Since that post eight days ago, more than 16,000 people have responded, many telling stories of shoe removal or saying an unknown grace. But one comment stood out in particular. “I remember going to my Swedish friends,” recalled one commentator. “And while we were playing in his room, his mother shouted that dinner was ready. And check this. He told me to WAIT in his room while they ate.
Others told similar, or second-hand, stories of food-deprived guests in Swedish homes. The discussion quickly moved to Twitter, where Swedish pop star Zara Larson appeared to confirm the little-known practice. “Peak Swedish culture She later clarified that this usually only happens to children.
Much of the backlash centered on people’s horror – rooted in their own family’s tendency to do the opposite – with many attributing this impetus to a wider culture with which they identify. “From the southern United States…the concept of not aggressively feeding a guest is literally unthinkable,” wrote one Reddit commenter. “Mexican here, my family would illegally return to Mexico before leaving guests hungry,” another added.
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The stacking and subsequent generalizations about its culture have frustrated Lars-Erik Tindre, public diplomacy adviser at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. He says the practice was not universal and does not exist in modern Swedish families, including his own. “I believe there is some truth to it, but what people miss in these comments is that it happened in the 70s and 80s,” says Tindre, 47. “I have kids, and we have other kids for meals all the time.”
He and his friends growing up had heard of families not offering food to their young guests, but that was not something he had ever experienced, he says.
Richard Tellström, food historian and associate professor of meal science at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, says it would not have been uncommon for a child until the 1990s not to be fed at a friend’s house , and remembers examples of it from his own childhood. Tellström, 62, says the practice had nothing to do with being cruel or inhospitable – it was a reflection of how Swedes viewed families. “Eating was something you did at home,” he says. “You failed to feed other people’s children – that would have been seen as some sort of intrusion into another family’s life, with the subtext of ‘You can’t feed your children properly, so I will feed them.'”
Tindre said he was unsure of the origins, but speculated it might have something to do with his feeling that Swedish families are often more likely to reunite regularly with their immediate family rather than with their extended family. Tellström echoed this, explaining that due to the consolidation of farmland from the late 1700s and urbanization, families often lived apart from their loved ones. Thus, communal meals with aunts, uncles and cousins are not as common in Sweden as in many southern European countries. “We just don’t do that in the north,” says Tellström.
Many Swedes may never have been starved at a friend’s house, making online debate murky about it. Johanna Kindvall is an illustrator and cookbook author who grew up in Sweden and now divides her time between her native country and Brooklyn. “I had never heard of this before,” she says. “I think it could have happened here too,” she says, referring to the United States.
Kindvall, 55, remembers children in her village often returning to friends’ homes in time to have dinner with their own families, but says her best friend, who lives further away, often hangs out at her house and is fed with her family. “Of course there was food for her,” she said.
The tradition – wherever it may have existed – has died out, says Tellström, because of changes in the way children are treated. Previous generations of Swedes generally viewed children as very different from adults. “Children were seen as living almost in a parallel world,” he says. “Children were children, and parents and adults were in their own sphere.” Now those barriers have eroded; kids are engaged and participating in adult conversations around the dinner table and elsewhere, he notes.
Tindre says he can’t imagine that working today, because modern Swedish families often rely on each other for something many American parents can relate to: taking kids to multiple activities, violin lessons at football matches. In Sweden, parents call the daily dance of picking up and dropping off a “cat of life” – the puzzle of life – which often involves carpooling and children eating together.
Tellström finds the conversations around Swedish cuisine fascinating, noting that it’s something he and his Swedish friends are suddenly discussing on Facebook, all because it has caught the world’s attention on social media. “Sometimes it takes a foreign eye to make you see something in your own culture in a different way,” he says. “If you live in a culture, things are obvious and understood, and it’s always been that way – but when someone outside notices it, then suddenly you see it.”
Tindre acknowledges that the idea of someone not nurturing a child under their roof sounds odd, making it good reputational social media fodder – not just for celebrities, but perhaps for inhabitants of a whole country. He hopes people don’t see Swedes as evil, pointing to his place at the top of the ‘Good Country Index’, which measures contributions to the common good of humanity, across things like climate and food aid. .
“Socially, it’s hard to argue that Sweden is unwelcoming and has great hospitality,” he says.