Perhaps that’s why the news on Reddit and Twitter that Swedes aren’t feeding baby guests dinner caused an uproar online. as such One of the posters explainedwhile at a friend’s house as a child, the family had dinner together – and the friend was expected to wait.
Some Swedes have endorsed these claims, saying that unannounced child guests are often not counted in meal planning, and may be the case down to classor the food was not served ‘out of respect’ for the parents of the visiting child – they may have planned dinner which might then be ‘lost’.
Under the hashtag #Swedengate, who is allowed to go without in a thriving and inclusive community, it sparked a discussion about the expectations of hospitality in Sweden and abroad.
The act of eating is steeped in cultural practice. Eating and eating have cultural meanings that impose order on what is eaten, 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 among the Brazilian indigenous peoples shed light on the ingrained cultural customs around 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” is linked to the work of authority and his position in society.
Anthropologists have discovered the company we keep during mealtimes. Maurice Bloch famously quipped:
In all societies, sharing food is a way to establish closeness, while, on the contrary, refusal to share is one of the clearest signs of distance.
It is easy to notice this in our life. We prefer dining with friends rather than strangers. It is possible to sit closely with people we do not know and sometimes we do not sit close enough with loved ones. There are marked differences in expected behaviors when eating with fingers versus sitting dinners.
the kindness of the meal
The #Swedengate debate illustrates how cultural norms regulate behavior and produce expectations.
In Australia – and apparently in most countries, given the discussion that followed on Reddit and Twitter – we think physical presence should lead to an invitation to a meal.
As Lévi-Strauss wrote, dining with others is based on reciprocity: the reception of guests is repaid by the serving of a meal.
Contacts were also made with Nordic Viking culture from antiquity and how a meal or gift was debt style.
There is limited evidence of honor and debt practices of the Vikings that influence contemporary Scandinavian culture. But we can clearly see how differences in eating practices can highlight the different meanings that different societies associate with meal sharing.
Read more: In America’s Sandwiches, A Nation’s Story
Sharing meals in Iceland
The culture of not inviting guests to dinner is certainly not a norm in all Nordic cultures.
In research I conducted among Icelandic families after the 2008 global financial crisis, I noted the way I was greeted at mealtimes as a cultural ‘odd’.
At one gathering, I sat as an invited guest among a family of seven spaced out around a large dining table, highlighting the formalities of the afternoon.
At another event, a farewell party, several people known to each other crowded around a four-seater kitchen table, picking up food from several plates. The closeness of the bodies in this event indicated the informal and social intimate relationship.
But meals don’t always have to be shared. A woman I interviewed recalled her decision to walk out of a restaurant when a banker linked to the economic crisis arrived:
I just looked at him and walked out. We neither forgive nor forget, neither do these guys. Most people won’t yell or anything else, we’re much more polite. We walk away. They can have the restaurant to themselves.
The meaning of the meal
The offer or refusal of a meal may be expressive of social relations. #Swedengate shows how invitations can be based on historical precedent, parental expectations or food waste.
Local customs have been present in all cultures throughout history. Denial is not necessarily an act of lack of hospitality – it only refers to cultural norms, as they may be disputed, as evidenced by the #Swedengate controversy.
Hasty judgments about food and eating are not always accurate. Deeper meanings have always been behind mealtime shows.
Perhaps the most special thing about #Swedengate is not what it tells us about Sweden, but what it tells us about ourselves.
Read more: Will European countries take meaningful steps to end colonial legacies?