We’re going to talk about #SwedenGate so before we start you might want to grab a snack. Or, if you happen to be reading this in a Swede’s house, don’t grab one: you’ll understand why after we get started.
Every now and again a Scandinavian concept emerges that we find fascinating: paternity leave in Sweden, Danish hygge, Greta Thunberg… and now comes news of something equally fascinating, but that hasn’t necessarily painted Sweden in a positive light. It all started with a Reddit post, the theme of which was: “What is the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?” Several responses to the post were anecdotes from visitors to Swedish homes.
“I slept over at a friend’s house. When we woke up, he said he’s going downstairs for a few minutes. After about 15 minutes, I go on the stairs to see wtf is happening and they’re eating breakfast. They see me and tell me he’s almost done and will be up there soon. I still think about that shit 25 years later,” read one reply.
“I remember going to my Swedish friends’ house. And while we were playing in his room, his mom yelled that dinner was ready. And check this. He told me to WAIT in his room while they ate. That shit was fucking wild,” read another, crisper comment.
The tweet with these screen captures was shared over 50,000 times in the space of a week, more than half of them with a quote (a comment from a user who has retweeted the original), and provoked thousands of responses from a vast array of countries and cultures. It also did the rounds in Sweden of course, where people corroborated the story or tried to provide some context over the custom, such as one user called Tyckmyckna, who explained that often food is not offered “out of respect for the parents of the visiting child, who may already have planned a dinner that will go to waste,” adding that if it is prearranged, dinner would be offered to the guest.
In Spain, the online debate led to jokes that the expression “hacerse el sueco,” which translates roughly as to play dumb or turn a deaf ear, originates from this custom, while others poked fun at the Mediterranean habit of doing exactly the opposite: feeding house guests until they are fit to burst. There were also calls for an explanation from the Swedish ambassador in Spain, and EL PAÍS got in touch to see what they had to say. The response was provided by Emelie Gallego-Díaz, Cultural and Communications Officer responsible for the promotion of Sweden. Via email, Gallego-Díaz explained that, essentially, “people who grew up in Sweden between the 1970s and the 1990s remember going to their friend’s houses after school, to play for example, but they would not eat lunch or dinner there. They would do that at their own house later, when they got home. But these days it is a bit strange and doesn’t happen very often, for obvious reasons.”
Gastronomic website Directo al Paladar also dedicated a report to #SwedenGate and spoke to Raquel Machín, a Spaniard who has lived in Sweden for over a decade and who says the custom is still practiced, and was one of the things she found most surprising about her adopted country. “If you take your kid to play at someone’s house in the afternoon, you have to agree in advance if they are going to stay to eat or not, and what time you are going to pick them up. If you arrive late and you’ve said your kid isn’t going to be eating, they’ll basically send them to the corner.” However, in line with what Gallego-Díaz said, Machín confirmed there is a movement in the opposite direction. “There is a trend now among more modern parents to adopt more southern habits in terms of etiquette: sharing food and what have you because it is seen as being cool.” Other Spaniards who live in Sweden also said on social media that the custom of not inviting people to eat has died out.
If #SwedenGate managed to raise a few eyebrows among social media users, it is also worth casting our minds back to a Swedish initiative from 2016, when the country’s tourism association issued a telephone number called The Swedish Number; the idea was that anybody in the world could dial and be put through to a random Swedish family who had signed up to take part in the initiative. We called, we asked a lot of questions and our colleague María Sánchez even had to hum ABBA hits. The Swedish Number was open for a year and received almost 200,000 calls from 190 different countries, with 32% of them coming from the US.