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This Is Sweden Calling

When I first heard about the “Call a Random Swede” initiative, I dismissed it as an April Fools’ joke. Surely, a number set up by the Swedish Tourist Association that connects international callers to one of 10,000 random volunteers must be a joke. Who would really set up such a thing? And why? But the second time I heard this national news, I started to doubt that this was a joke. And, indeed, the third time I heard about the initiative was from my friend, who called me and said he had installed this “fantastic app” that enables you to take random international calls. “You should try it,” he said, adding an enthusiastic, “It's fun.” And so I had to face the facts: My dear country now has its very own number.

Naturally, the first thing I did was to install the app myself. The only thing I needed to do to verify my Swedish-ness was to enter my local number. In the span of five minutes, I had gone from being a regular citizen to a cultural ambassador for my country. What can I say? It was magic. Feeling a sting of unfamiliar nationalistic pride (I am, after all, Swedish, and we are not known for nationalism, at least not the American variety), I sat down and stared at my phone. It didn't ring. I cooked my meatball-dinner with lingonberry jam. It didn't ring. I put on an ABBA CD and lounged in my IKEA couch. It didn't ring.

But then, right in the middle of my daily think about gender equality and the benefits of free healthcare, it rang! Excited, I grabbed my phone and answered (“Sweden speaking”). As it turned out, the caller was a journalist from a small town in the UK. “What is the deal with this initiative?”

Officially, the initiative celebrates that Sweden was the first country to abolish censorship 250 years ago. Magnus Ling, general secretary and CEO of the Swedish Tourist Association, elaborated, saying in a statement, “In troubled times, many countries try to limit communication between people, but we want to do just the opposite. We are making Sweden the first country in the world with its own phone number and giving our fellow Swedes an opportunity to answer the calls, express themselves, and share their views, whatever they might be.”

This is not the first time sweet Sweden has fostered direct communication between ordinary Swedes and the wider world: In January 2009, the Swedish Institute launched @Sweden on Twitter, an account that lets a new Swede be the face of the country in 140 characters max each week. The account, which is still running, was so Swedish and successful that it received its own New York Times profile in 2012.

This time, though, the campaign coincides with one of the largest annual events in Europe that, this year, will be held in Sweden: the Eurovision Song Contest. The event is, in a nutshell, one large promotion for the host country (the winner of the competition the year before). It would take an exceptionally clever person to come up with a low-cost/high return promotion campaign ahead of the televised event that would further spark people’s curiosity; like, say, an app, perhaps?

The “Call a Random Swede” initiative is a fun idea as it appeals to both callers and receivers. It is exciting to connect with the outside world, and also flattering that someone takes interest in your country. As far as promotional campaigns go, it is a win-win concept.

But like all promotion, it can only last so long. Tomorrow there will be another fun concept, and this app will be forgotten in the midst of daily life. Which will, in my own Swedish case, involve beautiful, progressive people and excellent pop music.


Elanor Sezer is a candidate MSc in Japanese Politics and Sociology at the University of Oxford.