Sunday, April 20, 2008
Cultural Notes Part 1: Enjoy the Silence
Swedes apparently don't like to say any more than necessary. A business transaction, say buying a hot dog on the street, takes the following words: "En värmkorv." "Tolv." (hand over the money, receive hot dog and change if appropriate). That's it. No words like "please" or "thank you" are required or expected. If you say "Tack" to the vendor, you may startle them.
While this taciturnity does not generally hold in social situations, it can happen there too. In my second week at work, I finally got up the courage to go out to the lunch room, joining five other people there at a table that comfortably holds six. Some conversation had been going on when I first got into the room, but then it petered out and was replaced with... nothing. Silence. I sat there, feeling this silence growing and growing, and I am fairly sure my face was getting redder and redder. I ate my lunch as fast as I could and scurried away. I did go to the break room for lunch the next day, but I waited until I was sure there wasn't anybody else there. Five minutes later, of course, someone came in to eat their lunch... and sat down across from me without saying a word, or even looking at me. Once again, I fled for my office at the earliest possible moment.
I have since figured out that there are two things going on here. First, unlike fika, lunch is not necessarily considered a time for socializing; many of my co-workers use lunch to catch up on the news (our department has a subscription to the local daily), and anyway, you're busy eating, so why would you talk? The second thing is that Swedes seem to be completely comfortable as part of a silent group. It can feel quite unfriendly at first, but it really isn't. Even at fika, in which social interaction is expected, sometimes a silence falls that is simply not broken for minutes, if ever. Such a prolonged silence can herald the end of a particular fika, but it doesn't have to—sometimes some people get up and leave, while others remain seated, and continue to sit in silence.
The silence is a little strange, from the perspective of a chatty American like myself, but I have come to appreciate and enjoy it. I no longer have to fight the instinct to break a silence, and honestly it's a relief to not have to come up with small talk or a new topic every time the conversation runs out. If you don't want to talk, you simply don't talk. Feel free, however, to sit back, relax, and enjoy the silence.