More than a few people were left bewildered recently when a curious Swedish habit was revealed to a wider international audience.
A Reddit user, responding to the question “What’s the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?”, said: “I remember going to my Swedish friend’s house. And while we were playing in their room, his mom yelled that dinner was ready. And check this. He told me to WAIT in his room while they ate.”
Far from being unique to a single inhospitable Swedish family, however, it soon emerged that such behaviour is considered perfectly normal within the Scandinavian country.
Another user replied: “I slept over at a friend’s house. When we woke up, he said he’s going downstairs for a few minutes. After about 15 minutes I go downstairs to see what’s happening and they’re eating breakfast. They see me, tell me he’s almost done and will be up there soon. I still think about that s*** 25 years later.”
When the thread was shared on Twitter, countless more stories emerged of a country with a remarkable reticence to offer sustenance to outsiders – children in particular.
For anyone who spent much of their childhood being practically force fed by their friends’ parents, it was all too much to compute.
One Argentinian said: “At my mother’s house you not only leave full of food, you also take a tupperware.”
Those with Middle Eastern or Asian heritage were particularly aghast. “In Taiwan, the phrase for ‘How are you?’ directly translates as ‘Have you eaten?,” explained one Twitter user.
Another highlighted how the Saudi General Authority for Statistics is running an advert gently asking people to stop inviting census takers into their homes for coffee and meals.
Further confirmation of the curious Swedish custom – also common in other Scandinavian nations, it transpires – was provided by a couple of residents of Malmo.
Surra, whose parents are from Iraq, told Telegraph Travel: “This first happened to me about 30 years ago. I was playing at my friend’s house and there was a delicious smell of food drifting up from the kitchen. I remember I was really hungry! But instead of inviting me to join them at the table, my friend’s father sent me to wait upstairs! To my surprise, this still happens. My daughter is sometimes asked to leave her friends’ houses when it’s time to eat.
“For me, it’s really hard to accept. In Arab cultures, guests are always invited to eat before the family. They are prioritised, even more so if they’re children.”
Diego Cattolica, born in Sweden but with parents from South America, added: “There were times when I went to a friend’s house and I would be spending time with them after school. When dinnertime came around, the parents would call their kids to eat, and I would just have to hang around twiddling my thumbs.
“Even if this was not the norm, it certainly happened. And I thought it was really odd because when friends came to our place, my parents always shared whatever we had. For us, it was all about inclusivity. Having a guest was seen as a lovely, positive thing – not a ‘burden’ on the family’s limited resources.”
So what’s behind the habit? Some have suggested historic problems with food scarcity among Nordic communities is to blame for the lingering culinary stinginess.
Cattolica noted: “It is especially prevalent in Småland, where I grew up. It’s a region that suffered terribly from the famine of the early 1900s. The soil is poor and the people still have a scarcity mentality.”
Swedes on Twitter also sought to justify the custom. “A lot of this has to do with concern for other families,” said one. “Parents of the away child don’t want to inconvenience another family and they don’t want to have it seem like they can’t feed their own child. And the parents where the child is visiting don’t want the other family to cook dinner for their own child just to have it turn out they already ate, potentially wasting food. Also Swedes are very keen about dietary concerns and intolerances.”
Nevertheless, there seems to be a growing recognition that things ought to change. Another Swedish user, apropos of the furore, tweeted: “One thing that must die out in Swedish culture: Children who play with other children and are not allowed to have dinner with the family where the play takes place, but rather wait in another room themselves while the family eats. Insane behaviour.” His statement has received almost 6,000 likes. So perhaps change is afoot.
What other cultural quirks might surprise you on your summer holidays? We asked a handful of experts for their thoughts.
Greeks will force feed you
To find the European antithesis to the stingy Swedes, look no further than Greece.
“Filoxenia, from the words friend (filos) and stranger (xenos), is not an expression you bandy around lightly here in Greece,” says Heidi Fuller-Love, a resident of Crete. “As any Greek will tell you (probably within five minutes of meeting them) the custom of welcoming – and feeding – strangers goes back to the days of Zeus, who once dressed as a beggar and went knocking on doors to ensure that a suitably warm welcome was on offer.
Greeks take the opposite approach to the Swedes, with their desire to over-feed visitors
Credit: Thanasis Zovoilis/The Image Bank RF
“Today this legendary sense of hospitality is still deeply rooted in everyday life and you sometimes get the sense that it’s Christmas everyday as people you’ve never met ply you with bunches of grapes and traditional melimakarona honey cakes, or invite you to pull up a chair and enjoy an ice cool frappe (or punch-packing thimble of raki) as you satisfy their curiosity about where you’re from – apo pou eisai? – where you’re going – pou pas? – and how many children you have (None? How come?).
“Linger long enough and you’re sure to be invited into someone’s home where – since Greeks believe that all foreigners are undernourished (of course they are – they don’t have a Greek mama to feed them) – they will force feed you with piles of dolmades and other local delights. As one yia yia (granny) said to me in horror: ‘Not feed someone who enters my house – how is this even possible?’”.
Italians will wince if you order a cappuccino
Greece’s neighbours to the west also pride themselves on their hospitality. Lee Marshall, who has lived in Umbria for many years, explains: “Italians have been amused and appalled by the Twitter debate about the Swedish habit of not automatically sharing meals with house guests. One tweeted: ‘It’s surreal… here, the first thing you’re asked when you go to someone’s home is if you would like something to eat or drink, even if they only have two cents to their name’.
“That said, the family home is quite a private place in most of Italy, partly because it is more likely to be multi-generational. Playdates tend to happen in parks and even school-age teenagers will more often meet up in a bar or pizzeria than in someone’s house. However, if they do get invited home, there’s no limit to the amount of food they will be offered. And just having eaten is never a good enough excuse!”
There are other culinary customs to be aware of when visiting Italy, says Marshall. “If you invite a group of friends to a restaurant to celebrate your birthday, you may expect that, when the bill arrives, everyone will go Dutch (or as Italians would have it, ‘pagare alla romana’ – pay Roman style) by chipping in their own share. You might even hope the others might cover your part of the bill as a treat. Dream on. On your birthday, you pay for the whole table.”
Italians have strict ideas about when it’s considered acceptable to drink milky coffee
Credit: Andrea Comi/Moment RF
Be careful, too, with your choice of coffee. “Coffee is so much a part of Italian culture that the idea of not drinking it is as foreign as the idea of having to explain its rituals,” says Marshall. “These rituals are set in stone and not always easy for outsiders to understand.”
Chief among them is the rule that any milky form of coffee, such as a latte or cappuccino, must only be consumed in the morning – and never after a meal. “Italians cringe at the thought of all that hot milk hitting a full stomach,” explains Marshall. “An American friend of mine who has lived in Rome for many years continues, knowingly, to break this rule. But she has learnt, at least, to apologise to the barman.”
The French will turn pale if you talk about money
For those heading to France this summer, we have a word of warning from Anthony Peregrine, a long-term resident of Languedoc.
In his guide to conversing with the French, he writes: “The dinner party was going OK. Our American and French guests were getting to know one another. Right around the arrival of the pork fillet, conversation turned to water and then to water softeners, for ours is a devil-may-care household. Things were, though, about to go belly-up. One American friend had lately bagged a contract to sell US softeners in France. Across the pork, gratin dauphinois and asparagus à la vapeur, he grasped the opportunity to launch into a sales spiel, as if he’d just burst out through the screen from a TV shopping channel.
“The French guests were astounded. So was I. In France, talking money and business at a private table – especially to people you barely know – is a no-no. Compounding this by actually trying to flog stuff is like devil-worship during Mass. You just don’t do it. But the American ploughed on, with the rosy-cheeked, can-do attitude which assumes everyone’s plugged into the material world, 24/7. Mini-catastrophe loomed, until my French wife’s best friend changed the subject to dialectical materialism, the best way with crayfish, or childbirth – I forget which; they’re all acceptable dinner table topics – and the evening got back on track.
“I mention this to illustrate that, even though one might be speaking the same language – in this instance, English – conversation with French people is still fraught with traps. English and French speakers converse differently. Different conventions reflect different mindsets: even in chatting, the French are more formal, reserved, wary and, in many cases, afraid of being considered insufficiently serious or intellectual. I have, for instance, met very few French people who have ever read a word of Proust, but I have met none who couldn’t discourse about the ‘madeleine de Proust’, as if they had.”
The Spanish won’t eat dinner until bedtime
“Visiting Spain means resetting your eating routine and having your lunch and dinner at least an hour or two later than you might be used to,” explains Annie Bennett, Telegraph Travel’s expert on the country. “This means lunch sometime after 2pm and dinner at 9pm at the very earliest, although after 10pm is much more the norm.”
But why do the Spanish eat so late? According to Bennett, Franco is to blame.
“When the sun is highest in the sky in Spain, it is not noon but 1.30pm. If you measure mealtimes according to the position of the sun, rather than what it is says on the clock, Spaniards are having their lunch at more or less the same times as the rest of Europe. Dinner, about seven hours later, matches their European counterparts too. So why are the clocks out of synch?
For the Spanish, it’s completely normal to eat at 9pm, or even 10pm
“Well, until 1942, Spain was on Greenwich Mean Time, the same as the UK. But then General Franco, in his dubious wisdom, decided to put the country’s clocks forward an hour in line with Germany, Central European Time (CET), or GMT+1. After the end of Second World War however, Spain stayed on CET.”
The Dutch will shock you with their rudeness
Showing off an expensive new holiday outfit, or a stylish new hairdo? You can be sure of an honest appraisal from the Dutch.
“For a Briton, the Netherlands is a wonderful place to live,” explains Ben Coates, author of Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands. “The cities are beautiful, the beaches glorious, the public services excellent and the beer tasty. There’s just one problem, though: people are unbelievably rude.
“Suggest a half-baked idea in a business meeting and you’ll be brutally shut down. Ask a friend if they think you’ve lost weight, and you won’t like the answer. Review a team project at work, and you’ll feel as if you’re joining a bar-room brawl.
“I remember once excitedly telling a Dutch friend about a new book I was working on, carefully setting him up to chime in with encouragement and moral support. ‘It sounds very boring,’ he said, before walking away. ‘I don’t think anyone will read it.’
“To an outsider, this habit of directness is particularly shocking because it clashes with foreign stereotypes about the Dutch. In the popular imagination they’re a sunny and welcoming people, famed for their diplomacy and deal-making. However, if you spend much time in the Netherlands you’ll quickly realise straight-talking is ubiquitous here; as much a part of the national culture as bicycles or unpronounceable place names.”