Photo by Annie Spratt
Last week has been freezing here in Stockholm. As always, this time of year in this corner of the globe it’s getting colder and darker, and it’s only natural that surviving in this altitude requires certain behaviour. The Northerners have a reputation of being reserved, but without realizing it themselves I’m wondering if Stockholmers have become cold?
My mind wonders to the countless unfriendly, or maybe better phrased unrelaxed, encounters with co-Stockholmers as I read the rather depressing result of a recent survey about expats’ quality of life abroad. InterNations asked 18 135 expats around the world about their experiences. According to the survey, just 32 percent of expats in Stockholm are happy with their social life, compared to 57 percent globally. When it comes to the perceived friendliness amongst Stockholmers the Swedish capital ranks 71st, outperforming only Riyadh. Wow, some sad reading, right?
I’m not completely shocked. The atmosphere is stressed - in the crowded subway, in the bike lanes, in the grocery stores. Once I got yelled at a highly ranked restaurant for standing in the way of a waiter as I was waiting for my table. Not very cool and I certainly didn’t go back.
Or the other type of phenomenon where a small group of people block the entire sidewalk as if no other people existed. I dare to say that Stockholmers have a lot to improve when it comes to acknowledging other people in a welcoming way. Today I was walking on the street when I met two persons in an encounter that seemed to be connected to their new puppies (very cute yes). They occupied the entire sidewalk. When I was about five meters away one of them turned to look at me, clearly noticing that I too was heading their way. Then the person looked away and didn’t move an inch to even try to clear the way, as if the vision of me was just an illusion. To be able to pass I had to step out into the street and join the cars. Sure, it wasn’t such a big deal but to me that event summarizes so well the attitude many times met on the streets of Stockholm.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Stockholm. I’ve chosen to create a life here, and I’m surrounded by kind-hearted people. I don’t want to add on to a bad reputation for this, in many ways, amazing city.
I put on the obvious soundtrack, Orup’s Stockholm, as I ask myself the question why so many people feel unfriendliness in this city. Is it because we are so stressed out by all the obligations, or what we perceive as obligations that we shut ourselves further inside our own bubbles?
I think it has to do with the same fear that makes Swedes (and other Northerners) to, if possible, choose a seat on the other side of an empty bus. A fear that our sense and need of personal space is invaded. However, acting with kindness doesn’t need to interfere with your personal space. It’s very easy to be friendly without having to become friends. The cost of smiling or exchanging a few friendly worlds with a stranger is very small. (The chance of you smiling to a psychopath who will interpret your facial expression as an invitation to kill you is extremely small). The gain however is a lot bigger. Not only will the overall atmosphere become more relaxed, but all participants will experience a connection, instead of a feeling of separation. We can agree that a feeling of separation rarely does any good.
When Satu, the other co-founder, and I manifested Pranama in the spring of 2017 the entire foundation was built on the need of more compassion in Stockholm. We even named our studio to The Center of the Great Heart. Taking a step away from prestige and accomplishment, two things that are highly valued in Stockholm.
It’s not only on a personal level, it’s also about how we organize. It’s a challenge to create efficient organisations that encourages hospitality and kindness in interpersonal relations. Part of the problem is that kindness is thought of as weakness when it comes to certain situations. Kindness doesn’t mean not protecting your interests or giving in. Love can be tough, if it really is love.
How we interact with other people reflects how we interact with ourselves. Are people too obsessed by their own navel (or their phones) to be able to look up and maybe even smile? Chill a little bit? As the need to interact with other people is coded within us, avoiding these interactions and being happy at the same time is very hard.
All of us contribute to the community we live in. My actions will echo in the strangers’ lives that I meet everyday as I make my way through my own life. I’m also a Stockholmer and writing this is about looking into the mirror. It´s not easy to relax waiting for a bus in sub-zero temperatures, but I promise myself to try. My early New year’s resolution will be to acknowledge my co-citizens, making sure that the vibes I’m sending out are good, for myself and everyone around me. What’s yours?
Co-founder of Pranama