In all cultures, there is an element of predicatability. Some things that you can feel will always happen. Things that give you a sense of security because you can depend on them.
In Sweden, it’s pancakes.
Today is Thursday. In every lunch restaurant and every staff canteen that sell Swedish food, pancakes are on the menu. You can rely on it. It feels dependable. The pancakes are served in a particular way – with whipped cream and jam – and always, always served together with a bowl of steaming pea soup and bread.
It’s fun to watch Swedes on Thursdays. In the staff canteen, grown men queue up to ladle their soup into their bowls and pile pancake after pancake onto a plate like a Scooby snack. Then they gleefully paste on the jam and smother it with whipped cream. It’s like watching a jelly and ice cream party for 10-year olds.
Pancakes on Thursdays is especially interesting for us Brits. You see, we are deprived. We only get to eat pancakes once a year – on ‘Pancake Day’. ‘Pancake Day’ as it happens was last week, Shrove Tuesday. And on this day, when Swedes traditionally tuck into Lent buns, we Brits make pancakes and cover them with sugar, lemon juice and chocolate sauce.
But only once a year.
It’s not always that easy to understand how the rules of different societies work, especially when it comes to food. A Swedish customer of mine once told me a story about some Japanese visitors to Sweden that he was responsible for looking after.
The Japanese were visiting on a pancake Thursday. At lunch time, the Swede took the Japanese visitors to the company restaurant. Unsure of what to do when faced with the lunch time food, the Japanese took a bowl each and filled it with pancakes. They then spooned on jam and cream. And finally, they poured pea soup over the whole lot. They were left with an unholy mess seaping over the edges of the bowl.
The Swede saw what his Japanese visitors had done and was unsure of how to handle the situation. He could tell them they had made a mistake by not putting the soup in a bowl and the pancakes on a separate plate. But he felt this could potentially embarrass them and force them to lose face. This could be devastating to them and their business relationship.
So, he did the only thing he thought an adaptive, culturally-sensitive person should do. He took a bowl, filled it with pancakes and cream and then he smothered it with soup. He sat down with his Japanese visitors and slowly forced down the soggy contents of the bowl with a spoon.
It’s nice to know that however dependable and reliable a tradition is, it is not so rigid that it can’t be adapted if the circumstances decree.
And, in this case, those circumstances are known as hospitality.