The quintessential Swedish concept. It’s coffee with friends, but not just coffee – there is usually some fikabröd involved: kanelbulle (cinnamon buns), kärleksmums (“love yummies”), morotskaka (carrot cake), punschrulle… I could go on forever.
Fika is a religion in Sweden. And it’s a religion that I gladly partake in. When I first moved to Sweden in the fall of 2007, it was the first Friday at work and everyone gathered promptly in the fika room (kitchen) at 14.30, grabbed a cup of coffee, and enjoyed the fikabröd that was out on the counter. We all sat around for 20-30 minutes and talked about everything and anything other than work. It was one of the most interesting and likable things that I experienced in my first few months here. I remember making a comment about how this was something I needed to introduce to the US firm — and I probably would have, had I moved back. 🙂
Our company has a Friday fika every week (with the exception of days that we’re off, like yesterday). You could argue that fika is one of the things that makes Sweden so different than the US. People here work to live, they don’t live to work. They make it a point to incorporate fika into their daily lives and will not let you violate the sanctity of the event, even if they are paying you thousands of SEK per hour to help them with something. In addition to our department-wide Friday fika, many people also fika as part of their daily routines, but in smaller groups. They gather at 9.00 to fika with some colleagues, and again at 14 or 15 to have their afternoon coffee. I’ve spoken to my friends who work at other companies and they more or less say the same thing happens at their offices: fika once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Like clockwork.
I have been so busy these last few months that I haven’t really taken the time to join in during Friday fika. I need to be better at that because not attending fika apparently sends a message.
I have a great example which, after three years of living here, should not surprise me, but it still did. My buddy Josh and I were in Huskvarna, Sweden about a month ago, helping a company with a self-assessment process. There was a reason that both of us were there: the client had several processes that required this self-assessment, and that meant we had to meet with something like 20 people during 1 day. We created a schedule for each person based on how many pieces of the assessment they were responsible for. Some people we could meet for 15 minutes, others for 45 minutes, and even others for 3 hours. The Head of Accounting was not on the schedule but since she had enough parts for 5 hours, she told us to visit her whenever we had a free moment between our other meetings. Clearly, time was of the essence and we had to do what we could to keep to the schedule.
It was a Tuesday morning and we began at 8.00 sharp. Josh and I split up, going into one of the meeting rooms based on our respective schedules. I talked to my person (who had a 60 minute slot with me) and we went through the self-assessment process. It went well – even though it was 8 in the morning and I had only the coffee from the hotel – and we were done by 8:55. I walked to the office of the Head of Accounting and said, “Hey Carolina, we finished a few minutes early, and I don’t have anything until 10.00. Do you want to get started?”
“Yes, let’s do that. But first, let me grab a cup of coffee.”
I thought she meant “I will get a cup of coffee and come back and work with you.” But no, she meant, “it’s fika time. Let’s go get a cup of coffee together, sit with us, and we can start with the assessment again in a little while.”
What? I thought we were on a very rigid time schedule here? Well yes, we were. But in that time schedule, apparently fika was somehow fit in.
But I joined her, and her colleagues found room for me around their tiny round table. They went around the room and introduced themselves in Swedish, and I gave them a quick intro as to why I was there and what I was doing in Sweden (It is #trulyswedish to ask someone why they are in Sweden. It’s like they don’t believe that anyone would willingly move here!) The fika went on for 30 minutes, and then Carolina and I were ready to start again at 9.30. The rest of the day, while crowded, went without a hitch.
I found out later in the day that the entire department had been nervous about us coming in from Stockholm to perform the self-assessment with them. They didn’t really know what it meant or what would be required of them. But apparently, during the 30 minute break that we took together, they become so much more comfortable with the situation and more importantly, with me. I was not just a hot shot consultant (although I am one :)) coming in from Stockholm to show them what’s right and wrong. Instead, I was a person, with a name, with rather charming American-accented Swedish, and they found all this out during fika, and it made their day go by that much smoother.
So why was I surprised? I’ve participated in many fikas but for me, it has just meant taking a break or having coffee with some friends. But it means so much more to the Swedes. After three years, I now understand that for the Swedes, fika isn’t just an excuse to get together at 9 and at 14.30 to get a caffeine kick and to socialize. It’s a way of life: for people to be people, for colleagues to get to know each other, and for strangers to prove that they mean no harm.
Fika is a #TrulySwedish phenomenon, and for good reason. Long live fika!
What are your thoughts and experiences with fika?