|Stand to the right. Walk to the left. Always.|
There are certain rules on escalators in Sweden. Stand to the right. Walk to the left. They’re pretty simple rules. Step onto any escalator in Stockholm and you’ll see the vast majority of people following those rules. It’s both impressive and slightly creepy. So I took a picture. I'll be honest, I felt like I was doing something wrong standing on the left to take this picture. Swedish cultural expectations are strong.
Of course, these two rules get broken. Especially on a drunken weekend. Or even when you’re carrying on a conversation with someone as you head to the escalator. It can be awkward standing above or below someone or standing backwards on the escalator as you descend into the art exhibition that is the Stockholm subway system. So some people choose to willingly break the rules. It’s a bold move. Breaking escalator rules can have drastic consequences.
The two people in front of me heading to Centralen found this out firsthand. I was standing to the right. Quietly. I know the rules. But just in front of me was a woman, also standing on the right, in a conversation with a man. Standing on the left! I know, I know. How could he? But he did. A rebel without a cause.
Just above us appeared a man, walking on the left with an air of self-importance, a black sweater over his dress shirt matching his black pants and black shoes. He did not approve. So much so that he stopped. He looked on with disgust at the man, who, apologizing in broken Swedish, sucked in and hugged the railing of the left side of the escalator. Our friendly Swede continued to look on with disgust at the man. He did not move. He did not take the space offered and walk past. He said, loudly: stand there! and pointed to the right. That’s it. No please, no thank you, no politeness at all. It was a command. And the man listened and the man moved to the right. The Swede blew past him with not a word of thanks or acknowledgement. He then came to the end of the escalators and waited for the subway to arrive. He did not have to hurry. He was just mean.
The guy might have had a bad day. He might have thought he was going to miss the subway. He might have been tired. I don’t know. There are a lot of possibilities. The worst, of course, is that he was just a racist, calmly commanding someone who was not like him to bow to his demands. Expecting, even knowing, that he was in the right and thus did not need to be a decent human. That’s the worst-case scenario. Maybe it’s unlikely, but, as I’ve written before, the latent racism in this country is alive and well – and becoming more and more blatant.
No matter the reason for this display, it does speak to the strict cultural conventions that can make this country so hard to feel a part of. Is it every Swede? Of course not. Is it every cultural tradition and display? Of course not. But Sweden is hard sometimes. It’s especially hard to learn what is and is not expected. What is and is not accepted. And those little things? Like escalator etiquette? Those things that you don’t necessarily think about if you’ve lived here for years and years and years? They matter and can be used as a tool to mark someone as other.
Welcome to Sweden. And escalator etiquette.