Swedengate: An international social media meatball-slinging campaign... turned national reckoning

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In this image taken Jan. 30, 2012 in Concord, N.H., a Swedish meatball recipe by Rocco DiSpirito is shown.(AP/Matthew Mead)
In this image taken Jan. 30, 2012 in Concord, N.H., a Swedish meatball recipe by Rocco DiSpirito is shown.(AP/Matthew Mead)

It all started as a simple question on AskReddit: "What is the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?” When a Redditor replied that he was expected to stay in his Swedish friend's bedroom while the friend ate dinner with his family, the internet exploded with hot takes. Seemingly everyone had an opinion about Sweden's apparent inhospitality in a worldwide uproar, now known as Swedengate. Is the reputation of Sweden forever tarnished? Or could the Scandinavian country use some teasing and meme-ing about a custom which is seemingly at odds with much of the rest of the world?

Or, has the dinner-that-wasn't shone a light on a more important, substantive conversation about what it means to be Swedish and whether that should be doubled-down on or reevaluated entirely.

This week on Endless Thread, we talk to the Redditor who started it all. Other central players of the Swedengate saga also join us, including the first person to use the Swedengate hashtag in connection with the controversy. Lastly, we delve into what Sweden's cultural norms reveal about the country's history, but also its reckoning with racism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Amory Sivertson: David, take me back. When did this happen? How old were you? What was going on in your life?

David Andersson: Well, I was about 12 years old and after school, me and my friend decided to go to his place and hang out. And you know, we did like 12-year-old kids do — sit in front of this computer, play games, read magazines.

Amory: Reading any…maybe teenage boy magazines, perhaps?

David and Amory: (Laughs.)

David: Nah, nah. Me and him, we were big nerds, so.

Amory: Okay.

David: Mostly nerd stuff.

Amory: Speaking of nerd stuff… hey Ben.

Ben Brock Johnson: Alright alright.

Ben and Amory: (Laughs.)

Ben: What are you tryna say?

Amory: Nothing you don’t already know.

Ben: Yeah, talk about the pot calling the kettle black. I don’t know.

Amory: That’s fair. Anyway, welcome to a conversation I recently had with a Redditor named David Andersson, who was recounting an incident from about 15 years ago that he’s never forgotten, and millions of people all over the world now… cannot let go.

Amory: Was he a close friend?

David: Yeah, he was absolutely.

Amory: And had you been over to his house before?

David: No, that was the first time.

Amory: So Ben, they’re maybe a couple hours into this after-school hang sesh.

Ben: Mm. That’s my favorite thing. After school hang seshes.

Amory: Yeah.

Ben: I love that.

Amory: Yeah but… David’s stomach is starting to rumble a little bit.

Ben: Snacktime?

Amory: Snacktime. And fortunately…

David: His mom was making dinner.

Amory: Okay.

David: And I heard his mother call for him. So he went. And then I sat in front of his computer and he came back a minute later and said, David, could you sit here and wait for 15 minutes? I was like, yeah, sure. What's up? I am just going to go eat dinner with my family. 

David: So I was like, All right, sure… I can wait. You go eat.

Amory: Did he say anything else about it, or was it just kind of assumed that you would understand... I'm going to go eat dinner and you're going to stay here?

David: I think it was very much assumed. He was born with that kind of thing. As for me, I wasn't, so, you know.

Amory: Okay.

David: It was very strange.

Amory: Now, when David says his friend was “born with that kind of thing,” he means he thinks this is just how he was raised. Dinner time was family-only time in his friend’s house. Or maybe, in his friend’s culture or country? David’s friend is Swedish.

Ben: Ahhhh Sweden. The land of meatballs and um… affordable furniture with confusing names.

Amory: That you have to assemble yourself, yeah. And midsommar parties and smorgasbords!

Ben: Oh God. Midsommar. Oh God. ABBA? ABBA! And Greta Thunberg? Greta Thunberg, represent. Alright, I’m down.

Amory: They got that nature, the forests, the lakes, great recycling over there!

Ben: Yep. Free college tuition, universal healthcare! Don’t hate it.

Amory: But also, apparently, getting left in your friend’s bedroom while he and his family have dinner without you?

Ben: Not cool.

David: I was mostly taken aback by it. You know, what could you say? It's this just. Just something his family do [sic]? Is it normal? Was is it a one time thing?

Ben: Listener, it was not a one-time thing. Not for David, and not for countless other people as David would soon learn.

Amory: Because although David didn’t say anything to his friend in the moment, he did say something online 15 years later. When, about a month ago, a post in the AskReddit community wondered, “What is the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?” David commented with the story of the dinner-that-wasn’t at his Swedish friend’s house.

Ben: That comment got tens of thousands of upvotes on Reddit before getting screenshot and posted on Twitter, where it got hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets and people sharing their own stories about getting the cold shoulder, the empty plate, or some other manifestation of Swedish inhospitality that many had experienced…

Amory: …But not many had talked about. At least, not on this large of a stage. And much to David’s surprise, his Reddit comment would kick off an international social media metaphorical meatball-slinging campaign against a country that, frankly, is far more familiar with heaping helpings of praise. A campaign known as…

Ben and Amory: Swedengate.

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. And today, we’re hearing from the people at the center of Swedengate about why this might not be just another social media storm that will blow over.

Ben: But also, why the Swedengate debate is giving them hope.

Amory: The virality of David’s story, at least initially, can probably be attributed to confusion mixed with humor. The first tweet about it read: “How are you going to eat without inviting your friend?”

Ben: And then came the memes. Like a stock photo of a group of children sitting in a circle labeled “Swedish family eating dinner,” and one kid off to the side labeled… “Their guest.”

Amory: There was even a Weird Spotify Playlist made in honor of young David. Remember the weird, jokey Spotify playlists, Ben?

Ben: Yeah. There's this great podcast called Endless Thread that did an episode about it, Amory. You should check it out.

Amory: Haha, noted. Ok, here we go. Track one: Oh My God. Track 2: I Am. 3: So Hungry. 4: So Very. 5: Hungry. 6: Why. 7: Won’t. 8: These People. 9: Feed Me.

Ben: Feed me!

['So Hungry' audio: I’m so hungry. Tell me, tell me...] 

Ben: Some Swedes were laughing right along with the rest of the world. The Swedish popstar Zara Larsson quote-tweeted the screenshot of David’s Reddit comment and captioned it: “Peak Swedish culture.”

Amory: Other Swedes? Not so much. A woman named Milla tweeted “Literally everyone is hospitable here. Did you unironically see a single picture on reddit and base your view of an entire country on it?”

Ben: I don't know, EVERYONE, is hospitable in the entire country? Seems suspect. But Zara Larsson took to TikTok to support her claim.

[TikTok audio: Growing up, as a child, it would be really common to go and play at your friend’s house and then they would be like, Oh, I’m just gonna and have dinner. I’ll be back in 30. And they would just leave you in their room. And you just had to play for like 30 minutes until they came back after they have food with their family what the f***?!]

Amory: What does the popstar think about people blaming her for validating negative views of Swedish culture?

[Zara Larsson, 'Ain't My Fault': “No I, I, I, I can’t be responsible, responsible. It ain’t my fault. Nope, nope, nope, nope."]

Amory: Soon, David’s story had spread from social media to mainstream media. The New York Times…

Ben: The WaPo!

Amory: (Laughs.) Do people call it that outside of media?

Ben: I don’t know, that’s what I call it. The WaPo.

Amory: Okay, The WaPo. The Washington Post. NPR…

Ben: Think pieces in Slate, Salon, and on and on…

Amory: When did you become aware that this had crossed platforms?

David: Eh, when I saw it on the news.

Amory: Oh my God. Hahaha.

Amory: David had no idea his story had even left Reddit! Until one day, he’s reading a national Swedish newspaper.

David: And I saw Swedengate trending and something about Reddit. And it got me curious. Huh. Strange article to write about. Clicked it open and you know, a picture there with my comment on it. I was like, what the—?

Amory: I, too, was like “What the— .” Worldwide Sweden shade was not a social media trend I would have ever expected, living in a place that largely puts Sweden on a pedestal.

Ben: On a pedestal made out of Swedish meatballs.

Amory: (Laughs.) That’s gross. So Ben, one of the first things I did was text a Swedish friend of mine to say, “Hey, what do you think about this Swedes-don’t-feed-their-guests business?” And she said she hadn’t personally witnessed or experienced this, but that I should ask her cousins, who were born and raised in Sweden. One of those cousins is Patrick Westöö.

Patrick Westöö: Let's start with the fact, is this true, right? Is there some truth to that? And I would say probably yes.

Ben: Patrick’s in his mid-thirties. He lives in Stockholm. He looks the part of a stereotypical Swede — white, blonde. Which maybe seems a little weird to say, but it’ll become relevant, we promise.

Amory: And he told us he’s not sure how widespread the practice of not including your guests at dinner is, but he knows it happens… and he offered at least one explanation.

Patrick: So the Swedish culture is very respecting to other people. Right? And it's very much non-intrusive, right? So you want to make sure that you don't sort of mess with anybody else, like you don't impose yourself on anybody else. And the way this might have worked, you see this kid... (audio fades out) 

Amory: Patrick suggested maybe the Swedish family assumed that David’s family would be making dinner for him. So they wouldn’t want to impose by spoiling his actual dinner, nor would they expect the imposition of an unexpected dinner guest. And this sort of thing would just be kind of understood.

Patrick: Exactly. But most of Swedish culture is understood. We don't spell things out. It's a small country, you know, we've all lived here in the same place for a thousand years.

Ben: Sweden is a small place. It’s a nation of only about 10 million people – roughly the size of New York City or London. And when your whole country’s population is the size of a large city, it makes sense that the culture might be a little more insular and less subject to the influences and norms of other countries.

Patrick: So people are very much connected. People know each other. And because everything is not written, you just know it. It's kind of hard for outsiders to figure out what to do, right?

Amory: Patrick did give us a few tips for if you are invited over to a Swedish person’s house…maybe even, for dinner! Things like, shoes off in the house. Which, I fully support. Wearing outside shoes inside should be straight up illegal on all seven continents.

Ben: Also, bring a dish with you to share in the food prep and cost, don’t overstay your welcome…

Amory: Insert the “Please leave by 9!” meme!

Ben: ...and be sure to reciprocate the invitation in a timely manner. Oh, and if you’re staying the night at someone’s house...

Patrick: Then we would bring our own sheets, because otherwise you're assuming that the host not only has to host people, but also clean all the sheets and do all the work.

Amory: While these practices may seem puzzling or inhospitable to some,

Ben: Yeah I’m not, I’m sorry, I’m not taking sheets to your house. I’m sorry.

Amory: (Laughs.) Well then you’re not invited. Well, either way they’re pretty low-stakes. Easy to poke fun at on social media. But Patrick says there have been more serious conversations in recent years about what it means to be Swedish, and about how to protect the country’s distinct cultural identity.

Patrick: Swedish people now, and a lot of political parties, are taking a much stronger defense of Swedishness. Whereas 15 years ago, you wouldn’t have this conversation like people wouldn’t be openly defending it because it was a bit tacky, maybe, a bit nationalistic.

Ben: Patrick attributes some of this to higher rates of immigration, crime, and a growing right-wing political movement over the last two decades in Sweden. These things do seem to be happening there.

Amory: But I was curious what he thinks of this kind of existential, national identity conversation.

Patrick: Personally, I think it's very positive, right? Because there's a lot of good stuff about our society, right? It's very, it used to be at least, very safe. It used to be very, you know, very independent. Like people could do what they wanted and to be very respectful and still is mostly for women, right? For women's rights. And I think those are unique things in the world and that we should be proud about. And I think what happened was that it went from all those things. We know them and we live like that to a state where not everybody knows and agrees with these things. So we have to spell it out. This is Sweden, this is what we do. Here is what we believe in. And if you don't like that, then that's fine, right? But we're not going to change.

Ben: This reminded us of a comment someone left in our subreddit suggesting that the Swedengate uproar demonstrates “the inability of others to understand that different places have a different way of life.”

Amory: Another Redditor referred to the collective teasing of Sweden on social media as an example of “the dangers of the online hive mind mentality.”

Ben: Wooo we know about those.

Amory: Yeah. And so does Patrick. Patrick didn’t seem too concerned about it. He works for a big tech company, so he sees viral pile-ons almost just as a fact of life.

Patrick: I mean, what you're describing is the Internet. These things are always gone on and they will always go on. Right. Yeah, I think you're always going to have these stories pop in and out.

Ben: And Patrick thinks the Swedengate story is gonna “pop out” any day now.

Patrick: Give it another week and people will have forgotten about this.

Amory: One month later and counting, the Swedengate hashtag is still going strong on Twitter. And there are some people — including Swedes —who are really hoping it will not only stay alive, but that Swedengate will be the start of a national cultural reckoning.

Lovette Jallow: A lot of people are opening their eyes that no country is perfect, no country's above criticism. Sweden is used every day against America. But how much better are we, really?

Ben: Great question. A definitive answer on whether America or Sweden is better, in a minute.

Amory: Finally!


Amory: Ok Ben, I want to go back to David.

Ben: The Redditor whose story launched hundreds of thousands of comments, Tweets, and people expressing their utter horror that he wasn’t fed at his Swedish friend’s house?

Amory: Yes, because, you know what Reddit’s like. A lot of times, unless a redditor’s location is relevant to the topic at hand, or they’re using British English words like trousers instead of pants or spelling “colour” with a u.

Ben: We had a row.

Amory: Right, we had a row.

Ben: It was tickety-boo.

Amory: (Laughs.) What?! The point is…

Ben: You never did, you never add tickety-boo?

Amory: Didn’t, nope, never. Glad to have it in my life now, though.

Ben: Yeah, yeah! It’s a tickety-boo in your life.

Amory: Okay, enough with you you have no idea where a Redditor is from. And when I read David’s comment — and even up until the second I heard his voice when our interview started — I kinda just assumed he was American! Maybe it was the super casual way his comment was written? I don’t know.

Ben: Yeah, or maybe you weren’t paying very close attention to anything.

Amory: Ben! Have you read the comment?

Ben: I’m just teasing.

Amory: Also, you are being such a scamp right now!

Ben: I’m sorry, go on.

Amory: Well, I allowed myself to keep on thinking this because, despite consuming a lot of Swedengate coverage before talking to him, you never heard from David in that coverage. Any of it. Anywhere. And so all of a sudden, I thought, “Wait a minute.”

Amory: Am I the first person to reach out to you?

David: Yeah, you are the first person.

Amory: What!?

Ben: Incredible.

Amory: Right? And instantly, I hear that he has an accent, of course. He’s told me he’s in the Central European time zone.

Ben: Hm, I smell lingonberry jam.

Amory: You’re smelling what his friend’s mom is cookin’.

Amory: Are you in Sweden?

David: Yep, exactly.

Amory: Are you Swedish?

David: Um, I'm half-Swedish.

Ben: So, confirmed. The guy who went viral for calling out his Swedish friend and accidentally kicked off the Summer of Swedengate is himself Swedish. Plot twist.

Amory: I mean, for people like me who’d only seen his Reddit comment on paper and assumed he was making fun of, like, “the weird new Swedish family who just moved in down the street”… Yeah! It was! But turns out, he’s lived in Sweden most of his life. His dad’s Swedish, his mom’s from Indonesia, which is where David was born and spent his early years. Then his family lived in Mozambique for a little bit, and then to Sweden. And it’s because David has experienced other ways of life that the incident at his friend’s house was so befuddling.

David: Of all the things I've seen in every different countries and cultures, that was the biggest culture shock to me. To most cultures, eating is more than just food. It's a social gathering. Like you want to bring as many people as possible.

Amory: Mmhm.

David: It's fun. In China, a common greeting. “Have you eaten yet?” They say that instead of "Hi."

Amory: Ben, have you eaten yet?

Ben: No, but this is making me hungry. Will your family feed me?

Amory: No, but um, (laughs) you might want to get yourself invited over to David’s house. Or really to David’s mom’s kitchen because, according to him, things would have gone very differently if he and his friend had gone to his house after school.

David: Every friend I ever had over was forced to eat regardless if they wanted it or not. So, you know, some, some people might not want to try stuff, which my mom unfortunately do get offended by.

Amory: What's a delicacy that your mom makes that you think might... someone might look a little skeptically at if they're not familiar with it?

David: Absolutely. Chicken feet.

Amory: Chicken feet.

David: Yeah, chicken feet.

Amory: But David told me there are some stereotypically Swedish things about him.

David: Oh, 100%.

Amory: Like what?

David: Well, Swedish people are very distant, maybe even cold, some might say.

Amory: Okay.

David: For example, if you're, you enter a bus and the only seats that's empty are next to someone, we're not going to take that. We're going to stand up.

June Findlay: What shocked me was the cold, stoic culture of Sweden, and that it was just like, you say hello and they're like, “Hello. Hey.”

Ben: And I'd be like, Oh god. Everyone hates me. I must run into the ocean.

Amory: This is June Findlay, and we don’t think she hates us, even though Ben started our conversation with her like this.

Ben: We're talking to June in June!

June: Yes, you are.

Ben: I'm just saying.

Amory: Pshhhh.

Amory: June is from Canada, which of course is on the opposite side of the stereotypical friendliness spectrum from Sweden. So it was jarring when she moved there for grad school in 2010. Especially because June is Black.

June: Yes, even just some of the history of some of the foods in Sweden, like I mentioned, there is a dessert called ‘negreball’. That was what it was called before. It's now called ‘chokladboll’, which is chocolate balls. But still…mmm, what the hell is this?

Ben: So when a post about not feeling welcome in a Swedish home went viral, June shared her own experience in a piece for the online publication Refinery29.

June: Like, for the most part, it is warm and friendly. If you're Swedish, if you're not, then there's again that that cold is not necessarily a direct hostile. It's the, it's the death of a thousand cuts, which if you dare to be anything other than what they want to conform to, then it's an issue.

Amory: June says she was never asked to wait in another room while others ate, but she did notice something about Swedes and their food.

June: When I was at gatherings that were hosted by Swedes, it was exact amounts of food. It was just enough that they're like, we are providing this for you and we don't have to give any extra, because no one wants to feel indebted to anyone else. It's so interesting to me that, we do exactly what we need for, like, who we are and who we know. But any strangers, we don't want to do that because God forbid, we'll have to…we owe you something and then that's a relationship we don't want. And I'm like, that is the antithesis to nearly every culture in the world. (Laughs.)

Ben: And June shared some Swedish history and theories around how some of these cultural attitudes and practices potentially came to be.

June: You know, going from an agrarian society like all farmers, you know, from a very feudal, war-filled path, which is partially why the whole connection thing to a cultural thing.

Amory: Throw in the Black Death, famines, Sweden’s long, harsh winters. And yeah, it’s at least conceivable you’d end up with a population that’s a little more socially wary, imposition-averse, resource-protective.

Ben: But we also put the point to June that someone made in our subreddit that maybe the internet is demonizing something just because it’s different from what we think of as “normal.”

June: Yeah, yeah. And that's the problem sometimes with social media discussion is very binary in that it's black or white, right or wrong. I say it's more of like, it's me holding up a mirror to the culture and saying, are you sure this is, you know, look outside yourself for once — and this is for everybody in the conversation — like, people are not othering Swedes just as much as Swedes are othering others in their own country, do you know what I'm saying? It’s just like they're doing it too, they just don't want to admit it.

Ben: This gets back to what it means to be Swedish, and who is, quote, “not Swedish enough.” Maybe one or both of your parents were born outside the country. Maybe Swedish isn’t your first language. Maybe you’re from the so-called Bible belt in southern Sweden, which June says is a thing.

June: In that part, which is called Skåne, which is kind of made fun of a lot by Swedes because they're not seen as real Swedes. They were part of Denmark at one point in history. That whole movement of like, you know, you are not Swedish, you don't belong here, or Sweden’s for Swedish people kind of came out of that.

Amory: The modern conversation about what it means to be Swedish and who gets to decide, that likely isn’t going away anytime soon. But June thinks “Swedengate” has forced some Swedes to consider a different question: What could or should it mean to be Swedish?

June: And so, I think it's been a good learning experience for a lot of people, but especially Swedes in particular, because they can kind of use that mirror to look up at themselves and be like, how can... if we want to change, which hey, some of them you'll always have people who never want to change, right? That's always the case. You know, people who are like, Oh my God, that's terrible. I have to do better. and they can go back to not making people bring their own bedsheets when they come to sleep over.

Ben: June told us that one of the most interesting conversations she saw online in the wake of David’s Reddit post was initiated by the first person to use the hashtag Swedengate in connection with it.

Lovette: It's not lost on me that every major media that has written or spoken about it did not identify me as the originator. They just think it came out of thin air.

Amory: Every media outlet, until we got to talk to her. This is Lovette Jallow. And it’s not lost on her that she hasn’t been credited until now because, as she explains it.

Lovette: That is the issue of being a Black woman. If I was a white Swede that had used the hashtag Swedengate first, there would be acknowledgment for that.

Ben: Lovette thinks a lot about hypotheticals such as this. She’s a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant who’s worked with companies like Spotify and Facebook...

Amory: …an activist and the author of two books about what it means to be Black in Sweden…

Lovette: ...and on my spare time, apparently I start viral threads on social media without knowing about it.

Ben and Amory: (Laugh.)

Ben: Lovette may be the reason the Swedengate is trending now, but this technically isn’t the hashtag’s debut.

Lovette: I did not know that the hashtag had been used last year by alt-right Swedish people to talk about Swedengate, immigrants are ruining Sweden.

Ben: Oh my God.

Lovette: So suddenly the hashtag was dealing with people's opinions about Swedish hospitality.

Amory: Co-opting a hashtag from xenophobes? You love to see it. The Twitter thread Lovette used it in started out like this: “Laughing at Twitter finding out that Swedish people will not feed their guests.” Two crying laughing emojis. “As a kid growing up here, we knew to just go home around dinner time.”

Ben: Lovette was born in The Gambia, but she moved to Sweden when she was 11 years old.

Lovette: And I came here dressed in a jeans jacket. Nobody told me that snow was coming. So I arrived at the airport literally dressed summertime, and I realized that Sweden's very cold.

Ben: And Sweden seemed especially cold to Lovette — cruel even, at times —  once she went to school.

Lovette: It wasn't unusual for kids to call me a monkey or to ask me if my skin is is brown because I smeared myself would poop, you know, things like that.

Amory: Even today, when Lovette tells people she’s from Sweden.

Lovette: Everybody's jaws drop. Like you're not blonde and blue eyed. And I'm like, Yeah, I have a mirror. I know. But also, more than 33% of Sweden's 10 million population have one or both parents born outside of Sweden. On top of that, over 25% of us are nonwhite, were people of color.

Amoy: And yet, she still gets the all-too-common follow-up question, “But where are you really from?”

Lovette: Generally I just tell people who ask that question, my mother's uterus and that ends the conversation.

Ben and Amory: (Laugh.)

Ben: Lovette doesn’t pull any punches. Clearly. The next tweet in her thread said that, in Sweden, quote, “A lot of foul things are just accepted as normal.” And she wasn’t just talking about Swedish inhospitality, but about how that mindset manifests as racism and discrimination against the country’s minority populations. Starting with its Indigenous populations.

Lovette: They've been marginalized, they've been sterilized. They have had their way of living. They've had their children taken from them and put into re-schooling systems. Then you look at race biology, which literally was born here before it was exported to America — that literally put white people at the top of the hierarchy and Black people at the bottom. We're still seeing ramifications of that in health care. We're still seeing ramifications in how black children are being treated here in Sweden. Then you move on to, well, let's say Second World War. Sweden maintains the image that we were neutral. No, in fact, we had internment camps for anti-Nazis. In fact, we did allow enemy lines to be crossed within our country whilst we did nothing.

Sweden is used every day against America. But how much better are we, really?

Just because we don't have guns, we still have racism. We still have people who are disabled, who are being disenfranchised. We still have houselessness. So it's not a utopia, really, to beat America over head with, because we have our own things to take care of here.

Amory: The response to Lovette’s Twitter thread was swift and overwhelming. She says it started with men passive aggressively inviting her to their houses for dinner.

Lovette: And then it started getting scary because people were actually very angry, asking me why I hate my own country, Sweden.

Ben: Lovette says she had people calling her racial slurs and telling her to “go back to Africa.”

Lovette: So I decided that I have to address this because this happened before and I know how far it can escalate for a Black woman here. So I decided to host a room to discuss Swedengate. 

Amory: Lovette used Twitter Spaces to host this conversation. It was 6 hours long and nearly 300,000 people attended: Swedish people, non-Swedish people, white people, people of color. They shared stories of growing up in Sweden, of immigrating, of leaving. People affirming David’s experience, people defending David’s friend, and really everything in between.

Ben: We asked Lovette if this felt like a conversation long overdue. She said no. The overdue part, particularly for Sweden’s minority communities, is being heard.

Lovette: Every time we start having these conversations, we deepen these conversations, we give it nuance, we get silenced by either someone gaslighting us and telling us it's not real. We misunderstood things. Or we get threatened, our lives get threatened, mine included. So silence here is always people talking about immigration and people with immigrant backgrounds. But you never get to hear our voices because the Swedish international PR is that strong.

Amory: And PR isn’t typically that big on nuance. We heard June Findlay talk about this, too, with regards to social media. It’s hard to have a both/and kind of conversation in an either/or kind of space.

Ben: But Lovette is trying to build that space. Take her Instagram page, for example, where you’ll find pictures of her on Sweden’s national holiday last month wearing the traditional Swedish garb and proudly waving a Swedish flag immediately following a screenshot of a Tweet she made calling out Sweden’s “fragile sense of image when it comes to our country and customs.”

Lovette: When I speak well of Sweden and there's so many great things to speak about Sweden, nobody has a problem with that. Nobody comes into my comments or my emails or my Instagram to tell me, “Go back to Africa, you monkey or you N-word.” But when I dare say that Sweden has a problem with racism in healthcare, in the police force, in housing, then people are more like, “Well, you should be grateful you're here.” It's the assumption of, "Go back to your mud hut." You have to love Sweden to even be able to criticize it. We do not criticize people we do not love. And we know when a loved one criticizes us or gives us constructive criticism, it's out of love, and for us to change.

Ben: Do you think good things can come from Swedengate?

Lovette: I have to believe. I cannot live a life where I just give up on the same place that I have given so much to. So, yes, I have hope and I know good things will come out of this. Number one, a lot of people are opening their eyes that no country is perfect, no country's above criticism. And nationalism, when it's blinded, can be very harmful because you’ll be attacking the same people that want to better the country.

Amory: You know what, Ben? I have another source of hope to offer up from this whole Swedengate saga. A pretty surprising one, actually.

Ben: Oh yeah?

Amory: Yeah. It’s hope more so for humanity than for Sweden specifically. But it comes from our OP David, and the friend that left him, hungry, in his bedroom 15 years ago.

Amory: Was this kind of the beginning and the end of the friendship, or did you get did you stay did you stay friends and just not talk about it again?

David: We're still friends. Actually, I did send..

Amory: Oh really? (Laughs.)

David: Yeah, yeah, I did send him a picture of the comment and I said, well, you have 50% of the responsibility of this.

Amory: Oh my God.

Amory: Would you… I mean, no pressure, but if your friend would be willing to talk to us...

David: Yeah, I could absolutely ask him.

Amory: Oh, please do.

Amory: Oh, and he did.

Martin Sähl: My name is Martin.

Amory: Martin Sähl. AKA the friend without whom David’s post, and thus Swedengate 2022, would not exist.

Martin: I'm finishing up my thesis to become a civil engineer. Yeah, that's pretty much what I do. (Laughs.)

Amory: And that’s pretty much all Martin does. He’s been so wrapped up in his thesis lately that hasn’t been paying attention to social media at all, or so he claims. He claims he had no idea David had made a post that had accidentally turned Sweden’s global reputation from a meatball-making, nature-loving, practical-furniture-paradise into a child-starving, BYO-bedsheets, nationalistic hellscape. Hyperbolically speaking, of course. And even if he had, he wouldn’t have known David’s post was about him because he has zero memory of this particular incident.

Martin: No, not at all, actually.

Amory: But he also doesn’t deny it for a second.

Martin: It feels like a pretty common thing in Sweden to do that kind of thing, you know? Ask someone to wait in your room whilst you go and eat.

Amory: So were you ever told to wait in a friend's room while your friend…?

Martin: Yeah. Yeah. Multiple times.

Amory: Really?

Martin: Yeah.

Ben: So not only was this a thing, but it was such a thing that it… isn’t a thing?

Amory: Something like that, yeah. But, for anyone who was up in arms about an unfed guest, rest assured, it’s not a thing Martin does anymore, nor does he excuse or defend it as just being part of Swedish culture.

Martin: No, no. Absolutely not. And I mean, not my mother either. Actually, she is really embarrassed about this. (Laughs.) When I told her that like, this post was about him being at our place, she got really embarrassed and stuff like that, so. (Laughs.)

Amory: Oh no. Had she heard of this? Had she heard about Swedengate?

Martin: Yeah, yeah, she had. She had no idea about the like where it came from and all that stuff. So when I told her about his post and the origin being from our place, she was really embarrassed about it. Because, like, she's a very generous and thoughtful person. So she feels really bad about it now, you know?

Ben: Was Martin pissed at all that David posted about this on a public platform? Like, when David joked to him that he was 50% responsible for this whole Swedengate tsunami, I mean, does he feel that? Does he resent that?

Amory: You know, what he told me was that he thought this was really funny. And that the only thing that made him angry — or I guess sad would be a better word, really — was when he did finally wade into the posts and tweets that all of this generated and he saw some of the nationalistic and racist comments left that June and Lovette referred to.

And he also said something that echoed what we heard them say: he, too, hopes the larger Swedengate conversation is here to stay. And that it leads to less unquestioned acceptance and defense of cultural practices just for national identity’s sake, and more acceptance of others just as human beings.

Ben: And maybe more giving each other a seat at the table and a nibble of the Swedish fish? You know, a taste of the cinnamon bun... something, something... a sip of the salmon soup?

Amory: Oh boy. Well, if David and Martin are any indication, it’s never too late.

Amor: I feel like the fact that you two are still friends, it's like a little microcosm of what we might all be able to take from this, that, you got past it. We worked past the cultural differences and you remain friends to this day.

Martin: Yeah. That's quite a beautiful way to look at it, actually.

Amory: Well, might I suggest that, uh, when your thesis is done and your head is above water, I just think maybe you should have David over for dinner.

Martin: Yeah, I think so, too. Actually.

Amory and Martin: (Laughs.)

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Amory Sivertson Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.



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