Now that I’ve been in Sweden for a week, I’ve learned a lot about Swedish cultural norms, and more importantly, how to act less American in public. During my first class in Swedish language and culture, we were given a crash course on traditional Swedish values, how to order coffee, and common phrases like ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you.’ However, the most important lessons we learned in that class were focused on how to act in public places, especially on public transportation.
Public transit is the preferred mode of transportation in central Sweden because the routes of the trains, metros, and ferries are so extensive. Taking the trains and metros have become part of my daily routine, as I live in an apartment building about 30 minutes north of Stockholm’s city center, where our school is located. While I feel that I have now successfully mastered the route to get to and from school, my goal for these coming weeks is to learn more about getting around the city center, while following the correct “etiquette” in doing so.
Rule One: do not talk unless you need to.
The first time my friends and I took the train, we were chattering away excitedly for the entire 20-minute train ride. We did notice that we got a few glances from other passengers, but we assumed it was because we were speaking English rather than Swedish. We were wrong. A few days later, our Swedish language professor taught us that the polite thing to do on public transportation is to be silent, and if you need to speak, you must talk VERY quietly. In retrospect, I probably should have picked up on this unspoken rule considering that the train cars were silent the second there was any lapse in our conversations.
Rule Two: do not sit or stand next to anyone unless you have to.
One thing that Swedes really value is their personal space. It’s considered to be extremely rude to sit next to or across from someone on public transportation when there are other seats available. The same rule applies for standing on the metro; the concept of “social distancing” as a COVID-19 safety measure seems to already be a built-in part of Swedish culture.
Once again, my friends and I learned this lesson the hard way. On the first day of classes, our train was delayed and we were running late to catch the metro that would drop us off at our school building. As we were running up the left side of the escalator, we saw that our metro train had just pulled in and we sprinted into the car, barely making it before the doors closed. In our haste, we didn’t notice how packed the car was, and that we had crowded an older Swedish woman into a corner. As we tried to catch our breath, we heard a stern voice say, “excuse me” and we watched the woman huffily walk past all of us to the opposite side of the train car. Now, we know not to take situations like this personally.
Despite the fact that I learned these lessons the hard way, I’ve quickly learned to appreciate the Swedes’ love for personal space. I had gotten so accustomed to the chaos that’s involved with riding the SEPTA, from passengers blaring music on their phones to having to elbow my way through people during rush-hour. It’s nice having an entire row to myself on the trains– my morning commute to school has actually felt relaxing. At first, I thought it would be a hassle to commute 30-40 minutes to school, but I’ve learned to embrace it, whether it’s by putting on headphones and listening to music or bringing a book to read on the way.