Sweden sounds like a lovely place in the abstract, but you can be forgiven if you don’t know a ton about it. It’s a country of just under 10 million people–roughly as many as Michigan–whose largest city, Stockholm, is about the size of Charlotte, North Carolina. It plays a surprisingly outsized role in pop culture for a small country though. We associate it with meatballs, a Muppet chef, ABBA, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Still, even if you’re a big Ace of Base fan, you might have never met a Swede. That’s something that the Swedish Tourist Association hopes to rectify, though, with The Swedish Number–a campaign that allows anyone, anywhere in the world, to dial in and be connected to a random Swede.
“Everybody’s got a phone, everybody’s using their phone and talking into it every day, so the phone is the perfect tool to do this,” explains Björn Ståhl, creative director at INGO Stockholm, who’s already taken three calls, all from Turkey, even before they began officially promoting the campaign outside of Sweden. Internally, of course, they had to begin marketing The Swedish Number to get people to sign up–which, Ståhl says, wasn’t a challenge. “There are few people in the world who are more proud to talk about their country than Swedish people. Every time Swedish people are abroad, we like to talk about what a great country Sweden is to live in. We’re selling our country every time we travel.”
And sell it they do! We made a few calls to test it out, and were connected with rando Swedes relatively quickly (the wait time for someone to pick up ranged from about 30 seconds to a minute in a half, during which a recording hypes you on Sweden and shares with you some accomplishments of great Swedes past). The first, “Tim,” was a dude who was not actually named Tim, but it was his first call and he was kind of nervous so he made up a name. “I registered myself on this app, just for fun,” he explained, although he missed the first call and the second one was a guy from Turkey, and the language barrier proved too difficult. Tim’s English was pretty flawless, though, and his accent sounded less like Bjorn Borg and more like some dude who lived in Oregon or somewhere.
When it came time to sell the country, he favored honesty over spin–which makes sense, since part of the impetus for launching the campaign now is to celebrate the 250th anniversary of free speech in Sweden, the first country in the world to do away with official censorship. When asked about the weather, Tim admitted that it’s not his favorite part of his home country. “It’s cold, a bit foggy, and it rains from time to time. It’s kind of depressing, if you ask me,” he said, adding that at the moment we spoke, it was foggy outside, like it could rain at any time.
Tim seemed like a cool guy, once he warmed up–he explained that he worked at McDonald’s with confidence, and that he also worked part-time as a stagehand for concerts and other big events. He was on the crew for a Metallica concert last year, and caught a glimpse of UFC fighters Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson and Anthony Johnson before their match last January. At the end of the call, he asked if we could be Facebook friends, and revealed that his real name was actually Dennis. Just a regular dude!
Linnea, from Stockholm, was busy at the moment her phone rang–she was setting up a ping pong table in her office for an after-work party (Sweden is six hours ahead of New York, so it was the end of her day), but she picked up anyway, and was extremely chipper. Despite working in PR, Linnea also didn’t dance around the question of whether now would be a good time to visit Sweden. “Not right now,” she said, “It’s cloudy, and part of the sky is super grey and depressing, though there’s a bit of sun breaking through.” Like Tim/Dennis, Linnea’s accent sounded more American than you might expect, which made the whole conversation feel very natural. She was happy to explain where to visit, if one were inclined to make a trip to Sweden (the archipelago outside of Gothenberg, in the summer), and what to eat–ramen is super hot in Sweden right now.
The whole experience is decidedly old-school and intimate, which adds a lot of novelty. If you want to know what today is like in Stockholm, it’s not hard to find that out right now–we hear Swedish Twitter is lit, and you can take about five minutes to build a social media life that’s all Sweden, all the time, if you’re inclined. But there is something to having these conversations on the phone, in a personal way, that makes Sweden feel a little closer, and a lot less foreign. Giving every Swede who signs up on their phone the role of ambassador for the country is maybe a little risky–but at the very least, if you want the ability to make Bart Simpson-like prank calls to Swedish randos, that power is now fully in the hands of everybody from Los Angeles to Turkey and beyond.