I know a bit of French, and can “pick up” enough of the other Romance languages to manage the basics. Hello. Goodbye. Please. Thank you. Just enough to avoid being rude. Swedish is another story. It’s not going so well. My brain seems to be lacking a basic phonemic resonance for this language. The simplest of words fly right out of my head as soon as I hear them.
It’s just not sticking.
This is not such a big deal since nearly everyone here in Sweden speaks Engelska. They also seem to be very accommodating about helping out the Svenska-impaired. The degree to which I am butchering their language, though, makes me wonder if I should just stop trying.
A day after our arrival, I was thoroughly pleased with myself walking up the lane greeting the neighbors with a hearty “Hej då!” Nice, except that I was saying goodbye, not hello. Just picture it. You are minding your own business, in your typically reserved Swedish manner, when some American woman with an overly abundant personality for nearly any culture marches up to your lawn, launches a big smile at you, and hollers “Goodbye!”
I’m making quite an impression.
A few days later we ventured into the local village to visit the supermarket and run a few errands. I was free to wander around a bit on my own and made full use of the opportunity to expand my linguistic repertoire with a carefully rehearsed, “Thank you.” The proper way to express gratitude in Swedish is, “Tack så mycket!” Seems I got the phrase wrong and ran around town cheerily saying “Tack smör!”, which is not correct Swedish for anything, but vaguely translates to, “Thanks for the butter!”
Yes, I thanked a lot of people in town for the butter. Swedish butter is actually pretty damned delicious, but no foodstuff warrants that much enthusiasm. The only place I could remotely get away with this was in the supermarket, but even that was a stretch.
Turns out, I am completely ludicrous in Swedish.
And it’s not just the language difference defining the cultural divide: I am a temperamental anomaly here, too. For example, it is typically Swedish (according to my friends here) to avoid eye contact or smiling at people you don’t know in public places. Most Swedes are actually quite friendly, they’re just not accustomed to public displays of friendliness.
Cultural norms can be surprisingly influential. Barely even realizing it, I rapidly began to adopt a more Swedish demeanor, despite my being naturally extremely friendly and outgoing. If you know me at all, this will be difficult to imagine.
I was shocked at how readily I managed to repress that aspect of myself to “fit in”. Hmmmmm. Didn’t really like facing that, or wondering how often I might unconsciously succumb to outside influences without even realizing. On the other hand, as a traveller, I also want to consciously consider at what point it becomes just plain rude to force eye contact and insistently smile at everyone you meet.
In the midst of all this, Runa introduced me to a delightful and wise young woman, Kestin. We hit it off immediately, and I began to question her about the clash of my personality with the Swedish way. I told her I felt a bit boorish and had “toned down” a bit.
“Nej! Nej! Don’t do that!”
Kestin went on to compare me to a sunflower — brightly intense, dramatic, joyous, and maybe a little bit vulgar. Damn, she nailed me. She insisted that my ebullient nature is needed in the world, even in Sweden. Especially in Sweden.
Embracing who I am is easy when everyone around embraces me too, or at least appears marginally amused. Accepting myself is a bit more challenging when I seem to be at odds with my surroundings. I want to be culturally aware and sensitive, but there’s no reason to diminish myself to connect with others.
There’s a way to fit in with, rather than into, other cultures.
Yolanda King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter, once said, “We must celebrate difference until difference doesn’t make a difference.” Now, I’ll admit that being “perky” is not the kind of difference Ms. King was referencing, yet by acknowledging and accepting some very small, and frankly rather unimportant, differences in my self and others, I get an opportunity to exercise that simple principle on a very personal basis. The context of ordinary, daily life gives us chances to apply big ideas in basic but meaningful ways.
I can celebrate the difference of being me, let my personality shine out, and also appreciate the reserved nature of the Swedish demeanor. It’s not an either or situation. As Ms. King also said, “The most important parts of us are the same.”
Just about everybody feels awkward and uncomfortable when they stand out from the crowd, regardless of why, or how, or to what degree. The challenge is to continue to be exactly who you are, celebrate yourself, and still respect and celebrate those around you. Sometimes that’s a pretty simple little lesson. Sometimes it’s the stuff of legendary leadership. Sometimes it’s a daily struggle the likes of which many of us will never comprehend.
Just because I can, tomorrow I’m gonna head to town wearing a big garish smile, look everyone I meet in the eye, and say “Hej!” Maybe I’ll thank someone for the butter. Maybe I’ll learn something new to say. Maybe I’ll feel a little awkward. The only thing I know for sure, I’m gonna shine.
And I won’t forget to say, “Hej dor!” on the way out.