The Skinny in Fika and Lagom

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So you’ve done some research in preparation of your trip to Stockholm. Two words stand out in the guidebooks, as the epitome of Swedish culture: fika and lagom. But what do these words mean exactly?

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So what is Fika anyway?

At its simplest, fika is a coffee break, usually taken in the middle of the afternoon, often involving strong Swedish coffee and a treat, with friends, family or coworkers. It’s a common phenomenon all around Stockholm — in cafés, workplaces, even at home.

Swedish fika

Classic Swedish fika: Coffee and a cinnamon bun

Fika comes from the word kaffi (a variant of the Swedish word kaffe that means coffee), but of course depending on your preference, you can choose tea instead of coffee, and open-face sandwiches or cookies instead of the typical cinnamon bun.

It doesn’t matter exactly what you eat, however, only that you do, and you use the free time to catch up with conversation. Similar to British afternoon tea, fika in the end is about relaxing and socializing. In most Swedish workplaces, fika is an informal, yet inescapable, time at 10 am or 3 pm to unwind and bond with your workmates. Fika can also be seen in dating culture, as a casual meet as opposed to the more rigid date or dinner.

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How about that Lagom?

The practice of fika is connected to the greater Swedish idea of lagom, the concept that means, ‘not too much, not too little’ — just right.’ It can be applied to just about anything: the weather, your car, sweets, even carbon emissions. The word is said to come from the phrase ‘lager om’, literally ‘around the team’ — the median, the appropriate. In Viking times, mead and other goods would be passed ‘lager om’, and you would be expected to take just enough for yourself, ensuring there’s enough for everyone. Lagom essentially promotes everything in moderation.

Ikea bag

Photo credit: © monticello / Shutterstock.com

It might be the idea behind minimalist IKEA furniture, and the one (not two!) cinnamon roll at fika time. You can even use lagom in light conversation.

— How are you? Lagom well.

— How is the weather? Lagom sunny.

Lagom is prevalent in Swedish society, and may be the root of the modesty, wholesomeness, sustainability, and quiet confidence prevalent among Swedes. Scandinavian traditional culture values the community above the individual, and cautions not to be too flashy or too thrifty, neither overstated nor meek, but ‘just right.’

This Goldilocks idea plays an important role in the workplace: people work hard but they’re expected to leave before 5 pm to be with their families. Don’t overextend yourself — take a summer holiday for one month, visit the countryside with your family. Keep an equal, sustainable lifestyle.

Remember, when in doubt in Sweden, the right amount is best. Just one fika please. Or, in Swedish, ‘Lagom är bäst!’