Here at Scotsman Towers, we didn’t get a lot of work done on Thursday. We were all far too busy phoning Swedes.
Well, weren’t you?
Mine was called Alice and she was a student from a small town to the north of Stockholm.
We had a nice chat, talking about the current snap of cold wintry weather in Sweden – and the nation’s dislike of chatting to people at bus stops. Alice was my own personal Swedish ambassador, waiting on the other end of a phone line for me to pose any questions I might have about the Swedish nation.
She had signed up to the Swedish national tourism board’s “The Swedish Number” – a wonderful marketing initiative to allow people from around the globe to ring up and chat to a random Swede.
A total of 2,000 Swedes are said to have agreed to take part via an app since the scheme launched last week, taking more than 5,000 calls.
It has been created, the tourist board says, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Sweden becoming the first country in the world to introduce a constitutional law to abolish censorship. Before I was put through to Alice, I had to listen to someone explaining to me what I was about to do: “Calling Sweden,” a disembodied woman’s voice with a lilting Swedish accent told me. “You will soon be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden. Your call may be recorded”.
So far, so very Ikea.
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It rang for a while – there was obviously a high demand for Swedish conversation – but before long, Alice answered. She had signed up, she admitted, because she wanted to tell the world that she and her friends did not agree with the Swedish government’s stance on the refugee crisis.
I was her second caller of the day – the first was a man from the US – although she admitted she had missed a few on her mobile phone when she had been busy at school.
She was surprised it has been so popular. Stats on the project’s website show more than a third of calls are from each of Turkey and the US, while other countries which have jumped on the “chat to a Swede” bandwagon are the UK and the Netherlands.
“It is so strange this has happened, because we Swedes are normally afraid of people,” Alice told me. “We are quite shy. If we stand at a bus stop, we stay as far away from other people as possible. We don’t like talking to people we don’t know.”
Contrary to this stereotyping, my colleague had a lovely long gossip with a 60-year-old hotelier called Kole. He ran a guesthouse in the south of Sweden with his wife. Sweden’s answer to Basil Fawlty.
My colleague was his third caller of the day, having already chatted to two previous people, from Dubai and England. It’s the off season in the Swedish hotel industry, clearly.
“I’m doing this for the fun of it, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it,” he explained to her. “I love my country, that’s why I’m doing it. I want to help out.”
Kole told her all about the south of Sweden, saying it was a good place to visit, because it was “close to Denmark” (perhaps not what the Swedish Tourist Association had in mind) and had lots of forests.
She came away ready to book her next Swedish break, having quizzed him about something she had heard one of the male members of Abba say on the radio about Sweden being a cashless society.
“Kole knew all about this and he said it would be best to bring a credit card but some small change also,” she said, beaming. “I wonder if I’ll get a discount in his hotel?”
Buoyed by my first experience, I couldn’t resist giving another Swede a ring. As a resident of one of ten countries with a dedicated local rate number, I could phone a Swede as often as I liked, without it costing much at all. This is a dangerously addictive pursuit.
This time, my call was answered by 24-year-old advertising student Rec, walking down the street in his home town of Stockholm.
He had only signed up half an hour earlier after seeing people talking about the initiative on Twitter and I was already his second call. The first had been someone from America who wanted to know if he liked Ikea.
“Well, do you?” I asked. He sighed audibly. “It’s OK, I guess. Everyone likes Ikea.”
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Like Alice, he told me that Swedes do not actually like communicating with other people. “I think we are actually better at communicating like this, in this kind of situation,” he said. “This is a really interesting exercise for me as someone who studies advertising, but it is probably a good experience for the whole nation, to talk to people we don’t know.”
He admits he was nervous before his first caller made contact, but that he was beginning to relax into it.
“My friends were talking about it on a WhatsApp group this morning and I’m going to reply now, to tell them I’ve done it, that it is kind of fun and they should sign up too,” he says.
Later, after a couple of beers, I convince my husband and friend to join me in phoning a Swede. It’s kind of addictive. We get Eva, an HR professional from Malmo, who has taken ten calls today ranging from a man in Greece who wanted to chat about football, to a political journalist from New York who wanted to get her opinion on the US election.
She tells us she spent a year living in Falkirk in the 1990s after a Swedish IT helpdesk firm out-sourced its operations to save cash.
“You have no idea what fantastic food you have in Scotland,” she tells us. “I loved it all. The fresh fruit and vegetables, the seafood.” She sounds nostalgic.
What a marvellous day. This could be a whole new method of global communication.
I rang VisitScotland, convinced that they would rush to replicate this wonderful idea.
“Dial a Dundonian”. “Aberdeen Answers”. “Stirling Speaks”. They could create a network of schemes across the country, tailored to where the foreign tourist wanted to go. I was on a roll.
But, although they happily played along with me, giving me a nice quote from chief executive Malcolm Roughead, who described it as an “intriguing idea”, they refused to confirm that they have any plans to set up a Scottish version. Spoilsports.
However, last time I spoke to him, one of the press officers there was off to phone his very own Swede. He may yet have come around to the idea. Watch this space.