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The Country of Sweden Has a Phone Number and I Called It

A telephone booth in Gammelstad, Sweden (photo via Wikipedia)
A telephone booth in Gammelstad, Sweden (photo via Wikipedia)

Yesterday, Sweden became the first country to install its own phone number, inviting anyone around the world to dial in and connect with a random Swede. The initiative arrives courtesy of the volunteer-run Swedish Tourist Association, and any citizen can sign up through an app to answer the same number. It’s meant to honor the 250th anniversary of the passage of a constitutional law that abolished censorship — the world’s first — but also to stoke people’s curiosity about the Scandinavian country. As a way to possibly boost tourism, it’s a novel and pretty neat idea, but it’s also intriguing as a designed social experience — kind of like a less seedy Chatroulette or Omegle that lives on pre-internet technology, and one that comes with a loose framework for conversation. Among the suggested topics, as per a promotional video: the Northern Lights, meatballs, darkness, fashion, parental leave, and the Nobel Prize.

I gave it a whirl, slightly expecting it to be a more immediate version of pre-web NYPL querying restricted only to Sweden-related things. Soon after a lady operator told me robotically — in English, the default language — “You will soon be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden,” I was on the line with Tony, a 31-year-old guy living in Sundsvall. Tony wasn’t very talkative, which I found weird for someone who willingly volunteered to have his phone ring at any moment of the day with a stranger on the other end. After a lot of awkward poking around, I learned that he calls his nation “The Romantic Land” and that it is “rich with trees and has a lot of waters.” That’s about all he offered in terms of Sweden, but after I inquired about some background noise I learned that he has two young children. I then asked what he did, to which he responded that he works on some board for migration, including things related to the influx of many refugees from Syria and Turkey.

“The people here don’t like it very much,” Tony said. “But we are trying to do all the best about showing a good picture of them. For me, it’s not a problem at all. Everyone of us is a human, and we have the same heart. But the problem is that some people think they are the best. That’s not true — we are all god’s people.”

This was the most I got out of Tony, who asked me one question — what I do — before telling me his favorite artist was Michael Jackson and then saying he had to hang up to answer a business call.

Sebastian, the second Swede I called, was just as inquisitive — that is, not very. In the few minutes we spoke, I found out he:

  • Is 25
  • Works in a restaurant
  • Lives in Landskrona, which I later learned (through Google) is a late medieval town
  • Was short of breath from walking six kilometers from his parents’ home
  • Recently lost one shoe

He didn’t seem to want to divulge much about his country, saying he wasn’t sure what to tell me. We talked about the weather for a while, as people in awkward social situations do; in terms of art, he said, “I don’t really know much about art, mostly just the Renaissance guys.”

Especially since both men had told me they signed up for the service because they wanted to talk to people from other countries, my experience with The Swedish Number was pretty disappointing, although it was fortunate that they both spoke English. Sure, I only talked to two Swedes, and everyone has varying levels of social skills, but perhaps constructed communication systems can only get us so far. But try it out yourself; maybe you’ll find someone who, as the video suggests, will be able to tell you things like, “I know a lot about hunting, fishing, and moonshining.”

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