On Ticket Drawing Machines and Conversations with Strangers

The Swiss and Swedish culture have a lot of similarities since we share a lot of cultural and religious values. So there wasn’t any crazy cultural practice that I encountered in Sweden that threw me off completely. But I’ve encountered a lot of small differences between the cultural practices here and at home that added up over time. 

If you’ve ever thought that Swiss people are a bit over the top with keeping processes in public spaces in a well-arranged manner, you haven’t been to Sweden yet. One (in)famous example is that you have to draw a ticket in every situation imaginable, such as in the university library, in tiny post offices and even tinier pharmacies. I even heard of this before coming to Sweden, as I have watched Youtube videos dedicated to familiarizing foreigners with the everyday peculiarities of the country. But even though I had acquired this knowledge beforehand, I still made a faux pas. At one of my first days at Stockholm University I had to get a one-time password in order to activate my university account. I had to go to the counter in the Studenthuset and ask for a login. When I entered the building, I saw that one of the counters was unoccupied. So I just approached the person behind the counter, greeted him in a friendly manner and told him what I needed. He already looked a bit annoyed at me, but I thought that this might be due to the fact that he has had to do the same task over and over again in the first weeks of the semester. Luckily I got my password without any other incidents, and after a first impression that was a bit off, the employee was friendly. But after I had walked away, I realized that I had completely overlooked the ticket drawing machine at the entrance! Which means that I just walked up to him without having a ticket, probably taking someone else’s place in the queue where I also should have been. 

After that incident I started to observe every public building I entered with much more care, as I was scared to miss something that might be obvious to a Swedish person. In general I realized that as someone visiting and living in a country for the first time, you develop some similarities to spies. At the beginning you have a thousand impressions an hour to process: of new locations you see, new scents you smell and new tasks to do. But you don’t want to stand out, so you observe others in a much bigger detail than you would back home. It is basically the same observational learning that you used as a small child, when you tried to imitate the behavior of your parents to learn new skills such as walking or speaking. But now you have to observe and imitate strangers in order to fit into this other society you are now living in. 

For me, this spy-like observational learning phase lasted for a few weeks until I knew my way around in Stockholm and settled into a routine. My brain started to be less in this hyper-focused state of constantly needing to receive and process new information. I also realized that I started to do things automatically without having to think about them (such as taking off your outdoor shoes at the entrance of the gym – this is also a very common regulation of a public space here). But it is also important to mention that there are still things to which I haven’t adjusted to and probably won’t in the future. One example is that in Sweden the concept of “minding your own business” is taken very seriously. In my time here I haven’t observed any conversations between strangers in public transport, in a park or in the grocery store at all (except for the interaction between the cashier and the customer of course, but also those were always super short). This was very hard for me to accept at first, as it often made people appear rude because they would just completely ignore you – until I realized that for them it is actually the polite thing to do, as they do not want to disrespect your personal space. After a few frustrating rounds of grocery shopping where people would prefer squeezing through the tiny space between me and the next shelf instead of just asking me if they could pass, I started to adapt a similar behavior. But I did not and will not go full on minding my own business, as this would have stopped me from having some really uplifting small conversations in the shops. For example, once I started talking in Swedish to an older lady at the recycling bins about the recycling system here. Yes, I didn’t understand half of what she said, and due to my broken Swedish neither did she probably, but it was just such a genuine conversation with a local that it made me feel as if I was actually part of the Swedish society, at least during that little moment. So I guess in some occasions it makes sense not trying too hard to fit in, to might actually fit in better. 

Michèle Grindat

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