Godmother of Swedish etiquette battles dinner-table racists

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Godmother of Swedish etiquette battles dinner-table racists

How do you tackle racism when it not only threatens your dinner party, but your sense of decency? Our Swede of the Week, the grande dame of etiquette, is Magdalena Ribbing, who says that protesting is both good manners and good for democracy.


How did this curly haired older lady go from aristocratic musings about how to hold your fork correctly to telling Swedes to stand up against friends who spout xenophobic comments at every turn?

First of all, anyone who downplays Ribbing's place in Swedish society would be a fool. People listen to her. In her etiquette column in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper, Ribbing has opinions on everything.

Let's take a gander through her latest how-tos: Is it OK to do the dishes in a wee kitchen when your guests are still there? (Yes, as long as you're still attentive, but why not hide the dishes away for a while until the party's over). Where to place the wine glasses? (To the right in Sweden, but don't be aghast if our Mediterranean neighbours put them on the left).

But among these endless reams of advice on things like what to wear at weddings, Ribbing seems to have stumbled across a raw nerve in the Swedish post-multicultural psyche this week, as shown by her response to a recent inquiry.

"Dear Magdalena. We just got back from a group holiday, during which a friend's friend never missed a chance to say something offensive," the letter read.

Among other things, the man in question had called women with headscarves "Easter Witches" (in Sweden, kids dress up as witches at Easter, a mingling of heathen beliefs and the subsequent Christianization of the land).

"At Arlanda airport, a guy with a non-European appearance asked us where the buses left from. Once he left, the friend of our friend said to us, 'Wonder if he was heading to the zoo?'."

The 73-year-old Ribbing was unapologetic in her reply to the call for help in dealing with racist commentary.

"Yuck! One should tell him off," began her response. "Turn directly to the horrible person who talks the way you have described and say 'What you are saying is not OK; it is wrong and undemocratic and we don't want to hear it'."

She further counselled that it did not matter if the spouter-in-question felt embarrassed, and that it could not be considered impolite to tell him to refrain from further xenophobic statements.

"The one who remains silent gives their approval," she mused.

That last quote, published in DN on Tuesday, was retweeted ad infinitum, and even former Left Party leader Lars Ohly saw fit to share Ribbing's advice with his followers.

Ribbing, the author of nearly 30 books, has worked at DN since 1970 - as a political reporter, among other things. While she has penned books on jewellry and on the very old Ribbing family (members include one man linked to the murder of King Gustaf III), the lion's share of her work helps readers navigate the how-tos, always, nevers and faux pas of the sometimes fluid norms of social etiquette.

Ribbing may not be loved by all - she is after all an aristocrat with forthright opinions on work wear ("No shorts at work!") and breastfeeding at formal events ("Could you imagine the crown princess breastfeeding in public?") which have irked some - but her no nonsense approach has earned her fans.

In 2011, she won a prize for being clear (no joke - it's called Begriplighetspriset, in Swedish, literally, 'The Comprehensibility Prize').

"She has for many years tirelessly worked to make the diffuse and unspoken but still strong codes of behaviour in society understandable to one and all," the prize-givers said.

And judging from the response to her no-nonsense advice for tackling casual racism, Swedes are more than happy to have this straight-talking septuagenarian offer them guidance on how to navigate, not only the unwritten codes of high society, but also the everyday confrontations that crop up in an increasingly diverse Sweden.

DON'T MISS: A list of The Local's past Swedes of the Week

Editor's Note: The Local's Swede of the Week is someone in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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