Sweden is known for its hearty cuisine, from meatballs and pastries to soups and seafood. It is also known for its quality of life, surpassing many countries regarding happiness, equality, and social connectedness.
Perhaps this is why the news on Reddit and Twitter that Swedes don’t provide dinner for children caused a stir online.
As one poster explained, when they were children at a friend’s house, the family ate together — and the friend was expected to wait.
Some Swedes supported these claims, saying that unannounced child guests were often not included in meal planning; it could be class faults or food not being offered “out of respect” for the visiting child’s parents – they may have planned dinner, which would then be “wasted”.
Who can go without in a prosperous and inclusive society was debated under the hashtag #Swedengate and sparked the discussion about expectations of hospitality in Sweden and abroad.
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The anthropology of food
The act of eating is steeped in cultural practice.
Food and eating have cultural meanings that create order in what, when, how and by whom it is eaten.
Social anthropologists have long studied how people eat and what this says about cultural norms.
In the 1960s, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ work emphasized cultural customs ingrained among Brazilian indigenous peoples about food preparation and how these practices can inform a culture’s knowledge system.
In the 1980s, Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of French society showed how a person’s ability to exercise “good taste” relates to the workings of power and their position in society.
The company we keep during meals has also been studied by anthropologists. Maurice Bloch famously joked:
In all societies, sharing food is a means of establishing closeness, while, conversely, refusing to share is one of the clearest signs of distance.
It is easy to observe this in our own lives. We prefer to eat with friends than with strangers. Being too close to people we don’t know and sometimes not close enough to loved ones is possible. There are observable differences in expected behavior when consuming finger food versus a sit-down dinner.
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The kindness of a meal
The #Swedengate controversy shows how cultural norms regulate behavior and produce expectations.
In Australia – and apparently most countries, responsible for the ensuing discussion on Reddit and Twitter – we believe physical presence should lead to an invitation to a meal.
As Lévi-Strauss wrote, eating with others is based on reciprocity: receiving guests is repaid by offering a meal.
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Twitter users quickly suggested that meals were not offered to unaccounted-for children in other Scandinavian countries, with comparisons to more “welcoming” areas of Europe and Asia.
Links were also made to ancient Nordic Viking culture and how a meal or gift was similar to a debt.
There is limited evidence that the Vikings’ honor and debt practices influenced contemporary Scandinavian culture.
But we can clearly see how differences in eating habits can emphasize the different meanings different communities attach to sharing a meal.
Sharing meals in Iceland
The culture of not inviting guests to dinner is certainly not standard in all Scandinavian cultures.
In research I did among Icelandic families after the global financial crisis of 2008, I saw how I was received at mealtimes as a cultural ‘outsider’.
At one meeting, I sat as an invited guest in a family of seven scattered around a large dining table to emphasize the formality of the afternoon.
At another event, a farewell party, several acquaintances gathered around a four-seat kitchen table, picking food from a few plates. The proximity of the bodies at this event hinted at its informal and social intimacy.
But meals are not always for sharing. A woman I interviewed recalled her decision to walk out of a restaurant when a banker implicated in the economic crisis arrived:
I just looked at him and walked out. We don’t forgive or forget, not these men. Most people wouldn’t yell or anything; we’re a little more polite. They can have the restaurant to themselves. We walk away.
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The meaning of a meal
Offering or refusing a meal can be a sign of social relationships. #Swedengate shows how invitations can depend on historical precedents, parental expectations, or food waste.
Localized norms have existed in all cultures throughout history.
Denial isn’t necessarily an act of inhospitality — it just refers to cultural norms, arguable as they may be, as evidenced by the #Swedengate controversy.
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Hasty judgments about food and eating are not always correct. Deeper meanings have always been behind the meal deals.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about #Swedengate is not what it tells us about Sweden but what it tells us about ourselves.
Timothy Heffernan, Postdoctoral Researcher, UNSW Sydney
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.