Swedish people just don’t understand small talk

The Local's Oliver Gee reflects on the small-time manners of Swedes, and ponders why Swedish people don't seem to know how to be "polite in passing".

Swedish people just don't understand small talk

Swedish people are often said to be cold, just like the climate. And while that may or may not be true, one of the very first things I noticed here was that people just didn't do small-talk. Not even micro-talk. In fact, there was no talk. There was silence.

By small talk, I mean the “Hello” you might offer up to the old man standing next to you at the bus stop, or the “Nice weekend?” you might ask Sven from sales as you pass in the hallway.

The kind of thing that can develop from small talk to medium talk, if the occasion permits. The kind of medium talk that can grow into biggish talk and even, dare I say it, a blossoming friendship.

Swedes are very aware of this, and seem to have varying opinions on it.

“Of course I've noticed it, I find it extremely strange,” a middle-aged man from central Sweden told me recently. “A lot of our neighbours say hi as they walk past, but only because they feel obliged to. You can tell it's forced. In England it's a whole different story, they seem to really want to chat.”

Another Swede, a young woman from Stockholm, disagreed.

“Why would I want to say hello to someone I don’t know? It's fake and useless. Tell me one thing that can be gained from saying hi to the guy checking my train ticket and I'll start talking immediately.”

And it's not just a Stockholm thing, either; I've seen and heard the same thing elsewhere. Personally, I love a little hello, and I wonder if the Swedes are missing out on something here. But is it because they're lacking social skills or have they rather efficiently cut out the chit-chat that many English-speakers thrive on?

You see, back home in Australia people treat strangers like neighbours, and I've noticed a similar trend as I've travelled around the world. I've had more meaningful conversations with London bus drivers than with my Stockholm neighbours, though not for lack of trying.

I've been ignored countless times when saying hej to neighbours, shopkeepers, even waiters who you think would at least act friendly in the hope of a tip. I even experimented with the cutesy little hej, hej hoping it could be a friendlier greeting. And while I got the very occasional hej back, it more often than not came with a faint look of irritation and a dash of mistrust.

And it's not just me who's noticed, even visitors to Sweden have noticed the silence as one family discovered in 2011.

But why?

I turned to an expert, UK native and Communications Coach Allie Edwardsson, who has called Sweden home for over 25 years.

“Swedes can absolutely do small talk, but the problem is they don't value it. They don't like it, it’s an attitude thing,” she explained.

“And because it's not seen as a valuable skill, no one cares to actually do it. Swedes are very serious, and talking about the weather seems frivolous to them. While I love Sweden, especially Stockholm, I really do miss the small talk from back home.”

I got a similar response from a Swedish expert too, Magdalena Ribbing, who has penned 15 books on etiquette and writes a regular column for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper on the subject.

“Pleasantries are not a Swedish speciality,” she told me when I asked her if Swedes are, perhaps, more polite when speaking English.

“This is a vast country, and people have not been talking to one another for a long time. In Britain, where a much bigger population lives in a much smaller place, the English are simply forced to talk more, and a certain politeness has naturally developed.”

So there you have it, confirmed by two experts: Swedes don’t do small talk. But you know who does? All the immigrants, including me.

The best Swedish conversations I've had were with the Thai lady at our nearby Chinese restaurant, the Serbian man at our pizza place, the Turkish guy in the bakery. A Swedish friend told me it's because foreigners understand hospitality unlike their northern cousins in Sweden, but Edwardsson, however, puts it all down to culture.

“Foreigners in Sweden are great at small talk, it's in their culture. They just value that kind of thing much more than Swedish people do,” she said.

But as pleasant as these foreigner friends are, it's still not enough. Not for me, anyway. I want the Swedes to enjoy what they're missing out on. I'm not giving up my attempts at small talk. Who knows, maybe I can change Sweden and start a revolution.

One hej at a time.

Oliver Gee

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

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Reader’s view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?

A reader of The Local shares her story of trying to enter the Swedish job market after completing her doctoral studies.

Reader's view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?
File photo of two women, not related to the article, having a conversation. Photo: mentatdgt/Pexels

Under the Swedish public eye, those put into the category of “undesirable” or “wrong-typed” migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees, and unskilled workers from poorer countries in the global South have often become the target of heated debates on governmental spending, neoliberalised administration, and moral public sentiments.

Yet, another group of migrants, those seen as a more “right” type of migrants that Sweden wants to attract – the high-skilled international researchers – remains invisible and overlooked while this group continues facing everyday exclusionary barriers and bureaucratic administrative obstacles.

In addition to the Swedish linguistic barrier that excludes foreign academics in their everyday workplace at Swedish universities, it appears as though the whole Swedish administrative system is not welcoming any foreigner, including high-skilled foreign academics, despite the government's avowed promises of hospitality.

My recent experience could be seen as an example of this bureaucratic and xenophobic logic of the New Public Management in Sweden – in which I believe that many other international researchers could have shared a similar experience.

My employment contract as a doctoral candidate at a Swedish university ended in June 2020. I was told by my union that it was imperative to register my unemployment at the Swedish Employment Agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, which I did. Yet, the whole registration process has alienated me, a non-Swedish speaker, because all the instructions were written in Swedish only.

I navigated by using Google Translate from Swedish to English, though I was not certain whether the translation was accurate. Towards the end of the online registration process at Arbetsförmedlingen, I was asked to book a mandatory interview by phone with Arbetsförmedlingen, which I complied with.

Yet, my first meeting with Arbetsförmedlingen turned out to be a failure, which irritated both me and the Arbetsförmedlingen officers.

The phone meeting abruptly ended just after a few minutes instead of a 30-minute interview as proposed. The first officer I met on phone only spoke Swedish. When I told him that I could not speak Swedish, he passed the phone to another officer who spoke English but demanded that I must speak Swedish to him. It was obvious that he could speak English but he refused to continue speaking English to me, putting me at a disadvantage.

He asked me (in English): “How long have you been living in Sweden?” I tried to explain to him that I was very keen on learning Swedish but I had not had any sufficient time and resources due to the nature of my over-stressful PhD work, which was conducted entirely in English. But the Arbetsförmedlingen officer did not seem to understand or did not want to understand, and he blamed me personally:

“It's your responsibility to learn Swedish!” he said.

I proposed that we could hold our conversation in English since he was capable of speaking English. To my surprise, he said (in English), “No, I don't understand your English. I don't speak English. You must speak Swedish. Because you don't speak Swedish, we need an authorised translator of your mother tongue.”

Then he insisted (in English) that he would book another meeting with an authorised translator of my mother tongue. I was required to speak either Swedish or my mother tongue despite the fact that my mother tongue has not been a part of my work life, daily life, and family life for over ten years – since I have been living in English-speaking countries, working in Sweden, and am married to an English-speaking partner.

This bureaucracy, this inflexibility, and insufficiency of public administration, together with its hostility against non-Swedish speakers, shocks me. In a country like Sweden where English is widely spoken, why is it so difficult to accept English as a second working language?

Seen from the cost-and-effect calculation, it is obvious that it would be more costly for the government to hire authorised translators for some far-away mother tongue languages of those who already live in English-speaking countries, obtain a Swedish PhD degree, and speak English.

If language is simply a means of communication between the government and its citizens, could it be wiser to accept English as a second official means of communication and administration so that administrative tasks could run smoothly? In terms of administrative efficiency, could it be more reasonable to accept English when the country at the current moment cannot even provide enough resources for Swedish learning?

At my workplace, for instance, there are also very limited resources and incentives for international researchers to learn Swedish (for instance, we do not get employment prolongation to learn Swedish while all the tasks carried out in English already occupy more than our full-time working hours).

Is the systematic demand on Swedish speaking while not providing enough support and resources an administrative strategy to drive out high-skilled foreigners who do not speak Swedish for some reason?

The conservative, neoliberal, nationalist and xenophobic mindset “In Sweden, we speak Swedish” and threatening proposals from opposition politicians to cut funding and restrict the rights to interpreters do not solve the Swedish problems at their root. The only thing they succeed in is creating a public fear of attack from foreigners and foreign languages, including English.

This reader's story was written by a former PhD researcher in Uppsala currently a permanent resident of Sweden, whose identity is known to The Local but who wished to remain anonymous. Do you have a story you would like to share with The Local about the highs and lows of life in Sweden? Email [email protected]