Fitting In/Standing Out

Erika Loggin is an international exchange student from Canada.

My friend was taking the train in Helsinki recently when a woman sat down across from him and started talking. She’d been living there for three years, she said, but somehow hadn’t adapted to the silence most Finns seem to enjoy. Finns and Swedes have a lot in common in terms of social cues, and both have one important rule when it comes to talking to strangers on public transit: don’t.
My friend was surprised when the woman asked him about his day, but he said it made the train trip a lot more pleasant. And it made me think, when was the last time I used cultural norms as an excuse to keep to myself?

Before coming to Sweden, every website I read on the subject said the same thing: Swedes are reserved. Make the first move if you want to start a conversation or get used to awkward silences. Don’t sit next to stranger on the bus unless there are no other seats, and even then, consider standing (or better yet, grab your bike). After living in Uppsala for two months I know that most of this advice is exaggerated but, for better or worse, I’ve taken some of it to heart.
Lately I’ve noticed myself avoiding eye contact when I pass people on the street, or putting my backpack on the bus seat next to me. I’m trying to hit the perfect Swedish balance of being polite but not inviting any unwanted attention or interaction.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, and I’m not about to start an in-depth discussion the next time I take the bus (sorry in advance if I do). But it made me realize that I have been using fitting in as an excuse to keep other people out.
I have Swedish friends who are lovely, outgoing and talkative people, and a lot of the stereotypes about Swedes that I heard before coming here are completely untrue. However, I also think that unwritten rules exist everywhere about how to act appropriately and blend in. These rules are important to know and respect, but shouldn’t stop you from doing nice things, either.
When my neighbours and I are cooking in our kitchen in Flogsta, we aren’t UN delegates acting on behalf of our entire countries and cultures. I can ask them how their day went without horribly offending them, and I need to stop using “oh, I’m in Sweden” as an excuse to keep quiet.

I’m not trying to preach, but I am trying to remind myself of a few things daily:
Do respect the behaviours and norms of the people around you.
Do try to experience where you are in as genuine a way as possible.
But don’t be afraid to start a conversation, ask for help, or smile at a stranger. You might make someone’s day a little bit nicer, even if it takes them by surprise.