This problem is most acute at a formal dinner, where the maddening tradition is to hold some speeches before guests begin eating their meal.
The food is laid out, either on the table in front of each guest or on plates, and the guests just look at it as the meat cools and the sauces congeal, feeling a growing sense of frustration at having their meal ruined by their over-garrulous hosts.
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The culprit is generally the välkomstskål (“welcome speech” or “welcome toast”) held by the hostess or host. Thankfully, this is traditionally shorter than an after-dinner speech would be in the UK or US. It is liable, however, to be followed up by another short speech by someone else, dragging out the proceedings.
But for those who are naturally impatient, greedy, or simply hungry, the wait can be painful even at informal dinners with friends and extended family.
According to Magdalena Ribbing, the late Swedish writer on etiquette and good manners, it is not polite to start eating until the hostess or host has given a signal. “Do not start eating until the signal has been given by a host or hostess,” she warns, adding that the most important thing is to eat without sound or spillage.
The signal is normally simply var så god, literally “be so good”, the Swedish phrase for inviting people to eat or take something, but it could be something more informal like vänta inte! ät!, “don’t wait, eat!”.
When The Local approached our fellow foreigners on the Expats in Stockholm and Expats in Malmö Facebook pages, it quickly became evident that people from many different cultures find adapting to Swedish delayed eating a struggle.
“It happens within my family, when it’s just us,” says Daniele Purrone, from Italy. “I want to eat the food as soon as it’s ready, and, above all, warm. My Swedish wife first wants to make sure that the candles are lit, all the ‘right’ stuff is in place, and so on. She wants it to be mysigt. I want it to be warm.”
Wael Al Ghazi, who lives in Malmö, is used to devouring grilled meat straight off the barbecue, but at an autumn dinner with Swedish friends, he was surprised by how much time there was between the removal of the meat from the flames and its arrival in his mouth.
“We had it cold, swimming in meat juice,” he writes. “I don’t mind rare/medium done, but when cold! Our host was so particular in the setup and protocol that my kids started complaining, and when a kid is starving they don’t adhere to protocol and they’ll just speak their mind.”
Adelaide Ross, an au pair from Texas, has also been struggling with the long waits at the table of the Swedish family she lives with.
“I always assumed waiting on the kids was the reason this happens, but YES, we NEVER eat hot food because it sits there forever until everyone is ready, and it drives me CRAZY!!!” she says.
At the family table or with close friends, the wait is more about the Swedish concept of matro (mat-ro), or “food calm”, than etiquette.
Before you start eating, everyone should have settled down, the introductory chats and jokes should have subsided, the children should have stopped whatever they were doing.
Food is served, and there is then normally a pause, perhaps for a minute or two, while everyone collects themselves further, before the meal begins. (Incidentally, matro should continue for as long as everyone is still eating, meaning conversation should be subdued, and noise limited).
For particularly greedy people, the difficulties with delayed eating in Sweden do not stop at meals, but extend to the eats on offer at drinks parties, or the biscuits and cake at coffee evenings.
In many cultures, it is polite to show your self-restraint and considerateness by not eating the very last portion of a shared dish, as anyone who has witnessed the last piece of cake being endlessly sub-divided into smaller and smaller slices in their home country can attest.
This also happens in Sweden. What is more unusual is that the rule works the other way around too. Guests at a party do not want to be seen to be the first to take a biscuit, piece of cake, or delicious battered shrimp parcel, leading to long stand-offs.
If you have no reason to impress the other guests or your hosts, you can help everyone by just diving in and grabbing the most delicious-looking morsel on offer. But if you want to appear like you have manners and a modicum of self-restraint, you should at least wait for five minutes or so before doing this.
Several of the foreigners surveyed by The Local said they had learned to adapt to Sweden’s tradition of delayed eating.
“We’ve learned to just eat before,” jokes Renee Garcia-Envall, from the US.
“I always have a snack or sandwich before going to any Swedish dinner,” confesses Érika Giusti. “Even when visiting my in laws, I eat nuts or something secretly, because I get hungry waaay before they seem to do.”
Tune in to The Local’s new podcast, Sweden in Focus, on Saturday, as we discuss this article in more detail.