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Time for fika?

Fika – the Swedish version of the coffee break – welds us together and makes us creative. Linköping researcher Viveka Adelswärd has studied a tradition that fascinates numerous foreign visitors.

Viveka AdelswärdIs it fika time yet?

There is not a Swede alive who has not asked that question. Fika is a Swedish necessity, much more than just a cup of coffee.

Around about 9:30 or 10 am, and again at around 2:30 or 3 pm, the university’s lecture halls and offices empty out, and the break rooms and student cafés become beehives of activity.

It is a typical fika.

The same thing happens simultaneously all over Sweden. People have a cup of coffee – and sometimes a biscuit, a bun, or a sandwich with it.

But what do we actually do during a fika?

“We meet under informal circumstances, exchange information and comment on what’s happening. The hierarchy breaks down during the fika; we’re all in it together regardless of power and position.”

This is what Viveka Adelswärd - professor of communication who has studied the informal conversations, small talk and gossip - tells us.

“A fika where everyone joins in is important for a workplace, business administrators have demonstrated this. It provides a break in the work, and both employers and employees get a lot out of it. During that time, we often talk about our work and find out what’s going on in the organisation. We sound each other out and let a little of our private lives come out, which can create sympathy for colleagues who are having a tough time at the moment and are acting accordingly.”

It has been several decades since the Department of Thematic Studies was formed at Linköping University with cross-disciplinary research that was almost unique for its time, but Adelswärd remembers how much the close atmosphere in the break room meant for the young researchers:

“The discussions we had over our coffee cups! It was a fantastic time.”

And the fika makes us creative.

“It gives us a brief respite. We get a chance to blow the dust off our brains, fill them with inspiration from others, and have an opportunity to test our thoughts and ideas.”

So we do not drink coffee just to drink coffee.

“The fika, over time, has become a social institution. If someone declines to be part of the fika these days it often draws attention. It’s almost seen as rude; those who doesn’t like coffee choose tea, a soft drink, or content themselves with a glass of water rather than do nothing at all,” says Adelswärd, and mentions an Iranian researcher who, after several years in Sweden, got irritated at a new co-worker who did not want to “come have a fika” at all.

“Doesn’t he understand how important it is?!” She was really upset – which can only be interpreted one way: She had become as Swedish as someone can get!

Coffee is not exactly Swedish, but drinking a lot of coffee is typically Swedish. Scandinavians are the world’s biggest consumers of coffee.

But how did it start? Someone must have started having a fika at some point?

The word fika has been documented from the early 1900s, and it is believed to have its origins in one of the secret languages that itinerant merchants or craftsmen developed.

“On the other hand, we know that drinking coffee really took off at the beginning of the 1800s, after the era of prohibition when the Swedish crown tried to limit the import of luxury goods like coffee and silk,” Adelswärd says.

Many state-sponsored attempts to limit coffee drinking to coffeehouses were also carried out elsewhere in Europe during the 1700s. Opinion against the prohibition sometimes took unexpected turns. In Leipzig, for example, Zimmerman’s coffeehouse gave Johann Sebastian Bach the task of composing a song of praise about coffee.

“Which he did, and we call it the ‘Coffee Cantata’.”

Although in Europe, Adelswärd adds further, coffee drinking was mostly a masculine pastime. The coffeehouse gathered artists, intellectuals, and the learned together and political discussions were always in progress there.

“In England, coffeehouses were called penny universities, and it was also where men argued themselves to death about publishing newspapers.”

BiscuitsIn Sweden, the women took over the coffee cups.
Around the mid-1800s, women’s coffee parties held at home became increasingly popular.

And when the cultivation of sugar beets a half-century later set off sugar consumption, the parties got their own name –kafferep, or coffee klatsch – and a fixed form: biscuits were served with the coffee.

The kafferep with seven kinds of biscuits became a vital Swedish institution and a breathing space where women could exchange experiences.

“The kafferep has always been, somewhat disparagingly, associated with gossip. From a gender perspective, that’s interesting; men’s conversation over coffee has rarely been labelled gossip.”

Etiquette and cookbooks had instructions and advice on how to hold a kafferep into the 1950s, says Adelswärd, who has several of them on her own bookshelves.

“This one came out in 1945,” she says about a book titled Seven Kinds of Biscuits.

“It’s still being published, with new recipes, and is Sweden’s most-sold book with 3,732,000 copies.”

As with all parties, it was a matter of knowing how to conduct oneself. Those who did not know the social codes were mercilessly revealed as soon as they took their hat off in the hallway.

And if some socially well-placed woman made a mistake, it would sometimes go down in history.

“It’s said that once after winning the Nobel Prize, author Selma Lagerlöf went up to the coffee table when the hostess invited everyone up. She was immediately corrected: ‘Married women first!’”

The story does not tell how the unmarried Lagerlöf took the reprimand.

Someone who did not care in the least was Pippi Longstocking, who when invited to her first kafferep gladly grabbed all the biscuits and even put her face in the cake.

But that party was also the last one she was invited to.

And that is all for the Swedish kafferep.
So – won’t you come to a fika?


Text: Gunilla Pravitz
Photo: Vibeke Mathiesen
LiU magazine no. 2, 2013

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Last updated: 2017-02-13