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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do Swedes truly not feed their young guests? Maybe once upon a time.

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Many people pride themselves on the generosity of their families toward guests, particularly when it comes to food. And so a conversation about whether, in fact, young guests in Swedish households would expect to be fed by their hosts roiled social media this week.

What came to be dubbed #Swedengate started with an innocent callout on a Reddit board. “What is the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?” one user prompted.

Since that post eight days ago, more than 16,000 people have responded, many offering tales of removing shoes or saying an unfamiliar grace. But one comment got particularly noticed. “I remember going to my swedish friends house,” a commenter recalled. “And while we were playing in his room, his mom yelled that dinner was ready. And check this. He told me to WAIT in his room while they ate.”

Others chimed in with similar stories, or secondhand ones, about guests denied food at Swedish homes. The discussion soon moved to Twitter, where Swedish pop star Zara Larson seemed to confirm the little-known practice. “Peak Swedish culture <3 :’-)” she wrote. She later clarified that it usually only happened to kids.

Much of the reaction centered around people’s horror — rooted in their own family’s tendency to do the opposite — with many ascribing that impulse to a larger culture they identify with. “From the Southern US … the concept of not aggressively feeding a guest is literally unthinkable,” wrote one Reddit commenter. “Mexican person here, my family would illegally go back to Mexico before letting guests go hungry,” another chimed in.

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The pile-on, and the attendant generalizations about his culture, frustrated Lars-Erik Tindre, the public diplomacy counselor at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. He says the practice wasn’t universal and doesn’t exist among modern Swedish families, including his own. “I believe that it has some truth to it, but what people miss in these comments is that this happened in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Tindre, 47. “I have children, and we have other kids over for meals all the time.”

He and his friends growing up had heard of families that didn’t offer food to their young guests, but it wasn’t something he ever experienced, he says.

Richard Tellström, a food historian and associate professor of meal science at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, says it wouldn’t have been uncommon for a child up until the 1990s to not be fed at a friend’s home, and remembers instances of it from his 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 that you did at home,” he says. “You didn’t feed other people’s children — that would have been considered a sort of intrusion in another family’s life, with the subtext of ‘You can’t feed your children properly, so I will feed them.’ ”

Tindre said he wasn’t sure of the origins, but he speculated that it might have something to do with his sense that Swedish families are often more likely to gather regularly with their immediate families, rather than extended ones. Tellström echoed that, explaining that because of consolidating farmlands beginning in the late 1700s and urbanization, families often lived apart from their relatives. And so the communal dining with aunts and uncles and cousins isn’t as frequent in Sweden as it is in many southern European countries. “We just don’t do that up north,” Tellström says.

Plenty of Swedish people might never have experienced being denied food at a friend’s house, making the online debate around it murky. Johanna Kindvall is an illustrator and cookbook author who grew up in Sweden and now splits her time between her native country and Brooklyn. “I had never heard about this before,” she says. “I think this could have happened here, too,” she says, referring to the United States.

Kindvall, 55, remembers children from her village often going home from friends’ houses in time for dinner with their own families, but says her best friend, who lived farther away, would often hang out at her house and be fed along with her family. “Of course there was food for her,” she says.

The tradition — wherever it might have existed — died out, Tellström says, because of the changing way that children are treated. Previous generations of Swedes typically considered children very different from adults. “Children were considered to be living almost in a parallel world,” he says. “Children were children, and parents and grown-ups were in their own sphere.” Now, those barriers have eroded; children are engaged and participate in grown-up conversations around the dinner table and elsewhere, he notes.

Tindre says he can’t imagine it working today, since modern Swedish families often rely on each other for something that many American parents can relate to: shuttling children around to multiple activities, from violin lessons to soccer games. In Sweden, parents call the daily dance of picking up and dropping off as figuring out “lives pussel” — life’s puzzle — which often involves carpooling and kids eating together.

Tellström finds the conversations around Swedish dining fascinating, noting that it’s something he and his Swedish friends are suddenly discussing on Facebook, all because it drew 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 are living in a culture, things are obvious and understood, and it has always been like this — but when someone from the outside notices it, then you suddenly see it.”

Tindre acknowledges that the idea of anyone not feeding a child under their roof seems strange, which makes it good fodder for social media pile-ons that can ding reputations — not just for celebrities, but possibly for an entire country’s people. He hopes people don’t see Swedes as unkind, pointing to its spot at the top of the “Good Country Index,” which measures contributions to the common good of humanity, through such things as climate and food aid.

“On a societal level, it’s hard to argue that Sweden is not welcoming and has great hospitality,” he says.

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