PARIS — It was a chilly Sunday night and Tobias, 20, had been strolling through a dark forest near his home in northwestern Sweden when an American stranger called.
The American (me) was the seventh such random foreigner to have dialed him since Sweden got its own phone number a few days ago, thanks to a new initiative by the Swedish Tourist Association to mark the 250th anniversary of the country’s abolition of censorship.
Launched on April 6, The Swedish Number gives people from all over the world the chance to connect with a Swede anywhere in the country. A promotional video for the program invites callers to talk about whatever they want and offers up a host of suggested topics that range from meatballs to skiing to gay rights to suicide rates. The Swedes on the other end of the line have all volunteered to participate in these spontaneous chats by downloading an app that connects their phone to a main switchboard.
More than 42,000 calls have been placed since the program’s inception on Thursday, with the vast majority originating from the U.S., followed by the U.K.—and Turkey.
“We wanted more people to explore Sweden,” Jenny Engström, a spokesperson for the Swedish Tourist Association told The Daily Beast, adding that to date more than 10,000 telephone ambassadors are standing by. “Instead of a marketing firm, we wanted the real Swedish people talking about Sweden.”
But wasn’t it a potentially risky, I wondered, leaving publicity in the hands of just anyone? After all, it was only a few years ago when the country had citizen ambassadors take charge of its official Twitter account, only to have one woman stir up controversy with a series of odd, anti-Semitic tweets.
“We are an open country, and everyone has their own opinion,” she said. “This is the same thing as you and me having a conversation on a bus. We want to be open-minded.”
Having spent about 18 months living in Stockholm, I found Swedes a polite but reserved bunch, and it surprised me that so many would voluntarily engage in impromptu phone conversations with random strangers. Determined to test it out, I spoke with about a half-dozen people over a 12-hour period to get a sense of their motivations, and maybe learn something new about my old stomping grounds.
My first Dial-a-Swede call placed on Sunday evening was directed to an automated greeting. “Calling Sweden,” the pleasant female voice announced. “You will soon be connected to a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden.”
I was then put through to Tobias, the trekking 20-year-old, who lives in a tiny town near Karlstad and was studying information technology.
“How far are you from Gothenburg?” I asked at one point, mentioning western Sweden’s largest city as a reference point.
“I am not really sure exactly,” said Tobias, who told me that it wasn’t unusual to encounter badgers and deer on his nightly forest walks. “It’s north. Quite a bit north.”
The hotline is supposed to be active 24/7, but this turned out to be only true in theory. When I tried calling after 9:00 p.m. on Sunday night, the same pleasant, automated voice informed me that, “Sweden is asleep right now, so you might end up in someone’s voicemail.”
Asleep? At 9 pm?
While I was able to get through after 9:30 p.m., post-midnight attempts saw my calls directed to voicemail. Fair enough. But then the same thing happened with a succession of calls placed between 7:50 and 9:00 am. All voicemail. Where were the Swedes?
Despite its robust economy, the Swedish unemployment rate is at 7.4 percent, according to the latest statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The country also offers a generous parental leave policy that gives Swedish moms and dads a combined total of 480 paid days off. That being the case, they couldn’t all be working, right? Had the program’s novelty worn off already? Or maybe it was such a runaway success that all the lines were tied up?
After even more voicemails, a young woman finally answered, but told me it wasn’t a good time to talk because she was eating lunch.
Lunch? At 10:30 in the morning?
Fortunately, additional attempts over the next few hours yielded several pleasant conversations with Swedes from all over the country.
Enid, 18, answering from her home in the eastern coastal city of Oskarshamn, was happy to talk about her town, her pony, and what she was going to have for lunch— hamburgers, not meatballs, by the way.
Torgny Peterson, a 69-year-old retiree in Gothenburg who had previously worked for a global NGO, discussed Sweden’s immigration policies and the recent terror arrests in Belgium.
Daniel Lands, 30, a Stockholm-based assistant preschool teacher told me more about Sweden’s parental leave policies and said that despite Sweden’s reputation for a having a high suicide rate, most people he knew were happy.
The reasons my Swedish chat buddies gave for participating ranged from a desire to practice their English to an enjoyment of talking to foreigners and educating them about their home country. And aside from a gang of hammered British bros asking one male caller about how to score with hot Swedish girls, most callers have been polite, respectful, and driven to connect out of curiosity about life in the 9.5-million-strong Nordic nation.
Nearly everyone I spoke to cited access to nature and Sweden’s left-leaning social policies, and free society as the country’s main draws.
They also had strong opinions on the current crop of U.S. presidential candidates. Daniel told me that Bernie Sanders’ policies would not be considered radical at all in his home country.
“It’s not socialism, what he’s saying,” said Daniel, a self-identified socialist on parental leave, who was walking outside with his baby daughter when I called. “It’s just common sense. What he’s saying is not that extreme. Here in Sweden he would be considered just another Social Democrat.”
While the Swedes I chatted with had overwhelmingly positive things to say about Sanders, their views on Donald Trump were (unsurprisingly) harsh, with several comparing the Republican presidential candidate to the country’s far-right Sweden Democrat party.
“I would feel very sorry for the United States of America should they elect Donald Trump as president,” said Torgny. “In my opinion, that is a disaster area.”
He continued: “Considering his rude language and insulting people all the time, especially women, I don’t understand how he should be able to deal with people abroad. Can you just imagine him having a diplomatic discussion with people in China, or with a female president?”
Tobias told me he didn’t like any Republican candidate.
“They don’t come with any ideas of what they are going to do,” he said.
The Dial-a-Swedes were also happy to offer various travel tips. Enid said that strategically layered clothing was key to combating the harsh winter climate and Daniel told me that Stockholm’s state-owned museums were now offering free admission. Torgny recommended Restaurang Lindgården on the island of Gotland for traditional Swedish fare.
Daniel was also willing to address my previous experience with Swedish reserve.
“We would say that Americans are shallowly polite and friendly, and easy to engage in small talk about nothing,” he explained. “With Swedes you have to penetrate our defenses first, and then we’ll open up and talk about anything—usually over a glass of alcohol or something to break the ice like an app that shoves a random person in your ear.”
You can reach the Swedish number at +46771793336 until June 6. If you don’t get through on your first (or second, or third) attempt, just keep dialing.