Making friends, judging character, and trusting oneself

Anyone who has met me knows I'm a friendly person. However, I haven't always had many friends. When I lived in Austin, I had only a few very close friends. And more recently, when Lotta and I split up a few years ago, I realized that most of my friends were people I knew through her. I didn't have very many friends of my own here in Sweden.

As a sort of declaration of my own independence, and of my determination to remain in Sweden, I set about making a real effort to meet new people and make new friends of my own. I took up salsa dancing. I picked up rock climbing again after many years away from the sport. I got to know some of my colleagues better. And I even met total strangers on the subway or on the internet.

Making friends is a skill. It requires a bit of finesse, especially with Swedes, who can be tough nuts to crack. In Stockholm, most people's circle of friends consists of people they met in school and people they know through work. It can be a real challenge to break into this circle even if you have a lot in common with someone. Sometimes it almost feels like you have to have gone to the same high school as a person to be considered that person's friend. I moved to Sweden in my late 20s, so I didn't have that opportunity. If I went back to university, I'm sure I'd meet a lot of nice people that way.

So yes, Swedes are picky when it comes to choosing friends. But they're also quite aloof and distant at times, so it can be a real challenge to break the ice and start a conversation with them. I have discovered that I have an advantage in this area: English is my native tongue.

When I introduce myself to a stranger here in Stockholm and start the conversation in English, I get a more positive reaction than a Swede who tried the same thing in Swedish would receive. It's partly that Swedes like to be courteous to strangers, and they enjoy every opportunity to practice speaking in English. But there's more to it than that.

Swedes need an excuse to be friendly.

Their default attitude is one of cold detachment, and they require a good reason to step out of this pattern. The excuse can be almost anything, but here are some examples I've observed:
  • having a shared interest or shared situation — like most people, Swedes are more friendly to a stranger if they feel that they have something in common with him or her. But random circumstance is often the only commonality necessary. For example, sharing the same subway car with an annoying drunk gives the other passengers a sense of shared adversity, and hence a reason to empathize with one another.
  • being on holiday or being in another country — Swedes outside their hometown are more relaxed. Swedes outside of Sweden are completely transformed. It's as though the cold demeanor in Sweden is kept in place by the collective assumption that everyone else expects one to behave in that way. Swedes seem to fear that acting in a different way would be looked down upon by their peers.
  • being drunk — It never ceases to amaze me how uptight Swedes lighten up after a few drinks. Normally quiet and reserved, after a few pints of beer or glasses of wine, many Swedes are gregarious and cheerful.
  • having a foreigner present — this is the excuse that I take advantage of. It's said "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." For Swedes, having a Roman around is good enough. If in a group of Swedes there is one foreigner, and especially if he or she is an English-speaking Westerner, the Swedes will switch to English and many of them will be friendlier than they would otherwise be. It's partly that they want to put on their best face and act as good ambassadors for Sweden; but it's more than that. They honestly feel more relaxed when a non-Swede is present.
When I realized that I had an advantage as an American and a native English-speaker, I stopped introducing myself in Swedish. Now when I meet people for the first time, I speak English. I let them know soon after meeting them that I also understand Swedish; but I often continue to speak English even if they then switch to Swedish. It's ironic that not speaking the local language has advantages. But of course a foreigner who didn't speak English wouldn't notice these advantages.

I've made lots of friends in the past few years, and I only recently began to realize how many. A while ago I joined Facebook, a social networking site originally open only to U.S. college students. Nowadays anyone can join, and in recent months many of my friends here in Sweden have joined. Facebook has turned into a way of keeping track of all the people I know. I now have almost 250 friends on Facebook, and I add more almost every day. I have started to use Facebook to make new friends too. After I meet a person once or twice, I will add him or her to my friends list so that we can keep in touch. For many of these people, we don't correspond much (or at all) directly with each other, but we can still see what the other is up to by looking at the news-feed every day. In a very real way, Facebook has come to fill a roll once played by the town square: it's a place where people can bump into one another, where they can just sit and people-watch, and where opportunities abound for networking and making new friends.

Already, I have made several new friends using Facebook. In some cases these were friends of people I already had in my friends list. In fact, I have found a few people who knew several of my friends of mine, but whom I did not know yet. I figured that if they were friends with several folks I already knew, then they might be people worth getting to know. I've also made friends there just by random chance. I have struck up email conversations with a few complete strangers on Facebook, and learned that the way a person responds to my style of friendliness depends a lot on the person.

Several folks were eager to add me as friends after one or two emails. Others added me right away after seeing that we share a common interest or learning that we have a mutual friend. Still others have preferred to keep their distance a bit, corresponding by email for a while or meeting in person a few times, and then adding me to their friends list only after we had established a rapport.

Then there was one woman who seemed nice in the beginning, but turned cold soon after. After a very brief email exchange, I added her to my friends list on the strength of our shared interests. She didn't reply directly, but instead posted the following status message to her public profile:
"...is wondering why people think it's a good idea to send friend requests to complete strangers."
Even for a Swede, that sort of reaction seems petty and fearful. But of course I don't know what sorts of experiences this person has had in the past, so I probably shouldn't be too quick to judge. When I told the story to a friend, she said "you are much more honest than most people which is confusing."

Honesty is confusing? I find honesty refreshing. However, I suppose Facebook is in this regard not too different from real life. There are a lot of dishonest people out there, and it's probably hard to tell what a person is really like without a face-to-face meeting. As Forest Gump's momma used to say, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." Absent first-hand experience, people tend to draw on their past experiences. For many, this means assuming the best about people; but for some, experience has taught them to fear the worst. The vast majority of my experiences with people have been positive, and this no doubt had led me to tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.

This brings me to something I've been thinking a lot about lately. With each new person I meet and each new friend I make, I gain valuable experience in filtering out the stuff on the surface and seeing the real person underneath. As a result, I am a much better judge of character now than I was just a few years ago. At first, I didn't realize how good a judge of character I was, because I too was easily distracted by irrelevant superficialities. But I've grown to understand that when I trust my instincts about a person, I'm almost always right about that person.

A case in point is a good friend I met about a year ago. She and I met quite randomly, but struck up an intense conversation almost immediately upon meeting. I knew after about a minute that she was the sort of person I could really like: friendly, intelligent, and forthright. I didn't know at the time that we would actually become such close friends; but my instincts were right on the money.

I have ignored my instincts in the past, and paid the price for it later.

Looking back over my life, I see that I have tended to second-guess and over-analyze in precisely those times when I was unhappy or troubled. When I am happy and confident, I tend to trust my own gut feelings more. Intuition is a powerful tool that can save a lot of time and energy. I'm learning to trust my instincts. What feels right usually is right, even if it's not immediately apparent why.

I asked a question of my friends recently: "What is the most important thing you have learned about people?" The answers are as varied as the people who gave them. I'll close by paraphrasing a few of them:
"Nobody's perfect."
"Don't trust anyone."
"People are often nicer than they try to appear."
"Your first impression is usually correct but you sometimes have to change your opinion about someone. Try to give everyone a chance."


Shmuel said...

Mike, I check your blog almost everyday, and I missed you this month. A little reflection, measured with honesty and dosed with humility, is a tonic. This post is solid, and I'm glad I read it. Sam

Roberto said...

Hi Michael!

As shmuel says, we were missing your posts. Your are uploading tones of pictures in Flickr but you are not writing. Man! What's up?!

I liked what you wrote and it made me think about myself. At this moment I'm also in a "foreign" country (Germany) and I have some problems to make new friends. The main one is that I work at home. I'm finishing my PhD. I don't have so much free time so I cannot join any kind of activity to meet people. I'll try to solve this situation as soon as I finish my dissertation. But when I think about this problem I also think about you and I tell myself that you are a good example of integration.

I also found funny the way you were describing the Swedish people and I should say that I found myself in the same situations when I was there for a semester in 2004.

I also should say that I'm quite impressed by the high number of people that you socialize with. It's enviable!

I hope that one day we can meet. As I have been reading your blog for longer than a year now and we have chatted several times, for me it feels somehow as I'd know you. So I hope that if I visit Stockholm in a close future we can have a drink together.

Well, keep posting on your blog. Don't get lost in Facebook!

Michael A. Lowry said...

My friend Christian made a comment on facebook saying that he didn't like meeting people who were super nice on the outside but not nice on the inside. I'd like to reply to his comment here.

Yeah, Christian: fake frienliness can be a problem too. There are a lot of folks in Texas who are super friendly on the outside, but lack any real substance or feeling inside. I too hate it when folks smile only on the outside. This sort of superficiality greases the gears and makes life seem easier for some people. But it's still fake. Superficial friendliness is one of the things I don't miss all all about Texas.

When I first moved to Sweden I was relieved that people weren't so effusively friendly all the time. I actually liked the more reserved style common in Sweden.

But that was at a time when I was making lots of friends by way of my ex. Her friends were my friends, and I didn't have to work very hard to gain acceptance into her network. When I becamse single again, that situtation changed. It was then that I first faced the challenges I mentioned on my blog.

It's often said that Swedes don't make friends easily, but once they do, they have a friend for life. I can understand why people would want to be more careful who they allow to become lifelong friends. But I'd like to see a bit more friendliness that's halfway between the Texan and Swedish styles: genuine friendliness and a bit more openness, backed up with real feeling.

Thanks for the comment, Christian!

The Wigwam of Nokomis said...

Such a thoughtful, observant, kind man you are! I am so proud to be

Your Mom