As someone who lived there for a couple of years, I always find it funny when the internet kicks the door open and reveals Sweden, standing with its pants down round its milky white ankles looking affronted. It’s a country people think they know about but don’t, really. ABBA, midsommar, Volvos, and pop music don’t give you a good sense of what life is like there—and life is undoubtedly, I can report as a former live-in foreigner, a little odd.
So it was recently following an incident that has come to be known as “Swedengate.” Someone posted a response to an innocent question on Reddit: “What is the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?” A user reported that they remember going to a Swedish friend’s house as a child and being asked to stay in another room while the family he was visiting ate dinner together. Many Swedish people replied saying: Well, yeah, that’s the way we do it here.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? People on the internet from all over the world erupted in protests that not giving someone food in their home in their culture was at the very least incredibly rude and at worst tantamount to abuse. Among my own friends, I heard strong reactions, and particularly from people who are not white. One said that she was rocked by reading about Swedengate because for an Asian family, not “force-feeding” your guests is an abomination. A British Indian friend said she felt actively guilty that she didn’t have enough different types of milk to offer someone who stayed over at her house recently, a person she didn’t even invite to do so.
The sheer flabbergasted horror people brought to the conversation seemed to take the Swedes by surprise. So I went to the source: What is going on with this food thing? Are we just interpreting it uncharitably? Swedish media people have had various slants on this. A food writer claimed that the phenomenon is about Swedes having modest eating habits: what is good enough for them to eat in their homes is not considered good enough to offer to guests. One commentator in Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s big papers, suggested that it’s because Swedes are “a little stingy, and perhaps don’t have great social skills.”
Other people suggested that it might be to do with the sky-high price of food in Sweden, a place I never once bought fresh herbs because I simply couldn’t afford to do so. A Norwegian friend who, like most Norwegian people, believes Swedes to be some of the strangest people walking the earth, said that he thinks it’s a case of not wanting to incur obligation for the other party to return the favor. So if you feed someone in your house, the implication is that you’re asking to be fed at theirs. This adds up: When I lived in Sweden, I spent a lot of time trying to buy people rounds of drinks and being confused by their distress. People would try to pay me back immediately, by bank transfer.
Swedish people have an unusual relationship with their homes, too. When Swedes turn 18, they generally seek to move into an apartment on their own. Sweden has one of the highest proportion of people living alone of anywhere in the world. They run their building laundry rooms with military precision, a special booking system ensuring you never have to cross paths with anybody else while handling your dirty bedsheets. The occasions on which I got this wrong and accidentally walked in on somebody holding their underwear were some of the most awkward encounters of my life to date. The home is a private space for an individual, or a small family unit. You come over, you take your mangy shoes off, and you don’t stay too long. One of my closest friends, a person I would die for, is someone who took several months of hanging out multiple times a week to invite me to their apartment, and even then didn’t make a habit of it thereafter.
Swedes are defensive. They have some good reasons to be: lots of things are good about Sweden, and hearing American or British people dump on their nice little country for minor indiscretions like being weird about laundry must sting, given they have some of the most robust social welfare provisions in the world, free university, excellent subsidised childcare, long parental leave—I could go on. A common experience I had in Sweden was complaining mildly about something Swedish like the tax bureaucracy or the weird fucking thing with the laundry, and they would be quick to justify why it was the way it was. Or to tell me that it is worse in other countries.
But maybe we’ve been too quick to dunk on Swedengate. All countries have their weird norms, all but invisible to the people who live there. And norms aren’t always what makes best sense anyway. I know someone who lived at home for a long time and did not have a distinct wardrobe of underwear from his dad. They would both just wear whatever pairs were clean. And yes, immediately one thinks: no! That is an aberration against God and human decency! You should not share underwear with your dad! But why? The underwear is clean. I don’t like it either; believe me, I don’t. But when you drill down into a lot of things that make us uncomfortable, they don’t come from a place of logic but a place of custom.
Reddit threads about human behavior are always strange artifacts, biased and ill-told and full of plot holes in exactly the way that makes them guaranteed to go viral. They very rarely tell the whole story. Would I prefer to be offered food if I went over to someone’s house? Yes, on balance. But like many things about Sweden that seem to get blown up in the rest of the world’s imagination as evidence or otherwise of its utopic reputation, it’s not quite what it first appears. And anyway, Swedes aren’t that upset about what we think of how they do or don’t feed their guests. “I think we were mostly flattered that people talked about us at all,” one of my Swedish friends said. And as the pop star Zara Larsson put it, “we might not serve food, but we do be serving bangers.”