I Spent My Morning Calling Random Swedes (And They Loved It)

Anyone can call Sweden's national number to talk to one of its residents

Apr 08, 2016 at 5:25 PM ET

I spent my morning in an an unexpected way: on the phone with several Swedish strangers. Thanks to the the Swedish Tourist Association, there is a phone number, called the Swedish Number, that will connect you with random Swedes. So I called it.

It’s a little bit odd to hop on the phone with someone you’ve never met before. But that’s exactly the point. “Calling Sweden. Soon you will be connected with a random Swede,” is the automated message you hear when you dial the number. It’s either +46 771 793 336 internationally or 301-276-0600 for local rates if you’re calling from the U.S.

The hotline brings to mind Sweden’s Twitter strategy. Each week, a new Swedish citizen is given control of the country’s Twitter account, and they can use it however they please. This week it appears to be a registered nurse named Cicci. It’s another way to connect Swedes to the rest of the world, and what it has in common with the Swedish Number is that it’s also just delightfully weird.

And while talking to new people is great and weird, you might be inclined to ask: what’s the point? It’s in part a marketing campaign—one meant to commemorate the 250th anniversary of free speech came to Sweden. But considering this is a country with its own official font, and design style guide, it’s also a gimmick that makes sense (and is a pretty good one at that).

I was connected with four different people, all of them very polite—and they’re not paid to do this. Anyone in Sweden can opt-in to receive calls by downloading a free mobile app. Since it’s a new kind of technology, the callers on the other end are skew on the younger side, and often live in in bigger cities. Everyone I talked to was located in Stockholm.

The first guy was a 28-year-old IT researcher named Jacob. He said he had received a number of calls. Several from the U.S. in places like California and Oregon, but I was the first to call from the east coast. Jacob told me he had also spoken with an entire eighth grade class somewhere in the states. He’d heard from people from all over the world, too.

“I just got off the phone from talking to a guy who was in Zanzibar,” he said. “He was a Kenyan student from the U.K. on vacation in Zanzibar. I also talked to two guys in a traffic jam in Hong Kong.”

We briefly touched on politics. He (correctly) thinks Trump is racist, and that Cruz probably is too. He also mentioned Bernie Sanders who he said “talks about Sweden a lot but doesn’t really understand Swedish politics or the Swedish election.”

Jacob said he has at least four friends who are also participating, and if he’s learned anything through the experiment, it’s that people all over the world are friendly.

The second person to pick up was 27-year-old Linnea, a PR consultant also lives in Stockholm. She works in PR and says she’s now fielded around 15 calls, from Turkey, India, the Netherlands, Africa, China, and “just like everywhere.” Our conversation got interesting when we started discussing why people choose to engage in inane small talk, which naturally turned the conversation to Tinder.

“I’ve been on Tinder for a while, so I’ve been discussing this a lot with friends who are also on Tinder,” she said. “The tricky thing is you want to give the other person something from your own life to maybe pick up on, but you don’t want to talk only about yourself. You want to find that balance between giving a little bit of yourself but not too much to be super self-interested.”

She said she’s only met one interesting person on Tinder, and otherwise encounters the type of people who regale her with tales of their 12-step plan for getting women on Tinder to like them. Men all over the world truly are the same.

Then there was 30-year-old Christian, a city planner who has a six-year-old daughter. I was the first person he had talked to. He said he’d just downloaded the app. We talked about his job, Sweden’s centuries-old tradition of annual crayfish parties, and his little girl. We also discussed Sweden’s family leave policy. Did you know couples get 300 days off between them per child? I had to explain to Christian that the U.S. policy, which recently making big gains in New York and California, was small potatoes in comparison.

Somehow I’m not surprised that my fourth call to Sweden was fielded by an American guy. In fact, not just an American guy, an American guy from Texas. (Which is where I’m happen to be from, and is further proof that it’s impossible to escape Texans, even on a random phone call to Sweden.) Mark is 38-years-old, he works in tech, and he moved to Sweden with his Swedish girlfriend who he met in New York several years ago.

“It’s a common story that you’ll hear from American guys here,” he said with a laugh. “My wife or girlfriend imported me. My third day in New York—I had just moved to New York—I had this summer suit on from Miami. I go into this bar, and walk over to this gigantic menorah, and start heating my hands over the candles. The bartender shows up, and becomes my girlfriend a few weeks later. Several years later, here we are in Sweden.”

We spoke about a wide range of topics: Texas history; what it’s like to be an American in Sweden (“Scandinavia is not Europe. It’s its own thing.”); rising rents in New York; the kinds of people we’ve both encountered on Sweden’s new hotline (young, middle class, upwardly mobile).

I could have easily continued making these calls all day. There’s no shortage of intrigue when you’re able to talk to randoms and see where the conversation goes. But there are commonalities in every conversation. Inevitably, you end up talking about the weather in some capacity. And each caller told me I should come visit Sweden at some point. You’ll be very surprised to know they all agree summer is the best time to do that.

The real take away of the Swedish Number is that it represents the bright, endearing side of technology. We turn to smartphones and computers to get human connection, and in reality, that often leaves us feeling isolated. Hell, we can be connected to other people, but never have to talk on the phone if we don’t have to. But it’s actually sort of nice when you can use modern technology to be connected to someone else, and there’s a real voice and thoughts and feelings and opinions on the other end. And chances are, if you’re hopping onto this number as an extrovert, and you’re going reap the benefits.

All this may be in the name of some marketing campaign. It may be a way to bring people to Sweden. If that’s the only motivation, then that’s just fine with me.