door to us in California was rushed to the hospital, convulsing from a febrile seizure. Her single-parent mother could turn us, the neighbours, for the immediate care and comfort of the other twin as she left on the ambulance.
As two adults, my husband and I could probably find our way through most crises, but with two kids in tow, things get more complicated. I’d like our family to have a Plan B, one that our kids are comfortable with. I want to know that someone else is helping us watch out for our kids.
With all these things in mind, I set out to meet our new Stockholm neighbours.
At first, I thought it was going well. After sending our kids out on reconnaissance missions, we approached the neighbours. The response was great: everyone seemed friendly and interested. There were mentions of fikas. After each encounter, I thought to myself, another friendly family. What were you worried about?
Except that the fikas never happened. After that first, animated conversation, all further communication consisted of one word, “Hej!” with a quick smile. No stopping to chat about the weather or upcoming holiday plans or the recent string of burglaries in our neighbourhood as they walked by.
Was it me—did I come on too strong? Was there a more Swedish way I was supposed to be doing this?
Or was it true that Swedes just don’t regularly stop and chat with their neighbours?
But there was one family that seemed to be interested in getting to know us simply because we were their neighbours. But they could hardly avoid us—their house is attached to ours.
It started with the two girls in the family. Our kids would call over the fence and invite them to jump on our trampoline. Then they invited over for a few spontaneous coffees to enjoy the daughter’s freshly made apple cobblers.
Their kids tagged along with us on errands. They knocked on our door to play without calling first.
We then moved on to the next step in our budding relationship: we became their Plan B. I know this because when their nine-year-old was mistakenly sent home from school long before her parents got home in below-freezing weather, she came over. And when the mother was out of town and couldn’t get in touch with her husband, she called me to ask if I had seen him, if I could peek in their window for clues.
But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that it really struck me that we have neighbours, the kind I was hoping for. On the last day of school before the Christmas holiday break, the mother next door called me to see when I thought school started for first graders that day.
It was 7.24am and she was not afraid to disturb us. Thank God.
I’m so glad that our family has found neighbours here. Living in country where the culture sometime feels so different from my own, a neighbourhood really helps me feel at home in my new home.
Although it’s the middle of the winter, low season for socializing here in Sweden, I’m ready for my first resolution: get to know one more neighbour this year. I’m taking it slowly, the Swedish way.
Hopefully some day, I can build a whole community.
Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.