A friend wrote on Facebook this morning: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” This started a discussion about the challenge of being kind in Sweden, and the differences between Swedes and Americans. I am reposting some of my comments here.
Swedes are careful about letting people get too close, and tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to social situations. If a Swede passes someone on the street she thinks she might know but isn’t sure, she’ll most likely not greet the person. The risk of accidentally greeting a stranger and having to deal the the resulting awkwardness is, for the Swede, too daunting.
The darkness in winter plays an important role. To get a close enough look at the person passing on the street, the Swede will have to practically stare at the passerby. There’s not enough light, and people bundle up so much in winter that their distinguishing features are obscured. Rather than straining to look or make eye contact, most Swedes will just look straight ahead and not even glance at the passerby.
A Spaniard on the other hand, would greet the person, stranger or not—and upon accidentally greeting a stranger, would make a new friend.
It probably also has to do with the relatively high cost of offering hospitality in a cold climate. I.e., if you have to work hard during the warm months just to save up enough food and firewood to last you through the winter, then you’ll naturally be more careful about whom you allow into your circle of friends. But once a person is a friend—well then you’ve gotta stick together no matter what, and help each other through the hard times. It takes longer to make friends in Sweden; but my Swedish friends are people I would count on through thick and thin.
I think it’s clear that many of the social customs we observe today evolved out of necessity, arising naturally from the conditions of the existing physical and social environment.
Whether social customs are well suited to the present environment is largely irrelevant because it can take a long time for customs to catch up with changing conditions.
I like American courteousness and consideration, because it acts as a social lubricant, greasing the gears of everyday social interaction. The waitress at the diner may not actually wonder how you’re doing when she asks, but it’s still a nice gesture—and even smalltalk can offer the opportunity to engage in a real conversation. I also recognize that the American friendliness is often superficial, and that it can be hard to make meaningful friendships with some Americans.
I try to combine the best aspects of both the American and Swedish styles, being friendly to strangers, but devoting most of my energy to those few like-minded friends who have reciprocated my friendship and have shown me that they deserve it.
I think most Swedes would benefit from trying to be a bit more open and friendly with others. And as I have long said, Swedes actually like being friendly. They just need an excuse.