Sweden: Uncensored

What kind of country gets its own phone number? And what happens when you call it?

TT News Agency

Last week, the Swedish Tourist Association, a volunteer organization, declared Sweden the first country in the world with its own phone number: +46 771 793 336. The number connects callers to a switchboard and then, wherever in the world they are, to “a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden.” (So says an automated voice before your call is connected, though since Swedes have to sign up via a mobile app to receive these calls, the sample likely skews to the friendly and the cell-phone-owning.)

Which raises a question: Why? As it happens, the tourist association also bills Sweden as “the first country in the world introduce a constitutional law to abolish censorship,” in 1766, and the introduction of The Swedish Number commemorates 250 years since that happened. But what does censorship have to do with getting a phone number? And what kind of people, in what kind of country, sign up to be called at all hours by total strangers? (The number’s website notes politely that while “you are welcome to call at anytime ... we might be asleep.”)

Naturally the best way to answer these questions was to actually call a Swede. Or two. Or three. (I stopped at six.)

One of them was Jenny Engström, a spokeswoman for the STA, who had already fielded calls from strangers in China, Turkey, and Michigan. She explained that part of the point was to give callers an “uncensored” view of Sweden, by letting Swedes speak for themselves.

So that explained one mystery. And perhaps unsurprisingly, my experience of “Sweden: Uncensored” was not at all scandalous. Among the things an uncensored Swede might tell you about, if you asked: what his compatriots name their dogs (often appellations that fit old Nordic men, like Gunnar and Bosse); typical opinions on the Swedish band ABBA (from mixed to vaguely fond); the words for home-cooked Swedish food (husmanskost) and Swedish candy (lösgodis); and their politely disdainful opinions of Donald Trump (who, if he visited to Sweden, “would look for someplace to make money,” according to a truck driver I reached who gave his name as Thor). The Swedes I spoke to answered the obvious when I asked if they liked the weather. (In the summer, yes; at any other time, no.) They all said that their country is a beautiful place.

All of which led me to suspect that a country that institutes a national phone number is one that doesn’t have much to hide about itself—that the risks being taken by a tourism organization in a place whose residents report high life satisfaction, according to the OECD’s Better Life Index, are small potatoes. (Swedes also eat a lot of those.) But the dial-a-Swede campaign, in addition to the Swedes I spoke to, hints at bigger themes in Sweden’s relationship with the outside world, especially when, like many countries in Europe, it is struggling to cope with a record-breaking wave of migration.

Statistiska centralbyrån, the country’s central statistics office, reports that about 1.6 million people in Sweden, or about one-sixth of the population, were born outside the country—though the biggest source of immigrants is next-door Finland. (Sweden’s “multiculturalism” was mentioned many times in my phone calls to the country.) Last year, Sweden accepted, by proportion of its population and by percentage of applicants, more asylum-seekers than any other European country. It became overwhelmed, and now plans to expel up to 80,000 unsuccessful asylum-seekers. This reversal, from openness to border controls and deportations, has elicited headlines like “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth.”

At the individual level, though, it’s not hard to find generosity. The first Swede I spoke to, Rikard Björk, is a 28-year-old actor who lives in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city. He was on his way to what he described as a “nearby Swedish-Arab community,” where he volunteers as a language teacher. He said Sweden’s help for refugees made him proud, “though it’s not common for Swedes to use that word,” but that the recent change of policy is “just legitimizing the other countries to behave exactly like Sweden is doing.”

That change does have support among the broader electorate. The refugee crisis has corresponded to the sudden rise to prominence of the Sweden Democrats, a far-right nationalist party with an anti-immigration stance that was founded in 1988 by groups with white-supremacist and fascist roots. Last December, the party polled its highest-ever projected share of the electoral vote, at almost 20 percent. In an essay for Jacobin in January, the Swedish journalist Petter Larsson noted that the rising popularity of the extreme right in Sweden is occurring at a time when immigration dominates political conversation: “This in a country where until a few years ago no issue could compete with education, health care, or jobs. Swedish politics is now trapped in a vicious circle. The larger the Sweden Democrats grows, the larger immigration looms in the public’s mind, and vice versa.” A poll published by the newspaper Dagens Nyheter last December found that 55 percent of Swedes did not want the country to take in any more refugees—a jump of 25 percentage points since that September.

Ellen Mielsen, a 33-year-old who lives in Malmö and is studying to be a language consultant, said that the Swedish Democrats’ rising popularity is a source of worry for her.

“Sverigedemokraterna [Sweden Democrats] have managed to take their way of looking at things and their way of speaking about things, and they’ve managed to get a lot of people in Sweden talking with their words,” Mielsen said.

She, like Björk, said she had volunteered as language teacher to refugees and was proud of Sweden’s offers of help to them, but that the political climate upset her. “It’s become okay to say stuff that a couple years ago you couldn’t say,” she said. “Now people say the things that I think are awful, about refugees. I try to avoid speaking politics with people that I don’t know that well because it makes me so angry.”

Dastan Ahmmed, a 24-year-old from Stockholm who studies law, put it this way: “It’s like someone took a stand with the immigration issue, and people who are holding these comments and these thoughts back, they’re slowly pouring out of the shadows, of the darkness.”

Ahmmed also happens to be the only son of two Kurdish immigrants who fled Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s. (According to one 2015 report from the Oxford Diasporas Programme, which researches the impact of diasporas, there are more than 70,000 Kurds in Sweden.) He was born in Sweden, but he said he differed from many of his friends without immigrant backgrounds in that he does not support taking in more refugees.

“We need to be able to focus on helping those people [already here],” Ahmmed told me, “specifically, to get them somewhere so they don’t just sit here and think, ‘OK, the only thing we’re doing right now is not getting shot at or being bombed. I guess that’s good, but instead we’re sitting in a tent for two years waiting for better times.’” He added that, “People from my father and mother’s generation, who came here, they are assimilated into society, in a way that I don’t see people becoming anymore today.”

When I asked Björk what he liked most about Sweden, he said not only that Sweden is a functional, “quite welcoming society,” but also that it is a cohesive one. “The system is not perfect,” Björk admitted. “We have this idea of a welfare society where education should be free, where hospitals should be free, and all these things. But the idea is to create a foundation where everyone has equal or similar to equal chances of getting along, together. We’re in this together, in some way.”

How to maintain national cohesion, including a strong welfare state, alongside a posture that welcomes outsiders, is an open question across Europe. Mielsen, for one, doesn’t see a contradiction. “I wish people worked more together and took care of each other better and thought less about themselves,” Mielsen said. “You can take care of yourself and still take care of other people too.” Maybe even if the call comes at an inconvenient time.