Considering I lived there for two years, I always find it funny when the internet kicks in Sweden’s door and reveals her in action, red on her forehead and panties around her milky ankles. It’s a country that people think they know when in reality, they don’t really. ABBA, Midsommar, Volvos and pop music aren’t enough to really convey what life is like there – and as a former expat I can assure you, life there is a tad weird. Much like developments in a recent incident known as ‘Swedengate’.
On Reddit, someone once asked the following innocent question: “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to do to someone because of their culture or religion?” A user then recounted having gone to a Swedish friend’s house when he was a child, and that he had been asked to stay in another room while the family he was invited to had dinner. Many Swedes responded by saying: “Yeah, back home that’s how we do it.”
It’s awful, huh? Internet users around the world have stepped up to the plate and trumpeted that in their culture, not giving food to people you receive is appallingly rude at best and, at worst, it borders on abuse. I’ve seen backlash from my own friends, especially from people who aren’t white.
A friend confided to me that she was shocked by Swedengate because, for an Asian family, not “stuff with food” his guests to the marrow is an abomination. A British friend of Indian origin told me that she felt guilty, for real, for not having had enough types of milk to offer to a person who had recently stayed with her and that, moreover, , she had not even invited.
Modesty or stinginess?
The sheer horror and bewilderment of the participants in this conversation seemed to catch the Swedes completely off guard. So I went back to the source: what is this food story? Aren’t we just running out of indulgence? In the media, Swedes have taken several views on the issue.
A food writer explained that the phenomenon was due to Swedes’ habits of modesty in food: what they eat at home is not considered good enough to offer to guests. An analyst from Dagens Nyheter, one of the country’s major newspapers, suggested that it was because the Swedes were “a little stingy, and maybe not very good at people”.
Others have speculated that it may have something to do with the exorbitant cost of food in Sweden, where indeed I never bought fresh herbs, because I just didn’t have any. the means.
For a Norwegian friend who, like most of his compatriots, thinks that the Swedes are among the strangest people to have ever set foot on the planet, it is by will not to let the other think that he is obliged to return the favour.
Which means that if you feed someone in your home, it implies that you expect them to feed you in their home. And it’s consistent: when I was living in Sweden, I spent a lot of time trying to offer people a drink and not understanding why they looked so confused. They were always trying to make me a bank transfer to reimburse me as soon as possible.
The home, a private space
And then, the Swedes have an unusual relationship with their homes. When they turn 18, in general, they try to take an apartment and settle down on their own. Sweden has one of the highest proportions of people living alone in the world. They run the laundromat in their buildings with military precision: a special reservation system ensures that you never run into anyone while you stuff your dirty sheets into the machine. The times I screwed up and accidentally surprised someone with my underwear in hand were some of the most awkward encounters of my life to date.
The home is a private space reserved for an individual or a small family unit. When you come here, you are required to take off your yucky pumps and not linger. I had to date several times a week, for months, a person who had become one of my closest friends and for whom I would henceforth be ready to lay down my life if necessary, before he invited me to his home. . To this day, he still only does so sparingly.
The Swedes are naturally on the defensive. They have good reason for that: there are plenty of positive things to say about Sweden, and hearing Americans or Brits spitting on their sweet little country for oddity-style details in the laundromat must sting. Especially when you know that they still have one of the strongest social security systems in the world, that the university is free, that the excellent childcare facilities are subsidized, that they benefit from a long parental leave – and so on.
Often, when I was in Sweden and I complained a little, about the tax administration for example or that stupid thing, there, with the laundries, I received a justifying explanation in the minute. Or else, I was told that elsewhere, it was much worse.
The world of logic
and the world of habits
But perhaps we laughed a little too quickly at Swedengate. All countries have absurd standards that those who live there hardly see anymore. And these norms do not always obey the most Cartesian logic.
I know someone who lived with his parents for a very long time and shared a boxer drawer with his father. Everyone simply put on the first clean underwear that came along. And yes, right away, we can’t help but think: “Moh no! It is an aberration in the eyes of God and of human morality! You must not share your underwear with your father!” And why not, after all? They are clean, these underpants. I don’t like it either, believe me, not at all. But when you think about it, a lot of stuff that makes us uncomfortable doesn’t come from the world of logic, but from the world of habits.
Reddit threads about human behavior are always funny stuff, full of biases, poorly told, and armored with plot holes that predestine them precisely for virality. They rarely tell the whole story. Do I prefer to be offered food when I go to someone’s house? Yes, on second thought, yes. But as with many things in Sweden, which take on a disproportionate scale in the imagination of the rest of the world and are supposed to prove its utopian reputation, you have to go beyond the first impression.
And anyway, the Swedes don’t care a bit about our opinion on how they feed their guests or not. “I think we were mostly flattered that people were talking about us,” one of my Swedish friends explained to me. And as the pop star says Zara Larson: “You may not be served food, but when it comes to music, you are served.”