‘Calling Sweden. You Will Soon Be Connected to a Random Swede, Somewhere in Sweden’
By DANIEL VICTORAPRIL 8, 2016
Margareta Marza, a 28-year-old marketer in Stockholm, was reading a book Thursday evening when she received my call.
Until she told me, I had no idea who she was. And she didn’t know who I was — or which number, country or time zone I was calling from. But that was the fun part.
To gin up interest in the Scandinavian country, a Swedish tourism agency created the Swedish Number, 46-771-793-336, a single phone line that connects international callers to randomly selected Swedish volunteers to chat about whatever is on their minds.
When I called the number and was connected to Ms. Marza, she said she had been driven to participate out of curiosity and for the chance to have pleasant, serendipitous chats.
“It’s amazing how you are in New York and I am here,” she said. “It makes the world seem smaller.”
The Swedish Number’s website invites callers to “talk about anything you want.” After I dialed the number (callers from the United States should dial 011 first; international rates apply), an automated voice responded: “Calling Sweden. You will soon be connected to a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden.”
In one case, that was Arvid Heden Gynna, 28, a biology student in Uppsala. He chatted with a man in Texas who explained that no, not everyone in the state wore a cowboy hat.
Michael Kazarnowicz, 38, who works at a communications agency in Stockholm, said he had fielded calls from a Greek who claimed to be bankrupt and in need of money, a birthday girl in Kazakhstan and a chef in Siberia.
By letting everyday Swedes communicate directly with foreigners, tourism officials hope to present a more authentic picture of the country than one conjured up by a marketing agency, said Magnus Ling, the secretary general and chief executive of the Swedish Tourist Association. As of Thursday evening, about 3,000 Swedes, many of whom had heard about the number through the local news media, had downloaded a mobile app that would put them on a list to talk with strangers for the next two months.
Yes, Mr. Ling acknowledged, the chats could go off the rails. But he had little fear of lewd, meanspirited or even dangerous correspondence — he believed that people have good intentions, he said. And he believed the Swedish people would make good ambassadors for the country.
“It’s no worse than when we travel abroad and two people meet and talk about Sweden,” he said.
Sweden is no stranger to relying on its people to tell its story. The country has a Twitter account, @Sweden, and it is staffed by a different resident each week, who is given full freedom to tweet virtually whatever he or she likes on behalf of the nation of about 9.5 million people.
About 7,500 calls had been placed to the Swedish Number as of Thursday afternoon, with the most coming from Turkey and the United States. Mr. Ling said several of the people he spoke to from the United States were especially curious to get his take on the presidential race (typical Americans, making it all about us). Other Swedes I spoke to were eager to battle stereotypes (no, they aren’t all blond).
Hugo Gefors, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student in Kalmar, said his call from the Swedish Number interrupted his studying for a test on Friday, but he had looked forward to the distraction. After 10 minutes of friendly chatter, including discussion of meatballs — “They are generally not made like the ones you eat at Ikea,” he said — it was time to return to his studies.
“Thank you for calling Sweden,” he said before hanging up.