Saturday, April 12, 2008

Swedish Commuters Fear Human Interaction

Sometimes I am struck by how Swedish I have become in my actions. And it’s not necessarily a good thing. And the train between Uppsala and Stockholm is a perfect example. Again, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

There are a whole lot of commuters going back and forth between Stockholm and Uppsala. A few students, but most of them are working in one city or the other. And it’s amazing to watch the interaction.

I was on this train yesterday when it struck me. Again. Swedes, or at least those in Stockholm and Uppsala, seem to fear any sort of human interaction. They do not want to sit next to each other. Most of the seats are in groups of two. There are a few in groups of four with a table in the middle separating the four though. These tend to be the last seats to go. The prime seats are the groups of two right next to the window. That way people have a reason to stare the other way. They’re looking out the window. That’s less weird than staring at the wall to avoid eye contact with others.

People will walk halfway through the train just to find a seat where they don’t need to sit next to anyone. People won’t even look up at those who are walking by. Eye contact could be interpreted as a sign that the seat is open. Even when the conductor comes to check the tickets there is little interaction. Most people just put their ticket on the seat next to them, or on the table, or hold it up silently. No need to speak more than absolutely necessary.

Now granted this was the commuter crowd and perhaps their will to live has been sucked out of them as they make their way back and forth to work. I don’t know. But somewhere in there you would imagine a spark of life. A spark that might turn into a conversation. Or at least a slight nod of the head to acknowledge some sort of existence.

The scary thing is that I’ve found myself doing the same thing. Walking through a few cars just so I can find a seat to myself. That way I can sit and read in peace. That’s my excuse. But it’s not a very good one. Of course, I do have limits. While most Swedes either sit themselves on the outside seat or plop all of their coats/backpacks/briefcases on the outside seat so no one can sit there, I have yet to take that step. While I might search for a group of empty seats I haven’t stooped so low as to keep everyone else from sitting next to me. Yet at least.

Welcome to Sweden.


  1. its kind of like that here in Göteborg also...but not to the extreme as over in your area. People actually interact here a little bit. I mean i too would rather sit alone next to the window and stare out than talk to anyone, but people do ask here if they can sit next to them..the seats are always open and if there is an elderly person, everyone will get up and offer their seat.

    They say people here in this city are the nicest in all of sweden..hehe

    whether that is true, i don't know but so far so good!

    I had a woman strike up a conversation with me! and she was swedish, i was a little shocked..this was a few weeks ago, an i too tried talking to people and they talk back....rarely are they rude here

  2. I think this masters the balance of both cultures: Sitting independently while smiling and making conversation with others nearby. Of course, this assumes the environment is quiet enough to allow conversation without loud talking. (The US city kids I recently ran into on a small island were screaming-talking and I think I internally cursed a few stereotypes for a moment.)

  3. I beleive iyt is more of a "Big City" syndrome. Commuters are just a human piece of luggage from SL's standpoint and any other transportation company. They don't make it conducive to have a conversation with your neighbor, which explains why everybody will become withdrawn. You should start a movement that serves a little cocktail on friday afternoon on the train, meet new people.

  4. I'm a swede and I kind of recognize myself in what you wrote. I'm not particularly interested in striking up a conversation with strangers and I do tend to choose the group-of-two seats. However, I will ask politely if a seat is taken before I drop my behind on it. Also, I passionately hate people who take the outside seat to block others from sitting next to them (or pile all their stuff on the outer seat).

    The most extreme example of this was when I was going home from uni one day and the bus was pretty much full. I saw a pair of seats where this middle aged woman had piled up all her belongings on the outer seat, along with a heap of papers. I kindly asked if she could make room for me. The response? "No, sorry, I'm working here." That's what the heap of papers was for. She probably did work, but that's no excuse for denying someone else the seat. Amazing. And irritating.

  5. @mrs. cecrux - it seems Skåne is just a bit friendlier...

    @isle dance - the swedish trains are nothing if not quiet enough for conversation

    @anonymous - that's true. the commuter isn't exatly a person that gets catered to when it comes to transportation. unfortunately... for the commuters.

    @mikael - I think I have the same hatred for the seat blockers. It's just ridiculous. There are limits and sometimes people just need to relax. And let someone sit next to them.

  6. Well, Stockholm is extreme, and everything above it, in that sense... I think that in southern Sweden (most of the land below Stockholm), though, it's a lot nicer.

  7. the longer I live here the more I agree.

  8. Weirdly enough, I find that a lot of older women start talking to me at the bus stops and in the bus and tram. I have no idea why so many older women. :S Maybe I awaken their motherly or grandmotherly feelings or something...

  9. I love it Robban. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the term "cougar hunting" but it sounds like you would make an excellent cougar hunter.

  10. I think it's mainly because you get really tired of commuting (I know..) and you're just in the mood to socialize, you just want to get home/to work and can't find the energy to be nice and polite. Sad but true. On more long-distance trains I always end up talking to other passengers, but maybe that's because I usually bring my dog and then people always talk to me.;)

  11. it's true... commuters are probably a bit different when it comes to social interaction on the way to and from work.