home about lingua moto contact

Not by a long mile

The following intercultural incident occurred in a town called Mora, which is located 300km northwest of Stockholm and 500km northeast of Gothenburg.

My husband and I had checked in to a cabin on a campsite in the lovely town of Mora and immediately got into conversation with our new neighbours, two Swedish couples enjoying a long weekend to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the group. And of course, Swedish hospitality being what it is, they invited us to join them in their celebrations.

During the evening, one of the couples told us they were from Gothenburg, and that Gothenburg was around 50 miles away.

50 miles? I thought. Don’t be ridiculous. Gothenburg is a hell of a lot further than 50 miles away. It must be at least ten times that far. I nodded in slight confusion and feigned comprehension.

Later in the conversation, we mentioned that we would be travelling to Östersund the next day. “Oh, Östersund!” responded one of the ladies in the group. “I live five miles from Östersund. It only takes me 45 minutes to get there.” Forty-five minutes to travel five miles?! I thought. What are you driving, for heaven’s sake? A golf cart? But I nodded politely and lamented the poor girl’s ability in mental arithmetic.

It wasn’t until they tried to tell me that Östersund was 30 miles away from Mora that I sensed that either they were trying to pull my leg or there was something seriously awry. I knew that Östersund was a good 300km trip because I’d already checked the satnav in preparation for the next day’s journey.

Then something occurred to me. “Hold on a moment,” I said (aloud this time). “There’s something not quite right here.” So I got out my Smartphone, entered “Swedish mile” into the search engine and, lo and behold, Wikipedia tells me that a Swedish mile is approximately 10km!

Well, we were all relieved that the problem had been solved. We hadn’t all been on the same page, so to speak, which was why the misunderstanding happened. Our interpretation of a mile was far different from theirs, but neither of us knew what the other’s interpretation was. All parties to this conversation were convinced that they knew the length of a mile.

Regrettably, I committed the cultural faux pas of assuming I was right and they were wrong. I judged them. I felt sorry for them because they couldn’t accurately estimate road distances.

This misunderstanding occurred in a social and friendly atmosphere and it still took a while for us to get to the root of the problem. In a work situation, where correspondence may be only by email and people are stressed by workloads and deadlines, it could have much more serious consequences. Imagine a Swedish road construction firm asking a non-Scandinavian company for a quote for materials to build a one mile tunnel! An extreme example, perhaps, but it helps to explain my point.

And if people can have different understandings of something as basic as a measure of distance, how many different understandings can there be about concepts such as truth, honesty, fairness, authority, democracy, morality and so on? About as many as there are people on the planet, I’d guess.