Have you ever wondered if it was possible to have an intimate and inspiring conversation with a person you never knew existed until you spoke with them? An ordinary person in a far away country, from a distant culture?
On April 8, Sweden taught me that it is, indeed, possible.
The Swedish Tourist Association has launched a national number for its country. Simply by calling this number, you can now, at any time, talk to a random Swede. The service was set up to honor the 250th anniversary of Sweden constitutionally abolishing censorship. In 1766, Sweden was the first nation to do so.
In the handful of days that the service has been live, over 15,000 calls have been made. Due to the popularity of the service, the Swedish Tourist Association has been making pleas on social media for more Swedes to sign up to become call recipients.
“Get connected to a random Swede and talk about anything,” says the sleek website
Just dialed a random Swede and met Martin a truck driver who was in the forest picking up a load.
— John Moore (@MooreintheAM) April 8, 2016
At 9:30am EST, I dialed Sweden. And a lovely man named Thomas answered.
I was surprised that my phone call with this stranger became an intimate interaction, one of poignant cultural exchange.
An “ordinary Swede,” Thomas is a 57-year-old married doctor who lives in Stockholm. When we spoke, Thomas was actually on vacation in Prague, Czech Republic, where it was 3:30 in the afternoon. Truth be told, I felt slightly bad for distracting him while he was in the gorgeous “City of a Hundred Spires.”
While we initially had some sound issues, the doctor and I had a very pleasant conversation. In impeccable English he answered my questions about how the initiative worked and his experience using it.
“It is actually very easy,” said Thomas of the program. “You can download the app and sign up your number. You get a code via SMS to confirm that you are you. When the app is up and running, you can just click in that you are available or if you are not available. So you can sign out for a while, if you want to sleep,” chuckled Thomas.
For any Swedes reading, the app is available on both Google Play and Apple’s App Store.
Despite being on vacation, Thomas switched on his availability for the service: “I just wanted to try to have some calls.”
“I’ve actually had a few calls, but most people have hung up.” Thomas speculated that his previous callers—from Great Britain, Belgium, and Turkey, amongst others—just wanted to test the number. “You are the first one that I have spoken to.”
Of course, I had to ask the gentile doctor what he thought of U.S. politics and the presidential election. “That’s a tricky question,” mused Thomas. “If I put myself on a political scale, I would probably vote for the Democrats, myself.
“I see the American debate now with Donald Trump. It’s, for me, very strange. A bit frightening, really, from the European perspective.”
“But we have the same movements in Sweden that are very populistic,” Thomas continued. “We have the same thing actually in Europe, so it’s not only a U.S. phenomenon.”
Thomas is referring to a recent shift in European politics. Some are celebrating the ideological move towards the political right; others, in turn, are alarmed.
While Thomas was not aware of Trump’s controversial Twitter behavior and could not comment on it, the internationally minded Swede did comment on America’s global influence.
“U.S. politics is very crucial for the whole of Europe and the whole world, really. A great power—economically, militarily, and intellectually.
“So you are very important for the rest of the world.”
So just like that, using Sweden’s new “national number” from halfway across the world, an ordinary American like me can talk to an ordinary Swede. One would think that the initiative would be focused on answering specific questions regarding Swedish life and culture. This is not the case.
In a promotional video, the phrase “Talk About Anything” emblazoned across the screen in Sweden’s signature yellow and blue, encourages participants to discuss topics from the “northern lights” to “meatballs” to “suicide rates.”
Being encouraged to talk about anything and everything is the truly fascinating aspect of the service. Through such a conversation—even talking about U.S. political candidates—one can be exposed to a contrasting societal perspective, a particular emotional palette. A whole new world.
Ingeniously, Sweden has made cultural exchange as easy and as cheap as a phone call. An invaluable gift for pennies. It is my hope that other nations will soon employ their own versions of the “Call-A-Swede” service.
Call charges are the same as any international call and depend on your plan, program, or app.