I recently called a random 27-year-old Swedish dude. Let me explain.
In yet another successful attempt to cement their role as the coolest freakin' country in the world, Sweden created a phone number for the entire country.
That's right, a phone number for the entire country. Call it, and you'll get connected to "a random Swede" with whom you can talk about anything: IKEA, meatballs, gummy fish ... seriously, anything.
It was created by the Swedish Tourist Association to help spread information about the general awesomeness of Sweden and its people, much like they did back in 2011, when they handed off Sweden's official Twitter account to be managed by ordinary citizens.
So I called the number, and I got connected to a guy named Rasmus*.
I'm a 24-year-old from New York City. He's a 27-year-old from Gothenburg, Sweden. And we had a surprising amount in common.
We exchanged names and tentative hellos, and I asked Rasmus a question that, in America, I would ask just about anyone within five minutes of meeting them.
"What do you do?"
"I'm just a Swedish guy," he said, and asked what I meant by the question. I felt pretty silly.
You see, in the unfortunately limited amount of time I've spent in other countries, I've noticed that "What do you do?" as in "What do you do for work?" is a question that hardly ever comes up. In America, it's a standardized bit of small talk that tends to carry an identity-defining amount of weight. In Sweden, Rasmus told me, it's irrelevant.
"In a way, it's like 'How cool are you?'" he explained. "'Should I really talk to you or not?' 'Are you worth my time?' but when I meet new people I'm more like ... 'Who are you? What do you like? What are your interests?'"
Rasmus told me he doesn't even know what some of his friends do for work.
"To be honest, I'm not even really that interested. I don't really define myself by my work," he said.
That cultural difference aside, we decided to discuss our weekend plans.
"I like to dance," said Rasmus. "Gothenburg has pretty good nightlife when it comes to underground clubs. We have a lot of good techno and house clubs."
"I'm going dancing this weekend too!" I told him. (Yeah, I can cut loose.)
I asked him what music he likes.
"I've realized that I like almost all music," said Rasmus. "I've caught myself digging to like Justin Beiber songs."
He also mentioned he likes post-rock music. OK, wait a minute. Post-rock music? The little-known sub genre of ambient melodies and melancholic sounds that is also one of MY FAVORITES?
"I love post-rock!" I told Rasmus excitedly.
"Amazing! What's your favorite band?"
"Explosions in the Sky."
"Boom! They're really really good!"
This was getting interesting.
We talked about Explosion's new album as well as taking long walks in the woods. "It's really nice to just walk in the forest, listen to post-rock," Rasmus said. "I think you get in touch with nature in a way that's ... I think it's kind of unexplainable. Serene."
Then conversation turned to life in our respective big cities.
"You live in New York. That's really cool, man." said Rasmus. "I've seen it on TV many times, but I've never been there."
"It's very cool," I told him. "But living here is exhausting. It's a really intense environment. I like it, but I'm not sure I can do it for too much longer."
"I understand you, man," Rasmus replied.
Rasmus said he lived in Berlin for three years. Berlin is city with 3.5 million people, but he got out of there and decided to live in Gothenburg, which has just over half a million people. He also visited London once. "It f***ing sucked," he said.
Big-city life is just about the same everywhere, it seems.
"I live in Sweden's second largest city now," Rasmus explained. "It takes me 15 minutes to get to central Gothenburg. 15 minutes' walk in the other direction, I get to like a huge piece of woods. It's a forest actually, with lakes and shit."
"Sounds amazing," I told him. I've always been a fan of lakes and shit.
My conversation with Rasmus lasted 25 minutes, and the similarities kept on coming up.
We talked about video games — the history of the Hitman series as well as settling friendly disputes over a game of Super Smash Brothers.
He told me about his one visit to America: a four-day business stint in Las Vegas. "It was nuts," he said. "It might as well have been the moon."
And when I asked him where else he might like to visit in America, he mentioned the Lower Hudson River area of New York State. Which is where I grew up — a stone's throw from where I am now.
In the end, I realized something pretty amazing.
While I expected the conversation to be interesting and stimulating, I didn't realize how much I'd have in common with a Swedish stranger on the other end of the phone.
Despite the oceans that separate our countries, Rasmus and I live remarkably similar lives. It's easy to say that people are the same everywhere, that we're all part of the same story, and that we all have more bringing us together than separating us. But now I see it.
Whether we're taking a stroll through the woods or totally crushing a noob in Rocket League, Rasmus and I were cut from the same cloth.
It's good to keep that in mind.
To call Sweden, dial +46 771 793 336