From Dinner Guests to Colonialism: How #Swedengate Took Over the Internet

Often famed for pop music, beautiful green spaces, and flat-pack furniture—the nation of Sweden has found itself at the heart of an internet debate this week. What started with a conversation about offering food to guests has snowballed into a much larger conversation about the Nordic country.

Peak Swedish culture?

On the forum r/AskReddit, one user asked: "What's the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else's house because of their culture/religion?"

One reply captured particular attention when a user explained: "I remember going to my Swedish friend's house. 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."

Before long, other internet users were sharing similar experiences, and people across Reddit and other social media shared their shock.

"As an Italian, I could NEVER," said one comment, while another wrote: "In Spain, I think you can call the police if this happens."

Another person responded: "From the Southern U.S.... The concept of not aggressively feeding a guest is literally unthinkable."

The debate gained yet more traction when it was shared on Twitter, where it currently has thousands of retweets, quote tweets, and likes. Even Swedish pop singer Zara Larsson chipped in, sharing a screenshot of the stories with the comment: "Peak Swedish culture <3 :'-)"

Before long, Instagram user LoverOfGeography shared a map of places in Europe that they said was color-coded based on how likely they are to serve food to a house guest. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are marked as places that are "very unlikely to give you food," while countries including Italy, Spain, and Greece are all labeled as "almost always" giving food to house guests.

As the tweets kept coming, thousands of people have weighed in on the debate—from total disbelief to understanding and attempted explanations. But before long, the debate started to shift away from the dining table.

Side-eyeing Sweden

As the debate continued, many internet users started to shift the conversation to discuss Sweden's history of imperialism, colonialism and racism.

Twitter users started sharing their evidence of such claims. One user wrote: "Finally, justice is coming to Sweden. The Nordic nation's troubles are hitting the timeline through #Swedengate having long avoided criticism for its contemporary racism and historic role in slavery and empire."

Others re-shared a 2012 article from BBC News that reported an incident in which former Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth faced calls to step down after she was photographed cutting a cake shaped in the form of a naked Black woman.

People online began sharing accusations of racism they had experienced in the country. Several referenced a study from Stockholm University, which found that men with 'foreign-sounding names' were significantly less likely to get jobs than those with traditional Swedish names.

Another Twitter user shared her thoughts: "I started side-eyeing Sweden when I found out there is a minority of Indigenous people there. Any white country where there are indigenous people and they are a minority, the white majority is trash. I don't make the rules, it's a pattern."

The Sámi people are descendants of nomadic peoples who have inhabited northern Scandinavia for thousands of years. In the 13th century, the Swedish crown started to demand tribute from the Sámi, before other countries including Norway and Russia followed suit. In the 1500s, Swedish King Gustaf Vasa declared that the land traditionally belonging to the Sámi "belongs to God, to us, to the Swedish Crown and to no one else."

Late in 1673, Sweden promised its subjects tax breaks and freedom from military service if they colonized Lapland. Colonization of traditional Sámi lands continued for years, and reports of forced sterilization of the Sámi people were reported up until the 1970s.

The treatment of the indigenous people has in the past been likened to the treatment faced by First Nations tribes in America. In recent years, the Sámi people have begun lobbying the Swedish government for a truth and reconciliation process to address alleged historical and ongoing human rights violations against the indigenous group, including claims of forced sterilization, violence, and murder. In 2021, Nordic countries including Sweden set up Sámi reconciliation commissions to investigate indigenous injustices.

"I love Sweden"

But as the worldwide debate rages on, many have begun coming to the aid of Sweden.

One Twitter user said: "When people realize that Sweden is the bigger giver of donation to other countries by capita. Biggest immigration last decade with real benefits. Pensions as large as if you worked here all life [are given] to immigrants. But no. We must be racists."

Meanwhile, another user wrote: "We are paying around 70% of our income as taxes. So ppl in this country can have a roof over their heads and food on the table. This includes all the war victims America, Russia, Turkey, etc. created. And now you are making fun of Sweden because we don't cook food for you."

Sweden does have a long-standing reputation for its generous refugee policy. The number of people with refugee status living in the country between 2011 and 2019 steadily increased and reached over 254,000 in 2019. After dropping off slightly during the COVID-19 outbreak, the country has also seen more than 34,000 applications for refuge from Ukrainian citizens fleeing the current Russia-Ukraine war.

Sweden is also seen as a world leader when it comes to progressive social policies. While paid for by higher taxes, the government funding of a social safety net, generous parental leave, and publicly funded healthcare and education are all thought to contribute to Sweden ranking above average when it comes to citizens' life satisfaction.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Better Life Index asks populations to rate their life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10, and Swedes rated their country above average with a score of 7.3, with many citing notably high scores for education, work-life balance, and safety. In contrast, American citizens rate the U.S. lower with a satisfaction score of 7 and particularly low scores when it comes to work-life balance and safety.

One Swedish citizen and Twitter user later shared their confusion at the origins of the debate, debunking much of what had been suggested. They wrote: "Literally everyone is hospitable here and I have no f***ing idea where this #Swedengate s*** is from. Did you unironically see a single picture on Reddit and base your view of an entire country off it?"

Another internet user shared their personal experience of Swedish hospitality: "As a young traveler, I spent a month with a Swedish family. Housed me, fed me, loaned me a car, and let me stay in their Stockholm flat. I love Sweden and its people."

From a shared post via Reddit, the internet has become enthralled in debate about the Nordic country with the hashtag #Swedengate receiving responses from around the world. iStock / Getty Images / Twitter