No Attention Please! We’re Swedish.

Forget about Paying it Forward. What about Paying Attention?

A few weeks ago I was at a gathering with a few expats, where pizza was consumed. We were using scissors to cut the pizza (Swedish pizzas are super thin and rarely presliced) and I noticed that our hostess needed them. So I grabbed the scissors from the floor and held them out to her. She was so thankful and specifically acknowledged the gesture because, as she pointed out, it often seems that people don’t notice the little things that can help others. It got me thinking about why I automatically notice and act.

A local resident. Still no underwear. Better go to Stendörren to look for it.

Don’t just duck and cover.

How Do I Get Attention?

I don’t know if this is a cultural, societal, age, or era thing, but for whatever reason, it is natural behaviour for me.

It is possible that genes  (England) + environment (British parents) + Maritime upbringing (Nova Scotian, me!) is just the right combination to construct a human who does pay attention. Combined with some training on my part, martial arts for years, living in large cities (London) with high crime rates, being a thinker, travelling alone to many places, observing people, eating alone in restaurants, watching people, writing about them. The majority of my jobs have also required attention to detail, so I am not sure if I had the skill to begin with or if I honed it over the years. Probably a combination of the two.

I also think it is because helping others has been my way of pulling myself out of depression. By extending myself beyond my inner turmoil, I have learned that it makes me feel better.

Attention Getting

Helping other sheep

Helping other sheep

I also find it very entertaining to offer help to random strangers—carrying heavy luggage at underground stations, offering an arm to an elderly person crossing the street, letting someone in front of you at the grocery store because they only have a couple of items, pushing the elevator button for a colleague…and so on. And trust me, it is not so easy when you are a foreigner often incapable of speaking the language. But I keep doing it. I keep trying to rise above what the typical people do. I do not want to be a sheep and follow all the time.

I have not experimented in any non-Western cultures, but at least where I have lived, helping people seems to have become the exception and not the rule. Even in jolly ol England where politeness (sorry! yes please! no thank you! sorry!) is an automatic response to most situations, people do not necessarily pay attention.

And those I help are usually very suspicious, quite rightly too. But that is why it is fun, a challenge, and ultimately satisfying.

Perhaps the key issue is not whether people notice but why fewer and fewer people are willing to act.

No Attention Please, We’re Swedish

Of course there are many factors at play as to why people don’t want to help others, or why we don’t notice when help is needed. Not wanting to be noticed, for example. In Sweden, as with other cultures, it is important not to intrude on someone else’s personal space, not to interfere. And the most obvious reason today as to why fewer people notice and act is because we are plugged in and oblivious to our surroundings. The larger the city, the more strangers around you, the less likely you are going to feel comfortable offering assistance. And it has often been pointed out to me that perhaps people don’t want my help at all.

Can I tempt you to live here?Didn't think so.

Let them eat carrots!

I get it. Mostly. I do. I don’t stop to give money to the homeless people ever (that requires an entirely separate post, I prefer to take them for lunch), I don’t always smile, especially when I am struggling not to burst into tears, and I certainly don’t always notice stuff. But during my lifetime, enough people have told me how surprised/pleased/amazed that I noticed that I guess I kinda have developed a skill.

I shudda been, I wudda been, a good cop.

PS. I know that some of my Swedish readers might have something to say about the title of this post, but I used it to draw in the readers!

6 thoughts on “No Attention Please! We’re Swedish.

  1. In the interest of paying attention: As I read this most interesting and thought provoking article, I must confess that my thoughts kept going back to how you “…grabbed the scissors from the floor …” From the floor? Really? I am usually pretty good with my reading comprehension but in this case I must ask for a clarification. lol

    As for the meat of your article: I can relate to this; I am the same way as far as tending to being observant and aware of the world around me. I am – as a result – acutely aware of the degree to which most of my fellow humans behave as though they are oblivious to the condition of others. Perhaps it is a sign of confusion or fear. Perhaps life experiences for the vast majority have resulted in an acceptance of inattentiveness (as I try to conceive the negative reinforcements for paying attention.)

    The whole thought process brings to mind thoughts regarding “work ethic.” You see, my father was a hard working man and from a young age I have had many occasions to assist him as he worked on a great many projects. He was not a man of many words and relied on my assessment of the work at hand to know what it is that could best assist him. For instance, if I see he is hammering brads and that he is retrieving them from the queue assembled between his lips. If I should notice that he has exhausted the ready supply and it appears that more nails would be in order, why would I wait for him to ask to be resupplied when common sense dictates that I can facilitate his productivity. So I help. This is one small example of how one might link attentiveness to work ethic. However this translates into he who is observant must do more work. Indeed this trait has lead me to more hard work than I ever would have imagined – but I digress…

    There is a dichotomy at work in me also, because I am by no means an outgoing “people person” per se. In fact I would appear by most accounts to be more the introvert, but this is belied by my ability to help those around me in precisely the way I perceive they might need assistance. Is this a control issue? I don’t think so. I really think it goes to the “servant” portion of the word observant. Hey, I’m only trying to help. All part of the “can-do” spirit.

    • The scissors were on the floor IN a pizza box and we were mostly sitting on the floor 😉

      Thank you in return for your story. It sounds familiar. My father had a small print shop and I started working for extra money when I was 6. Indeed I think you pinpointed another key trait that lends itself to this attention “affliction” which I sometimes wish I could turn off.

  2. I totally relate to this. I almost always notice when someone needs help, even if it’s only little things, like in your case with the scissors. I hold doors open for people, I move out of the way if I’m blocking an aisle in the supermarket. I have to admit that, I’m getting fed up with being one of the few people who does. I agree that people have become unaware of their surroundings. Very few people even look at each other anymore. It’s scary.

    • I agree and also get discouraged. But I just keep being me as much as possible. I like to believe that it is my small legacy, something that I leave to the world, a little bit of kindness and attention. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Sometimes it is a difficult balance; I may be aware of something but knowing whether the offer of help will be accepted or rebuffed I find hard to gauge.

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