June Findlay, Refinery29, June 3, 2022
Sweden used to evoke the usual stereotypes: blonde-haired blue-eyed people traipsing through green flowery fields, assemble-by-numbers furniture with simplistic yet functional design, perfect meatballs served with gravy and jam, or a strange yet powerful chokehold on the world’s production of pop music (go watch episode 3 of Netflix’s This is Pop).
I regret to inform you that while some of those things are true, many of the things we think we know about the country are not. When it comes to Sweden, the more you look into it, the more things get curiouser and curiouser. And in the theme of the last few years where everything is either cake or even more terrible than we thought, Sweden’s reputation is the latest casualty.
Enter #Swedengate. It all started with a great thread on Reddit (which has since been deleted) asking people to share about their experiences with strange social customs while visiting someone’s home. Then, someone tweeted their experience as a child playing at their Swedish friend’s house and being told to wait in their friend’s room while their host family ate dinner. Another shared their experience of being left out of breakfast after sleeping over at a friend’s house the night before. The post generated thousands of upvotes and a screenshot of the discussion was shared to Twitter, where even more thousands of people learned that Swedish people apparently have no hospitality skills and are very, very stingy when it comes to feeding guests.
#Swedengate then turned into a full blown discussion on Twitter about a) how and why people from Sweden would do such a thing as to not share food with visitors to their homes, b) how funny/messed up/just plain weird Swedes are, and c) Swedes defending themselves/their culture and customs from outsiders —which is especially amusing if you know about the phrase and mindstate of “Jantelagen” in Sweden. It means that they never like to talk about themselves or anything they do unless absolutely necessary.
Black Twitter (and other ethnic groups around the world + their diasporas) brought out one of the more interesting discussions I’ve seen on the subject: how Sweden, and other European countries like it, emphasize the notion that immigrants must integrate their lifestyles, customs and even humanity to that the country in which they’ve settled. And many expect this assimilation even if those customs not only run counter to what the immigrants’ home traditions are, but against what most humans would do (like serve food to a guest in your house!). As a Black woman who lived and studied in Sweden, this discussion resonated with me quite a bit. I was able to identify with the immigrant experience in a European country, while also being able to tell what about the #Swedengate debate was real and what was speculative.
Spoiler alert: Swedish people *do* feed their guests… sometimes. But in my experience, they are also quite excellent at making you feel quite alone/different if you’re not a white/white-passing person born in Sweden.
My first three months in a little town in northern Sweden were jarring. I consider myself an easygoing person who makes friends easily and figures things out as I go, but the very things that make me who I am were against “normal” Swedish social norms. I was met with the stoic, stone-faced, expressionless wall of aloofness that they showed towards strangers, even after a night out of drinking and having in-depth personal conversations. There were awkward stares from people who couldn’t figure out who I was outside of their neatly confined boxes. I had to get used to the sharp inhale of air that replaces the word “yes” in Swedish (that’s only in the north, btw). I learned that a beloved chocolate dessert in the country was originally known as “negerbollar” (negro ball) before being changed to the more politically correct name “chokladbollar” (I still don’t like them to this day). Because of these experiences, the transgressions described in #Swedengate weren’t surprising to me. I deeply understood the unwelcoming culture people were joking about on Twitter, but I also wanted to understand why it was even happening in the first place.