The Swedish Fika

The adjective Swedish is used deliberately, as potential substitutes, such as Scandinavian or Nordic, are far too generous in describing the affected geographical area, unfortunately.

Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall, authors of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, comment, “Functioning as both a verb and a noun, the concept of fika is simple. It is the moment that you take a break, often with a cup of coffee, but alternatively with tea, and find a baked good to pair with it. You can do it alone, you can do it with friends. You can do it at home, in a park or at work. But the essential thing is that you do it, that you make time to take a break: that’s what fika is all about.”

Wikipedia, under the heading Coffee Culture, notes the following: “Swedes have fika (Swedish pronunciation: [²fiːka]), meaning “coffee break”, often with pastries, although coffee can be substituted with tea or even juice, lemonade or squash for children. A sandwich, fruit or a small meal may be called fika as the English concept of afternoon tea. The tradition has spread through Swedish businesses around the world. Fika is a social institution in Sweden and the practice of taking a break with a beverage and a snack is widely accepted as central to Swedish life. As a common mid-morning and mid-afternoon practice at workplaces in Sweden, fika may also function partially as an informal meeting between co-workers and management people, and it can even be considered impolite not to join everyone else for fika.”

Coffee entered the English language in 1582 via the Dutch koffie, from the Ottoman Turkish kahve, from the Arabic qahwah. It entered Swedish as kaffe, about one hundred years later.

Wikipedia also notes that the English language term coffee break dates from 1952. The Swedish term, fika is considerably older. Equally close to American English as it is to Swedish, it is probably closer to Arabic. The first reference to it, dates from 1910 – 13. Yes, sources differ. Take the English word coffee (kaw-fee) then turn the syllables around (fee-kaw) or fika. Its origins are that simple. Where, precisely, in Sweden this first happened, and why, are questions left to etymologists, and will not be addressed here, except to say that not all sources agree.

The Universal Fika

At formal meetings, almost nothing new is ever said and the importance of messages imparted, is always in doubt. Informal meetings are much more effective, when communication is the goal. Yet, things cannot be left to chance.

I have often argued that e-mails are a much better substitute for meetings. Unfortunately, on the one occasion that my employer tried this, I neglected to read the pertinent e-mail. Thus, one day I drove the 45 km to work, only to be told that we would be going on a course at a hotel 10 km in the opposite direction from our house.

The physical meeting place for a regular fika should be designed. One has to take into consideration how people group, and interact while engaging with each other over coffee. There can be various approaches. Anthropologists use ethnographic observation, and interaction designers have similar techniques. One might even want to consult with architects and engineers, as well as other people who have an understanding of materials and the environment.

Sound is a particularly fascinating factor in the design of meeting spaces. An excess of polished surfaces may cause needless reverberation, while an excess of textiles may absorb and deaden too much sound. With computer simulation, as my own specialization, I will take the opportunity to encourage the use of simulation models in designing any environment.

My experience of fikas is in work and educational settings. For me, a fika is an informal meeting, disguised as a break. During a fika, the situation confronting each and every participant can be discussed in a friendly and helpful manner. Bosses have to put away their titles, and open their ears. Even the most timid are expected to voice their opinions. In this way group consensus can be explored and developed.

While there can be clusters of people, who have cluster-wide communication, there must also be wider forms of communication that allow conversational topics to seep between clusters. It is also important that participants (to some degree) rotate their cluster membership. As in any meeting, some topics are generally avoided. On the other hand, there are usually some people who are willing to break any taboo. This results in fluid transitions, rather than sharp demarcations.

Far too much discussion of fikas revolves around food. Obesity is a major problem in Western countries. Many people suffer with gluten related conditions. Brones and Kindvall are far too concerned with baked goods, and do a disservice in encouraging their consumption. I have come across some institutions that provide free waffle batter (and iron), along with assorted sweet condiments such as syrups, honey and jams. I wonder why these institutions hate people. I will end this tirade by noting that processed foods bring with them more disease than health, and have no place in a modern workplace.

Personally, I would like to encourage the consumption of more fruit and vegetables. These can take many different forms, but I will mention both salads and soups. There are people who cannot consume various types of fruit and vegetables. For example, more than one person I know has problems after consuming raw apples and raw carrots. Yet, they are able to eat apple sauce and carrot cake without problems. The lesson here, is that if anything is to be served, there must be a variety. One size does not fit all.

Every workshop needs space and time for discussion. At Cliff Cottage’s Unit One, we are attempting to develop our own fika tradition. Unfortunately, it still occurs more often in theory than in practice. On Friday, at 12:00 tools are put down, cups are picked up, to be filled with coffee, tea, infusions or just plain water, along with a choice of fruit. For the next hour people are expected to contribute their opinions about workshop activism, or any other topic of mutual interest. The one sin to be avoided is gossip.

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