A theory about Stockholmers

Stockholm

It happened again today. And, actually, it has happened once too often.

When I approached my office building this morning, there was a small group of people speaking Swedish standing outside in the cold. They couldn’t get into the building. As I have a pass card, I knew I could let them in. So, I smiled, and I said ‘I can let you in to the warmth’. There was no reaction, apart from a little wry smile. Swiping my card, I let them into the building and turned to look at them. Not one of them acknowledged what I’d done and said ‘Thank you.

This might seem like a small thing, but it happens all the time to me. I hold a door open for somebody. I get no ‘thank you’. I let somebody go on the bus before me. Nothing. Soembody bumps into me. And I apologise!

Why is this the case? Why do many Stockholmers not acknowledge or thank each other. It isn’t that they don’t see each other. Is it that they don’t care?

An interesting fact is that the vast majority of people in Stockholm come from somewhere else in Sweden. They have migrated from smaller towns and villages to seek work, love and excitement in the capital. My experience of being in towns outside Stockholm is that people are friendly, polite and acknowledging of each other. So what happens to these people when they move to the city?

I have a theory. I think that many Stockholmers who have migrated into the city have a perception of what a city should be. They seem to think a city should be fast-paced, tough, individualistic and unfriendly. That people should push themselves forward, and through, other people. That connecting with a stranger in a public place with eye contact, a small remark or a thank you does not belong in a capital city. I think that they are playing pseudo cosmopolitans.

In my opinion, this attitude is shamefully misguided. Citizens of much larger cities, such as New York or London, still find time to small talk, for politeness and to say sorry or thank you to each other. Try bumping into somebody in New York and not apologise. The price of impoliteness is sometimes harsh.

And the solution is easy. Say ‘thank you’ to the next person who does something for you today.

Really, it’s not that difficult.

36 thoughts on “A theory about Stockholmers

  1. Oddly. I usually keep the doors and leave my seat to those who need it better and always get a thank you and leende.Jag also live in Stockhholm. oddly

    • I’m with you Örjan.( Though there are of course those who give back nothing, but that happens everywhere, even in the US where many people want to think it never happens.) Having lived here since 1993 I have come to accept that “the wry smile” is a Swedish (perhaps more Stockholmer and Norrlänning) way of saying “Thank you” and “I acknowledge your kind gesture”.

      Subtle gestures are not the same as a lack of gestures, they’re just not as ‘loud’.

  2. Yes I agree that swedes or stockholmers can seem impolite but in reality I think it’s more about that we don’t want help from strangers unless it’s really needed. In the case of opening a locked door for someone I would agree that that is strange behavior and I don’t think that’s very common. In those cases a normal stockholmer would say thank you.
    But in some cases help just makes things more unconfortable when you don’t need it. For example I were to exit a building and someone is walking 10 meter infront of me and when that person exists he holds the door for me. This I would find annoying because I would feel that i should increase my pace so that he/she don’t need to stand at the door holding it up.
    Same goes for cars that stop for me when they don’t need to. Like if I wanted to cross a road but didn’t stand at a pedestrian crossing. If that car would stop i must run over even if I didnt find it safe because of other traffic. I’d see him drive by and let me decide when to cross.

    But in general i think stockholmers don’t want to get to know strangers. Look inside a half full buss. Everyone will sit at their individual pair of seats if there are any available. Doing everything we can do avoid sitting next to someone. Same thing happends when waiting at the buss. We automaticly form a line without thinking of it and tries keeping a distance from eachother this has nothing to do with rudeness it’s just the way we are and if someone would let me go before them in line i would say thanks but in reality I could just aswell go to the end of the line.

    To sum up I think we don’t want help like this because it forces us to do something so that we do not appear unappreachiative of the gesture

  3. Yes I agree that swedes or stockholmers can seem impolite but in reality I think it’s more about that we don’t want help from strangers unless it’s really needed. In the case of opening a locked door for someone I would agree that that is strange behavior and I don’t think that’s very common. In those cases a normal stockholmer would say thank you.
    But in some cases help just makes things more unconfortable when you don’t need it. For example I were to exit a building and someone is walking 10 meter infront of me and when that person exists he holds the door for me. This I would find annoying because I would feel that i should increase my pace so that he/she don’t need to stand at the door holding it up.
    Same goes for cars that stop for me when they don’t need to. Like if I wanted to cross a road but didn’t stand at a pedestrian crossing. If that car would stop i must run over even if I didnt find it safe because of other traffic. I’d see him drive by and let me decide when to cross.

    But in general i think stockholmers don’t want to get to know strangers. Look inside a half full buss. Everyone will sit at their individual pair of seats if there are any available. Doing everything we can do avoid sitting next to someone. Same thing happends when waiting at the buss. We automaticly form a line without thinking of it and tries keeping a distance from eachother this has nothing to do with rudeness it’s just the way we are and if someone would let me go before them in line i would say thanks but in reality I could just aswell go to the end of the line.

    To sum up I think we don’t want help like this because it forces us to do something so that we do not appear unappreachiative of the gesture

  4. I totally agree with you! And it’s not only in Stockholm this happens. Try Malmö too 😉 Sometimes I feel that the words ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ aren’t included in their vocabulary. I’m Finnish and have been living in Sweden for 6 years, I speak the language and share most of the same ‘views of life’, but still I find this really hard to accept. In the land of ‘lagom’, those words should come out more naturally.

  5. There is only one thing you can do, never give up.
    I always hold up doors, say excuse me ant thank you.
    I let older people take my seat while riding public transportation.

    I think that the people coming from outside try to be nice but when the get rejected, ignored and maybe even yelled at they just give up and get Stockholmized. Stop caring about strangers, I promise you that most of us are kind and caring to our friends and loved ones.
    So, never stop saying Hi. Together we can make a difference!

  6. I’ve lived in Stockholm, Sweden since 1995 and I have experienced what–at first–I took for the Swedish reserve everyone told me about. Nowadays, I don’t believe it has anything to do with reserve. It’s quite simply a lack of manners. I used to be a teacher, so I taught the kids in my class to say “thank you” and “excuse me” and to simply be kind to one another. Some of the parents took offence to this and said I was “violating the children’s integrity”. I don’t think that teaching anyone to be polite has anything to do with violating their integrity. It has to do with kindness and trying to simply make the world a better place, even if it’s baby steps. There is an attitude here–and I’ve discussed it with Swedish friends–that being polite is like making yourself obligated to someone or it puts you at a disadvantage. And I think this is a ridiculous way to think. I refuse to accept that someone can shove me simply so they can get on the subway first, or that someone can cut in front of me in line and pretend they didn’t see me, or that they can’t hold a door for me when they see I am struggling with a heavy package. And I offer my seat and make teenagers get up so that older people and pregnant women can sit when I am on the subway.

    We get the city we help create. And if Stockholmers think that behaving in a cutthroat manner makes their city cool or “more like New York”–which is what I’ve heard many times–they’re dead wrong. Last October, I was in NYC and a man who was in a rush collided with me. He stopped, apologised and asked if I was okay. Yesterday, the same thing happened here in Stockholm–and what did the man who bumped into me say? “Watch it!” Not “sorry” or “excuse me”–“Äkta dig!” Actually, what he said was more like “Äkta dig, du djävla idiot!”

  7. I am a fourth generation Stockholmer and I agree with all that has been said here. To me a truly urban person ALWAYS says hello, excuse me and thank you. This goes for real Stockholmers too, and by that I refer to those who were born here and those who have lived here for a long time (how long doesn’t matter, it has more to do with a mind set and understanding what city life is all about). However, most people in Stockholm have moved here (it’s been that way since 1252) and for some reason they seem to think that it’s not necessary to be polite, and that “city people” don’t behave that way. They are completely wrong and it always makes me wonder how they are perceived in bigger cities like London och New York, if they behave the same way. I find this behavior very hard to accept!

    • I agree with Maria, iI’m 6th generation of Stockholmer (or more) and I always say Thank you and act in a polite way. I think the author is right, that the impoliteness in Stockholm is from people who are not from an urban area and they act as they think urban people should act. Like they are playing a Stockholm-game were they can get points if they fit in properly. Unfortunately, they are just rude.

  8. Hello!
    I come from a small town and lived in Stockholm for several years. It sounds quite funny to me your blaming “pseudo cosmopolitans”. When actually those are much nicer then true Stockholmers. You will learn that, when you start to hear the different accents. Most people still are real Stockholmers that have a sad and bad attitude.
    So its kind of weird that you “know” that the unpolite people are the ones coming from “landet” 😀 When its quite the opposite!

    Thanks for a nice article

  9. I know teenagers who behave in the same way – socially awkward – and my interpretation is that they are (a) shy, and (b) haven’t learnt what’s expected of them. Rather than trying to behave a certain way, they fumble for how to handle the situation, and the result is, they don’t take eye contact, they say nothing, and they appear incredibly rude.

  10. Oh i really love your blog about Sweden and Swedes, and by the way you should add 1 term for us, thats Selfabsorbed! We love to read about ourselves and “how people see us”, thats what i belive anyway 😉

    Check my blog about USA, I was there and “watched” Americans for awhile 🙂

  11. I think it all boils down to a general lack of manners, saying thank you, sorry and please is something I think anyone with a somewhat normal upbringing have been taught to say at home to show respect for other people. I find swedish people in general very self-absorbed. They happen to live in a part of the world where you are fortunate enough to often get by in life all by yourself and the focus is very much on the individual. But I find it quite arrogant to not think about nor to not take into account how ones manners might be perceived by the rest of the world. We live in a time when people more than ever before are in global settings for business, travel, situations which require interacting with people from different parts of the world, and therefore also very different cultural backgrounds, where just simply being polite is a no brainer. I grew up in Stockholm and most of my friends from Stockholm are just properly raised and therefore polite. From my personal experience it is people from outside of Stockholm that move there that have some kind of perception of how one is supposed to behave in what might to them be a bigger city, which unfolds often in being cool, cold and rude from being insecure in a new setting seems to be the norm. Again, this does not apply to all people of course, but that is my personal observation. From living abroad for two decades, travelling the world for a long time I just find swedes in general stuck up and not socially sophisticated in comparison to other people I meet in the world.

  12. I have lived in Stockholm since 2000 and I have heard many excuses for this type of behaviour you are trying to anylize everything from it’s the cold weather to shyness. I think it’s lack of education at home with parents so satisfied that the socialist community has to take care of their children (07-18.00) they are free to be as selfabsorbed as they like without being judged.
    The selfishness and ignorance towards other humans from lack of respect has grown to alarming levels in the last 5 years especially in every aspect of life. Pushed in traffic, pushed on the train, pushed in nightclubs and bars, pushed at the airport collecting luggage, pushed at the supermarket, run over by pushbikes on footpaths – it’s NON STOP! The only respite is anywhere you take a numbered ticket for queing. The Swedes that behave like this about 80% are aware they are trying to get an advantage over the next person and actually get a bit of a kick out of it, the ones that don’t do it I consider normal and would do socially ok in any city.
    My biggest worry at the moment is what ‘Kim Talks Books’ said earlier, if you try and educate Stockholm children the ways of a NON Swede (courtesy & respect in public) you run the risk of being verbally attacked (2014 maybe even physically beaten) this is maybe because they do not want to feel inferior or be looked upon as uneducated,.I sometimes spit the dummy at 20-65yo people letting them know they should know better and often end up being attacked for it either verbally or in traffic with various hand gestures as they dangerously speed off ducking and weaving through others, in this regard there is far to little police presence and lack of offence cameras makes it far too easy to run red lights and speed. If I offer my seat to someone more needy than I it is usual to be stared at like a freak, the same for holding a door open or heaven forbid offering the newly opened Kassa at the supermarket to the person in front of you instead of making a fast break to get there first.
    After all this I have learned to accept it and not fight it as much as laugh about it, I enjoy living here and love the clean environment and generally honest party (when drinking) nature of the Swedes, my kids are also doing fine, eduactaed well at school and home, we are told often by others how polite & kind they are, that makes us proud and I know they will fit into any society they choose because of their respect for others..

  13. I have lived in Stockholm since 2000 and I have heard many excuses for this type of behaviour you are trying to anylize everything from it’s the cold weather to shyness. I think it’s lack of education at home with parents so satisfied that the socialist community has to take care of their children (07-18.00) they are free to be as selfabsorbed as they like without being judged.
    The selfishness and ignorance towards other humans from lack of respect has grown to alarming levels in the last 5 years in every aspect of Stockholm life. Pushed in traffic, pushed on the train, pushed in nightclubs and bars, pushed at the airport collecting luggage, pushed at the supermarket, run over by pushbikes on footpaths, bumped into by a person wearing headphones and looking at their phone – it’s NON STOP! The only respite is anywhere you take a numbered ticket for queing. The Swedes that behave like this, about 80%, are aware they are trying to get an advantage over the next person and actually get a bit of a kick out of it when they succeed, the ones that don’t do it I consider normal and would do socially ok in any city.
    My biggest worry at the moment is what ‘Kim Talks Books’ said earlier, if you try and educate Stockholm children the ways of a NON Swede (courtesy & respect in public) you run the risk of being verbally attacked (2014 maybe even physically beaten) this is maybe because they do not want to feel inferior or be looked upon as uneducated,.I sometimes spit the dummy at 20-65yo people I observe as antisocial, letting them know they should know better and I often end up being attacked for it either verbally, or in traffic with various hand gestures as they dangerously speed off ducking and weaving through others, in this regard there is far to little police presence and lack of offence cameras makes it far too easy to run red lights and speed. If I offer my seat on public transport to someone more needy than I it is usual to be stared at like a I’m a freak, the same for holding a door open or heaven forbid offering the newly opened Kassa at the supermarket to the person in front of you instead of making a fast break to get there first.
    After all this I have learned to accept it and not fight it as much as laugh about it, I enjoy living here and love the clean environment and generally honest party (when drinking) nature of the Swedes, my kids are also doing fine, eduactaed well at school and home, we are told often by others how polite & kind they are, that makes us proud and I know they will fit into any society they choose because of their respect for others..

  14. Hej Neil,
    Som jag förstått det så har det med historien att göra. Bakåt har inte så många människor i Sverige bott tätt. Sverige är ett stort land och med liten folkmängd. Man har inte “tränats” i att bo tätt och inte behövt snacka med alla för att överleva. Det är ju helt underbart att komma till London och mötas av de artiga kommentarer som sker och man känner sig sedd, eller hur!!
    Men Sverige förändras från en glesbyggd till större städer och vi kommer nog här precis som i andra storstäder utveckla en ny historia av att bo tättare och då kanske även den stora massan ändrar sig till att vara artiga och se varandra i trängda situationer.

    But in the meantime its enoying 😦 really enoying and I just want to shout “grow up and come out of your shell” to some people 😉
    http://mobil.dn.se/ledare/signerat/urbanisering-sverige-ritas-om/

  15. This is over thinking, Swedes are proud and shy and enjoy splendid isolation in a weird combination. That’s why they barge, and don’t thank, etc, even while you know they care.

  16. I have to agree with Örjan Bergström, and his reply from January 24. I’ve lived in Stockholm for the past 25 years, having moved here from Washington, DC, and my experience of this city is diametrically opposite to the others described here. From day one, I’ve come across more smiles, thank yous, opened doors, nice spontaneous little chats with strangers etc here, than I ever did in DC. I simply and genuinely don’t recognize the Stockholm that the rest of you are describing. At all. Sure, I’ve come across the occasional exception, as I’m sure one would no matter where one goes in the world, but overall I find the city and its people very friendly, personable, quick to smile and exchange a few words, courteous and helpful, and that just a smile and a moment of eye contact from me will immediately meet with that type of positive and friendly response, from men and women, young and old, Swedes and immigrants alike. As to why the experiences of myself and Örjan are so vastly different from the rest of you, however… I don’t have a clue. All I know is that the city the rest of you are describing bears little or no resemblance to the Stockholm that I know and love. Happily enough! 🙂

  17. This is not a phenomena just in Stockholm unfortunatemy! This is how most Swedes are to people unknown to them. When I was younger and went to London for a holiday I noticed how polite people can be to each other without knowing them. This changed my perception so much that I in the end couldn’t stand living in Sweden (Gothenburg) and took the big jump when moving out of my parents house…to London! So it’s not Stockholm or big city to blaim- it’s simply the people !

  18. On an other level; could the Stockholm City slogan “Capital of Scandinavia” be an expression of the same kind of selfabsorbedness, rudeness, and lack of concideration for others as mentioned above?

  19. When I visit Stockholm, about 4-5 times per year, having lived in Tokyo for five years and then being a Denver, CO resident for four years, I am appalled by the lack of gratitude, smiles and thankyous in the public, compared to Denver, and even to Tokyo when you make an effort yourself. Friends and associates do say thank you and smile but otherwise almost nothing, and I even experience a lot of go first instead of showing politeness. I do think this has changed from 10 years ago. On the other hand, it’s great fun to surprise e.g. store clerks and waiters by saying Hej hur mår du?, Hur går affärerna idag? Usually first reaction is a restrained but at the second question the response is usually a smile and a good talk. That’s new too. There is hope. And one can’t change others, just make a good example. Smile and the world smiles at you. One day.

  20. Welcome to Sweden or Shockholm.. oh yeah it’s Stockholm.. I presume states abet the abhor towards the English. That’s typical Swedishness..Everyone knows everything here they are super duper brilliant. I had the similar experience. Stockholm is horrific place on earth to leave. well I’ll leave soon. Don’t just whine after reading my message.

    7 million Swedes lol….. ! learn how to interact with foreigners if your not capable enough don’t go global just cell your Ericsson, Volvo and vacuum cleaners among 7million.

  21. Lantisar borde inte få kalla sig ‘Stockholmare’. Ekenskisar är hyvens. Vad menar du med Stockholmare – är inte du en du mé?

  22. I have to say i agree with the author; people in Stockholm are rarely polite. I am from southern Sweden and was raised with the notion that the way you behave towards others defines you. I lived in Stockholm twice and moved abroad again the two times happy to leave the rude behaviour behind. In my typical day I would perform polite acts without as much as a twitch of recognition of my efforts to pass it forward. My defence was to simply loudly proclaim ‘varsågod’, which would make the person scurry along even faster. I even got chewed out by a middle aged woman once when, after she almost knocked over a baby carriage riding along on her bike in a pedestrian area, i pointed out to her that she should get of her bike. Her defence was that if I spoke with a southern accent I should probably shut up! Needless to say, I am happy to leave my fellow Swedes to wallow in their misery and enjoy my life as an expat with polite and warm people.

  23. I didn’t notice how rude my dear Stockholm was until I left to live abroad. I would say that Helsinki where I stayed for two years resembles in the way Stockholm people are afraid of sticking out, also in terms of speaking to strangers, but once you communicate the contact is warm and immediate and absolutely never superficial – Finnish people hate that, which can be an explanation for THEIR lack of smalltalk :). In Copenhagen where I stayed for three years there is a strong national selfconfidence, people are very polite and spread sweet words, also to strangers – but they don’t need you so you will never get to know them better. Then I stayed two years in Paris – the most polite place on earth, as well as cosmopolitan, people are also curious and and stare.Wonderful – you are acknowledged as an existing creature – that’s the worst thing in Stockholm – Sometimes I’m not sure if I ceased existing – noone looks, noone speaks – and I behave the same way! I think it might be the cold weather that makes us so selfabsorbed.

  24. My experience from 50+ years in Stockholm is that it totally depends on 1) my own mood (if I smile, many Stockholmers smile back), 2) time of day (rush hour is not the best for smiles and chit chat), 3) what kind of people I’m surrounded by (don’t bother with people in suits).

    What I’m trying to get at is that Swedes are very different from one another. Just like in any other country there are good people and bad people, and everything in between. I have traveled a lot and found that to be true in most places.

    And after that speech of general wisdom, I will turn 180 degrees and imply that there is a national trait in Swedes (at least everyone who’s lived here long enough to adopt this trait): we’re tougher on the outside than on the inside. Take the Dutch: very sociable and easy to make friends with. But only to a certain point. If you’re an outsider, you will have a hard time getting close to a Dutchman. Their intimacy is only for their countrymen. Or take the average American: all smiles and then nothing else of importance. But the Swedes are something else, here you get the ketchupeffekt: first nothing, then nothing, then everything at once.

    It’s probably true to a degree that Swedes and Stockholmers in general are shy and therefore appear sullen, and that newcomers from the countryside might try to be cool (and fail miserably) at first. But I like the above remark that the wry smiles are the Swedish way of saying a Londoners “Thank you, love”. You might have to pry us open, but more than often there’s a shiny pearl inside.

  25. I honestly think it is shyness, not rudeness. Swedes REALLY feel uncomfortable if they have to speak to strangers, no matter the subject. I always try to say “Thank you”, “Sorry” and “Good morning” when applicable, because I always appreciate that when going to southern Europe or the US – but I sure feel awkward doing it. It’s not an apology, but at least an explanaition. 😉

  26. I confess; I am a real Polly Anna… almost sickeningly positive and always looking for the silver lining. That may explain why my experience is very different. I am a native Stockholmer but has lived in the US for almost 45 years. I spend about four months a year in Sweden (four trips, one month each time). I think people are friendly and smiling everywhere. I talk to sales people at Åhlens, subway ticket staff, fellow subway riders, customers in the grocery store – and I always get friendly smiles and friendly conversation. I hold doors for people older than myself (I never think of myself as “old”.. at 68 years of age), say thank you – that is, tack så mycket, and please, varsågod, and get the same in return. I haven’t been to New York in years (where people are also rumored to be very rude), but everywhere I have travelled, I see and hear the same thing – many times more nice people than the opposite. If I am oblivious – thank goddess for that!

  27. Try to get a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from a Sweden on a serious matter. Perhaps that’s why the have so few enemies in the world. There is seldom a good or bad answer to a problem. The happy medium: ‘Lagom’.

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