How a nondescript tweet sparked a huge debate on Swedish hospitality

·7-min read
How a nondescript tweet sparked a huge debate on Swedish hospitality

Normally, a single tweet from an unverified user would be lucky to get a few likes or reshares.

But that's not what happened in Sweden when a nondescript message about Swedish hospitality sparked a huge debate and sent the #Swedengate trending.

It centred on a claim that it is socially acceptable, or even customary, for Swedes not to feed their guests, especially children.

“Not here to judge but I don’t understand this. How’re [sic] you going to eat without inviting your friend”, asked the tweet in question, posted by Afghan-Canadian user @SamQari.

Underneath it, the attached screenshot displayed a comment in which a Swedish individual recounted their childhood experience of not being invited for dinner while playing at his friend’s house.

His tweet went viral. Subsequently, many other tweets and posts have emerged describing various kinds of “inhospitable” behaviour that are reported as being common or accepted within Swedish society.

“Went to a friends [sic] house for the first time playing and their mom calls them for dinner… [she] sternly told me I was allowed to wait and play with the toys in my friends [sic] room until dinner was done,” tweeted Lovette Jallow, a Gambian-born Swedish activist and author.

“Growing up in Sweden, I remember not getting access to my friends' dinner tables… I was allowed to microwave the scraps while they played board games in another room,” posted Signe Krantz, a political scientist.

Viral comments -- and ensuing spats -- tend to generate intense and often vitriolic reactions. Yet #Swedengate has taken the spat to incredible heights, spilling out of Twitter and social media. The anger it has provoked has even resulted in hostile tweets at Sweden’s official Twitter account.

“Boy this has ruffled some feathers,” Sam Qari quipped in his tweets, as his comment snowballed into something far greater than he had intended.

How has Sweden responded to the controversy?

Swedish responses to the controversy have varied tremendously - from vociferous defences of the practice of leaving guests unfed to outright denials of the ubiquity of such a custom.

Even Swedish pop star Zara Larsson weighed in on the matter via Instagram, remembering how commonplace it would be not to get invited to the dinner table while at her friend’s house.

“A lot of families would [do that], and it wouldn’t be a strange thing,” she claimed. “It’s so rude… but it’s definitely Swedish culture.”

For Stockholm-based law student Mariam, 22, the #Swedengate controversy acted as a kind of epiphany that shed light on her childhood.

“I have had two experiences with this,” she told Euronews, recounting how she was also left to play by herself at her friend’s house come dinner time.

“It’s through discussing with friends and social media such as TikTok that I realised this was something very normalised that many Swedes experienced, especially as kids.”

“I want to add that Swedes are among the nicest people on earth,” said Mariam. “It’s just not obvious to them from a cultural standpoint that one should share food with guests.”

But other Swedes have taken exception to the claims at the heart of #Swedengate, deeming them uncommon or relegated to the past.

“I have two kids and I have never heard it happening when they visit friends,” Swedish father Anton Myrberg told Euronews. “It’s not a thing and hasn’t been for 30 years or so.”

Likewise, Professor Richard Tellström, an expert on food and ethnology, told Euronews that the sharing of food is an inherent part of the country’s society.

But, he admitted, the country's hospitality culture is a bit cautious. "You should not offer so much that the other one feels uncomfortable with the offering," Prof Tellström added.

“You are always offered [coffee and cakes] when you visit," he said. "A Swedish journalist, who doesn’t drink coffee, must learn this, otherwise, he or she will not be able to make interviews at home with ordinary people,” he quipped.

Even Sweden’s official Twitter account clapped back at a set of angry comments which pilloried the country’s supposed inhospitality.

“The idea of Swedes not offering refreshments to their guests is not a true reflection of how we go about things,” it stated. “Swedes entertain guests of all types in their homes.”

Among the examples of food-sharing customs cited include fika, the Swedish tradition that involves the sharing of coffee and other delicacies. An even older custom is kafferep, a kind of small private party in which a set of seven types of biscuits would be consumed.

Others include Valborg spring celebrations, where neighbours gather together around bonfires, and Midsummer festivities.

Nevertheless, other Swedes have taken a radically different approach, claiming not only that leaving guests unfed is part of Swedish culture, but that it should be accepted as well.

“It’s true we don’t serve food to guests,” read the title of an op-ed for The Independent, penned by Gothenburg-raised Linda Johansson. “What’s even more confusing to me is why that’s even a problem.”

“The Swedish thinking goes like this: the other child (or the other family) may have plans for another kind of dinner, and you wouldn’t want to ruin the routine or preparations,” she added.

Regardless of the particular response, nevertheless, the domestic debate in Sweden has been particularly vivid.

TV channels such as SVT and TV4 have invited academics and cooks to comment on the roots of Swedish hospitality customs.

The host of a podcast organised by major newspaper Svenska Dagbladet even pondered whether the Swedish government could orchestrate a PR campaign to mitigate the controversy, although his comments were at least partly in jest.

“There is so much hysteria and seriousness around this that it’s genuinely hard to decide what’s satire and what is real debate,” remarked American-born Stockholm University lecturer Ian Higham. “I wish non-Swedish speakers could understand how the absolute most entertaining thing about #Swedengate is the deadly serious debate in domestic media with takes from experts on 'food security' and on foreign policy options for salvaging the national brand.”

What does #Swedengate tell us about the country?

At the crux of the controversy lies one question: how did such a light-hearted comment generate such an outcry and debate?

One explanation offered is just how central the sharing of food is in value systems, and how that can be interpreted in profoundly dissimilar manners across cultures that have different social structures.

“Most of the angered people came from cultures with a more collectivist mindset, and in their own cultures, not sharing is considered rude,” Mariam told Euronews. “Meanwhile in an individualist culture, they may not find it rude because there’s an understanding that no one is entitled to the belongings of others.”

For Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, Sweden’s cultural model -- like that of much of Europe -- is individualistic. That could perhaps explain the contrast in understandings of specific hospitality customs, especially among people from collectivist cultures.

But for others, there’s a far less sophisticated explanation: rather, it has to do with the Swedish response to the controversy.

“Swedes being very sensitive about their image abroad, doubled down to try to deny or justify the practice,” noted Higham. “Sweden and the Swedish population invest a lot of money in cultivating, promoting, and protecting a national brand.”

And the #Swedengate debate has certainly gnawed at the pristine veneer of Sweden’s reputation. But not just over the country’s hospitality customs - rather, it has opened Pandora’s box by unleashing a wide-ranging discussion on supposed skeletons in the nation’s closet.

As a result of #Swedengate, comments and debates have emerged on Sweden’s controversially laissez-faire response to COVID-19, the country’s treatment of the Saami minority, its historical colonialist associations, and the treatment of people of colour and immigrants within Swedish society.

Swedish people of colour and of immigrant descent in particular have used #Swedengate as an opportunity to share their experiences of feeling unwelcome or discriminated against.

Among these is Jallow, who delivered a TEDx talk entitled "Normalising Silence in Swedish Society".

“Even though I am Swedish also being black means I live at an intersection where whenever I speak about my lived experiences the most common response is to call me an n-word, racial slurs, and strangers telling me on the internet to leave my own country,” she told Euronews, adding she received significant vitriol following her tweets on #Swedengate. “[This shows] who people deem to be strangers and who is warranted to share their lived experiences.”

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