The Swedish concept of fika

This is why I got fat during my year in Sweden.

One of the first words you’ll learn upon visiting Sweden is fika. Besides tack (thank you), hej (hello) and tvättid (laundry time) it is the quintessential part of Swedish life and the Swedes prefer not to translate it at all. It primarily means a short coffee break, but it is much more than that.

Fika essentially means to have a coffee and the word likely originates from the 19th century slang word for coffee: kaffi. It can be described as taking a 10-30 minute break with someone to have coffee and cake, as some kind of sweet is mandatory for a proper fika. Whether it’s a cookie, cupcake, brownie, a slice of pie or cake, the sugar rush must be real. However, for Swedes fika is more than a coffee break: it’s a whole concept, a ritual and a state of mind. It means deliberately taking the time out of your busy day to socialise, refresh your mind and consciously take a break. Fika is sacred and should be enjoyed several times per day, but at least once per day is mandatory.

It is not just an afternoon coffee date with a friend, it is actually a part of Swedish work culture and even the mighty Ikea and Volvo plants stop for fika. Most companies and institutions have a fika room for their employees, often with coffee machines and available snacks, and taking a break for fika with a colleague is not frowned upon. In fact, official fikapaus time is usually around 10 in the morning and then again at 3 pm towards the end of the work day, during which you’re supposed to catch up with your colleagues, exchange knowledge and discuss business issues. Fikas are supposed to be very informal and companies which allow fika have seen better productivity and team work atmosphere within their departments, as fika-ing together develops and strengthens relationships between employees, which results in more work efficiency. And yes, fika can be a verb: the Swedes will often say “Let’s fika!”.

Some examples of fika

What exactly you eat for fika doesn’t really matter, and you can of course drink tea instead of coffee, but it’s the significance of making time for the break that matters. At first I was a bit surprised, as the social phenomenon of fika didn’t really fit into my stereotypical image of antisocial, distant Swedes, but it quickly became one of my favourite Swedish traditions. After a few weeks I could actually feel a real difference in motivation levels and work productivity, because it forced me to pause and see my work from a fresh perspective when I resumed working.

Although fika is supposed to be enjoyed with company, I’d often stop for one during my solo travels around Scandinavia as well. The good thing is, that the Swedes almost never let me eat it alone. Whether it was waiters, nearby travellers or cafe guests, someone always found a smile and a kind word for me and more often than not we’d end up striking a conversation about life and local stuff. Contrary to the stereotypical Swedish cold, closed-off nature, they were often the ones who initiated conversation, so I guess fika really brings them out of their shells.

All in all, this is one tradition I was more than willing to incorporate into my lifestyle, even if it did give me a few extra pounds (there’s always exercise!). Ever since coming back home to Slovenia I’ve been introducing everyone to the idea of fika and it’s really starting to take!

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