Cultural misfires: Trick-or-treating and how to hold the fork and knife

November 8, 2013

in Cultural differences,Living abroad,Living in Sweden

Stockholm At my office, Jean the cashier dressed up as a witch for Halloween on October 31st.


In the years I’ve been in Stockholm, Halloween trick-or-treating has been gradually creeping its way in as a tradition. But since it is still so new, it’s a little confusing. So that means that some kids went trick-or-treating on the 31st, some went on the 30th and some went on the 1st and many didn’t go at all. Some kids had bags to carry their goodies in, some kids put their treats in their pockets. Some kids dressed up for preschool, some didn’t. The tradition is coming on here, but it’s not fully formed yet.

Of course, if you were to ask most any American 5-year-old she or he would tell you to go trick-or-treating on the 31st, that you bring a bag or carrier of some sort for your treats and that you should have a costume. Because that is just the way it’s done. (Funnily enough, we went to a dinner party on the 1st where everyone else was in costume. But since we weren’t informed of that plan, Robert and I weren’t part of the fun. But that’s another story.) In time, I’m sure Sweden will figure out how they want to do Halloween on their own terms.

I’ve been thinking about cultural misfires–basically, how where you are from shapes your perception of  how things should be done and how that perception is often considered wrong depending on where you are. Very clearly, I can  remember the oh so many times that I’ve been judged harshly for not following local customs.

The first time I went to Australia, I helped my now sister-in-law with the dishes. Instead of filling up one side of the sink with soapy water and the other with rinse water, I started rinsing dishes as I went, thus using up a lot more water. On the dry continent of Australia, wasting water is just not done. So Kim gave me a horrified look, quickly got me out of the way and never ever again let me near the dishes.

Looking back, I’m sure she thought I was the most horribly wasteful person ever. But at that time, I did not realize what a precious commodity water is there. And conversely, she had no idea that where I come from, there’s no shortage of water. (Of course, these days I do try to be much more mindful of my water usage, but that’s not my point here.)

Here in Sweden, it’s common practice to hold your fork in the left hand and your knife in the right and then to keep them each in that position as you eat. Where I come from, you hold your fork in the right hand and pick up the knife in the right as well on an as-needed basis. I try to remember to do things Swedish style when I’m here (or in Australia too), but sometimes I forget. It’s just not natural for me.

A while back, a well-meaning friend noticed I was not following the Swedish fork/knife custom and quietly told me that many Swedes feel that is a very rude thing to do. To which I could not resist replying, hey, where I’m from they would be the rude ones!



1 Roger November 8, 2013 at 09:53

Hi, cant believe that someone actually pointed that out ! I would never do that, but you are right its considered not well behavior at finer dining to eat with the fork in your right hand. But its not a Swedish tradition, I think it comes from the Victorian times when all this stupid rules of fine dining was set up to differentiate normal people from the higher royal and blue blooded ones.
Normal people back then was not even having a fork, they ate with a spoon in wood. Then later when forks became common, they just used it instead of the spoon.

Dont feel sorry for how you do things, I would feel sorry for the one who actually commented on it.

2 Sandra November 10, 2013 at 20:20

Thanks Roger. You make such great points, as always.
The person really did mean to be helpful, not critical. But it is so interesting how differently we can react to things, isn’t it?

3 Sandra November 10, 2013 at 20:27

And because there were so many great comments on Facebook about this post, I am adding them here too:
Brooke: Wow. I have never had anyone call me out on my knife and fork etiquette here. That just seems wrong. Tolerance is the lesson more people around the globe need to learn. Everyone has a different life experience to offer. No one should be made to feel ashamed because their knowledge and experience is different than someone else’s. Sadly it is all too common and I have been singled out in Stockholm on more than one occasion. It doesn’t feel great.

Lindsay: My kids’ dagis had Halloween this past Wednesday, the 6th! Of course, my Swedican kids still dressed up on the 31st as well but were the only kids at school in costumes, to the horror of the teachers. Its nice to always have the “foreign mom” card to fall back on:)

Anna: A couple people have called me out on my knife and fork etiquette – so annoying. In my opinion, it’s much ruder to point out to someone (in front of others no less) that they have missed a point of etiquette than to just keep in mind that said person is from a different country and culture. I just do what feels right. Heck, learning the dang language must be enough!

Sharon: Just curious – has anyone heard of a Swede being told they have bad manners in the US by eating the Swedish way?

Linda: During WWII some of the German spies in the US were caught simply because of the way they held their cutlery. I have no doubt the same happened with US spies in Europe.

Brooke: I find this so interesting, in the US we are taught to put our napkin in our lap and to keep elbows off the table. And as Sandra said we put our silverware down often. But I have found in Sweden you keep your elbows on the table, probably because you are holding your knife and fork throughout. I do agree w Roger, that Europeans in general have more etiquette rules at mealtime. I had never eaten soft boiled eggs outside of Europe, for example.

Peggy: Sandra, just to add to the Australian part of the story, when I was studying in Ireland and staying with cousins for weekend visits, I wondered why I was the first and only one to shower in the am. I realized later that I took such long showers every time, I used up all the hot water and here’s the Irish though, they never said a word, just took their cold baths. I felt like such a jerk.

Nicole: I was also thinking lately how strange it is that people in general do react that much on these tiny differences. Is it in the genes to react in that way? kind of: not from our tribe, danger danger.

Viveka: I still can’t do that knife and fork thing swedish style, i guess i will be the rude one in Sweden!!

Annelie: “In the American style, also called the zig-zag method or fork switching, the knife is initially held in the right hand and the fork in the left. Holding food to the plate with the fork tines-down, a single bite-sized piece is cut with the knife. The knife is then set down on the plate, the fork transferred from the left hand to the right hand, and the food is brought to the mouth for consumption. The fork is then transferred back to the left hand and the knife is picked up with the right.[3][7] In contrast to the European hidden handle grip, in the American style the fork is held much like a spoon or pen once it is transferred to the right hand to convey food to the mouth. Though called “American style”, this style originated in Europe” Interesting!

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