Photo illustration by Slate
Culture, Social Media

Swedengate: Why Do The World Need to Be Conformist?

I often think that we now live in an era where people are quick to react to every snippet of news they hear as if it’s the sole purpose of their social existence. And the time it took them to access and share that information, they forget about them in about the same amount of time. Yet, this reminds me of the old allegorical tale that circulated on the net around the beginning of this century, about a boy driving nails into a tree every time he was angry and later realising that the scars are there long after the nails were removed. We often react to things without thinking about what repercussions that might have on the people these reactions were directed at. The latest addition to this saga is the #Swedengate.

It started with someone asking on Reddit about the strangest custom they were aware of in a country, and someone said in Sweden, they were expected to wait when visiting friends’ houses while they ate dinner. Many shared the same stories, and people from Sweden on the media platform confirmed that is the case. If it stopped there, as a custom previously unknown to the rest of the world, that would have been the end of the story. But that’s just the beginning as people started to judge this, and soon Swedes are scorned for this ‘awful’ practice. As ever in these situations nowadays, as if standing in front of the grand jury of the world, Swedes are expected to give testimony to why they sustained this behaviour. Failing to provide a convincing response might tarnish the country’s image forever — however many days or hours ‘forever’ means these days.

When I first read something about this, I thought that’s bizarre to let a child wait in the house while the rest of the host family ate. It’s difficult for me to comprehend coming from India, where there is an old saying, ‘atithi devo vabah’ (अतिथि देवो भव:), which means your guest should be treated like deities, and guests are always offered food. But customs and practices are not developed overnight, and this is why every human race is unique, and cultures vary from region to region. For example, when I first moved to the UK, I found it strange that people offered ‘petrol money’ or for buying a tin of soup — something I’d never experienced living in India. So now, if I buy something for family or friends, I don’t take the money for it.

On the other hand, when I ask someone to pick up an odd bit from the shop, I always offer them the money, knowing they’ll expect it. Yet I remember that when you’re a child, it wasn’t always the case that people offered you to have a meal with them. While playing with my friends in their place, you’ll have their parents asking what they would like to eat for lunch or telling us the time and reminding us that it’s getting close to lunchtime. It was a polite hint to wrap up the games and time to go home. At times people like me, who are bad at getting suggestions, they’ll tell me to go home as my parents will be waiting for me.

One worrying outcome is seeing a convergence of cultures, or at least the public expectation of it, primarily polarised towards western cultures. We have gone through thousands of years of human evolution, and our practices, cultures, and language depend on geography, ethnicity, race and many other factors that it’s pointless to expect all to be uniform. There will be some commonalities, as will be differences, and that’s how the world works. The Sooner we appreciate the uniqueness of the cultures, the sooner we will get rid of our prejudices, and it’s the prejudices that are driving us apart. What cultural impact will this event have on the Swedes? Will they still be proud and carry on with their age-old practices? Or will they remember the fiasco that perhaps lasted a week and start changing their habits? Will the behaviours be the same within Sweden as practised by Swedes immigrants to other countries? Again, many factors will influence the custom, and different aspects will have extra significance to each person. In summary, rather than expecting Swedes to change their habits, it’s perhaps a reminder to the rest to prearrange with the hosts if their child will eat at theirs. For everything else and the hype, someone expressed the situation long ago — much ado about nothing.

To end this blog, I’d recount a much-cliched joke we may have heard many times, and please excuse me for the stereotypes used in the joke. A Chinese professor goes to a party with many western guests and finds many people staring at him, sneering. He approached one person and asked why people were staring at him like he was a clown. The person replied that it was because the professor was mixing coke with wine, and “that’s not how you should drink our wine”. The old professor smiled and replied, “I can see that the tea you are drinking, you took our drink, put milk and sugar in it and dipped your biscuit in it”.