“Guess I’m not a typical Swede,” said the man in front of me, with a warm smile on his face.
That’s my first impression of talking to a stranger in Sweden. Since then, I have the opportunity to talk with many people saying similar things to me for a few more times in the very first 6 months I live in Sweden.
Below are a series of a few unexpected chances when I have to keep contact with some Swedes that I’ve never met, ask them for favours and receive so much more than what I had expected.
When your assignment required you to talk to strangers
It was an assignment in Qualitative method class – my first class in the whole master program. The requirement of the assignment is conducting in-depth interviews with people about a phenomenon. which I somehow ended up choosing to analyse how commuters from Uppsala – Stockholm use their commute time on trains.
In-depth interview method also requires me to have separate appointments, and to spend at least an hour talking to each individual. Back in September, or my so-called first month in Sweden, when my social circle was limited to only a few classmates and my flatmates who are also students, it’s quite obvious that I would not know any potential commuters. I realized my careless choice of topic put my own assignment in jeopardy this time!
“I might have one hour available for you!”
Thanks to the help of a friend, I managed to get into the Facebook group for people who commute in Uppsala. On a Saturday morning, I created a post there, asking if there is anyone willing to spend an hour of their weekend talking with me about the topic. The fact that I am a student and this is just a class assignment means I had no funds/ financial supports. I was merely asking for people’s kindness to a foreign student. The only thing I promised to offer is some slides from the cake I made in return to their valuable time on the weekend. Guess what? The responses were fascinating. I had to edit the post after 1 hour as I received ways too many responses.
A few weeks in Sweden left me with an impression that Swedes could be a bit reserved, and shy to talk to strangers, the very cold, polite, but again very cold atmosphere on public transport. Needless to say, so am I. I must admit that I was very nervous before the interview. It turned out that I shouldn’t have been worried so much! My interviewees were very professional, strictly on time, and so easy to talk with! I got so many interesting insights for my assignments, obviously, but the thing that makes me feel even happier here is they are so kind and open to me, even after we finished the interviews and started to talk about several different topics. Moreover, They loved my cake!
The last conversation was absolutely a high note. I went to visit Mr Jan – a senior citizen a few years into his retirement. He has a treasure trove of stories he collected during his 40 years as a commuter. Little did I know, he is very well-acquainted with my home country of Vietnam, having spent the 70s and 80s there as a reporter. During the meeting, he brewed me a “phin” of authentic Vietnamese coffee mixed with condensed milk. They also own at least 3 different apparatuses to make Vietnamese coffee, make fresh spring rolls and frequent Vietnamese restaurants in Uppsala. I guess that fascination was why he had been the first person to comment on my calling for help post.
The conversation continues far beyond the interviews
I guess the best part of the story is that the conversation continues long afterwards.
Socially, I am a shy person and often reluctant to bother other people. I found that Swedes are really polite and professional. They promised to give me one hour, and they did. But I never would have guessed that they would want to keep in contact with me after the interview.
An interviewee from that assignment, Mr. Magnus, introduced me to a series of seminars hosted by the Uppsala Association of Foreign Affairs (UF), of which he has been a member since his student years in the 80s. He also notified me about ongoing activities in Uppsala from time to time. I could never expect to get such thoughtful suggestions from a local Uppsala citizen – definitely the best way for an international student to explore Sweden.
Some interviews also left me with funny insightful facts about Swedish society. Some random knowleges from how to get a dog in Sweden to how it’s like in the Swedish army came to me by talking to a young Swede named Erik I interviewed that time. Later he and his girlfriend invited us to come by to eat some Swedish cooking. In return, I also invited them to my place to try out some Vietnamese dishes.
Just my luck or is it the Swedes’ general kindness?
How amazing is it that such a simple school assignment would introduce me to so many interesting stories and open up many friendships for me in Uppsala! These are just anecdotes, but such a pleasant experience happens frequently enough that I have to wonder whether it’s just my luck or it is the Swedes’ general kindness. Jenny, one of my interviewee said it best: “Swedish people always want to help people and be kind. They are too introvert to give you a random smile on the street, but if you’re in need, they will help, and feel happy doing so. Especially, when you bribed them with a cake :)”
How about you? Do you experience any chance to encounter Swedish strangers? Share with me by commenting on the post and Stay tuned for another story of my social life as an international student in Sweden.