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OPINION: Down with hygge – Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

Hygge, the Danish art of getting cosy, has taken the world by storm. But the Swedish equivalent is refreshingly different, says David Crouch 

OPINION: Down with hygge - Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive
A Swedish family enjoys a fredagmys when it was something new in the early 2000s. Photo: Ingvar Karmhed / SvD / SCANPIX

It is around seven years since the Danish word hygge entered many of our languages. Hygge, pronounced hue-guh and generally translated as the art of cosiness, exploded almost overnight to become a global lifestyle phenomenon.

Hygge dovetailed with mindfulness and fed into other popular trends such as healthy eating, and even adult colouring books. “The Little Book of Hygge” became a publishing sensation and has been translated into 15 languages. It was swiftly followed by a second book from its author, “My Hygge Home”, one of dozens on the market. 

There is nothing wrong with new ways to relax, and certainly no harm in identifying them with Scandinavia. But as a guide to living your life, there are some problems with hygge

First, the original meaning of the word is too broad and subtle to enable a clear grasp of the concept among non-Danes. This probably helps to explain its appeal – hygge is an empty bottle into which you can pour whatever liquid you like.

Patrick Kingsley, who wrote a book about Denmark several years before the hygge hype, was “surprised to hear people describe all sorts of things” as hygge. Danes, he said, would use the word when talking about a bicycle, a table, or even an afternoon stroll. 

So it is hardly surprising that, outside Denmark, hygge is applied rather indiscriminately. Last week the New York Times devoted an entire article to achieving hygge while riding the city’s subway, of all places. “A train, after all, is basically a large sled that travels underground, in the dark,” it said, trying too hard to find a hint of Nordic-ness on the overcrowded railway.

READ ALSO: Danish word of the day – hyggeracisme

Hygge has become an exotic and mysterious word to describe more or less anything you want. It is as if someone decided that the English word “nice” had a magical meaning that contained the secret to true happiness, and then the whole non-English speaking world made great efforts to achieve the perfect feeling of “nice”. 

A second problem with hygge is that, in Denmark itself, it seems to operate like a badge of Danishness that can only be enjoyed by Danes themselves – a kind of cultural border that outsiders cannot cross. You can walk down a Danish street in the dark, one journalist was told, look through the windows and spot who is Danish and who is foreign just by whether their lighting is hygge or not.

When writer Helen Russell spent a year in Denmark, she was intrigued by hygge and asked a lifestyle coach about it. “It’s hard to explain, it’s just something that all Danes know about,” she was told. How could an immigrant to Denmark get properly hygge, Russell asked? “You can’t. It’s impossible,” was the unhelpful reply. It can’t be a coincidence that the far-right Danish Peoples Party has put a clear emphasis on hygge, as if immigration is a threat to hygge and therefore to Danish-ness itself. 

READ ALSO: It’s official – Hygge is now an English word

Outside Denmark, this exclusivity has taken on another aspect: where are all the children? Where amid the hygge hype are the bits of lego on the floor, the mess of discarded clothes, toys and half-eaten food, the bleeping iPads and noisy TVs? “Hygge is about a charmed existence in which children are sinisterly absent,” noted the design critic for the Financial Times. It’s as if the Pied Piper of hygge has spirited them away so you can get truly cosy. 

But there is a bigger problem with hygge. It is largely an invention, the work of some clever marketing executives. After spotting a feature about hygge on the BBC website, two of London’s biggest publishers realised this was “a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions”. They set out to find people who could write books for them on the subject, and so two bestsellers were born, spawning a host of imitations. 

Sweden has a different word that means roughly the same thing: mys (the noun) and mysig (the adjective). There have even been some half-hearted attempts to sell mys to a foreign audience in the same way as hygge. But the real meaning of mys in Swedish society is rather different, it seems to me. The reason for this, I think, is that mys has become so firmly identified with Friday nights, or fredagsmys – the “Friday cosy”. 

Fredagsmys is a collective sigh of relief that the working / school week is over, and now it is time for the whole family to come together in front of some trashy TV with a plate of easy finger-food. The word first appeared in the 1990s, entered the dictionary in 2006, and became a semi-official national anthem three years later with this joyous ad for potato crisps:

In this portrayal, mys is radically different to hygge. It is a celebration of the ordinary, witty and multi-cultural, featuring green-haired goths and a mixed-race family with small children. Food is central to fredagsmys, and what is the typical food of choice? Mexican, of course! Not a herring in sight.

Why Mexican? It seems nobody is really sure, but tacofredag now has roots in Swedish society. Tacos, tortillas, and all the accompanying spices and sauces take up a whole aisle of the typical Swedish supermarket. Swedes are accustomed to eating bread with various bits and pieces on top, according to a specialist in Swedish food culture, while the Swedish tradition of smörgåsbord (open sandwiches) makes a buffet meal seem natural. The fussiness of tacos is even reminiscent of a kräftskiva crayfish party.

There is no cultural exclusivity here. On the contrary, fredagsmys food could equally be Italian, North American, Middle-Eastern, British or French. And children are absolutely central to a good Friday cosy. 

With Swedish mys, everybody is welcome. Get cosy and relax, but do it by mixing and getting messy, rather than retreating into pure, perfect, rarified isolation. There is a time and a place for hygge. But the Swedish version is more real, more fun, and more inclusive.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.


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OPINION: Are tips in Sweden becoming the norm?

Should you tip in Sweden? Habits are changing fast thanks to new technology and a hard-pressed restaurant trade, writes James Savage.

OPINION: Are tips in Sweden becoming the norm?

The Local’s guide to tipping in Sweden is clear: tip for good service if you want to, but don’t feel the pressure: where servers in the US, for instance, rely on tips to live, waiters in Sweden have collectively bargained salaries with long vacations and generous benefits. 

But there are signs that this is changing, and the change is being accelerated by card machines. Now, many machines offer three preset gratuity percentages, usually starting with five percent and going up to fifteen or twenty. Previously they just asked the customer to fill in the total amount they wanted to pay.

This subtle change to a user interface sends a not-so-subtle message to customers: that tipping is expected and that most people are probably doing it. The button for not tipping is either a large-lettered ‘No Tip’ or a more subtle ‘Fortsätt’ or ‘Continue’ (it turns out you can continue without selecting a tip amount, but it’s not immediately clear to the user). 

I’ll confess, when I was first presented with this I was mildly irked: I usually tip if I’ve had table service, but waiting staff are treated as professionals and paid properly, guaranteed by deals with unions; menu prices are correspondingly high. The tip was a genuine token of appreciation.

But when I tweeted something to this effect (a tweet that went strangely viral), the responses I got made me think. Many people pointed out that the restaurant trade in Sweden is under enormous pressure, with rising costs, the after-effects of Covid and difficulties recruiting. And as Sweden has become more cosmopolitain, adding ten percent to the bill comes naturally to many.

Boulebar, a restaurant and bar chain with branches around Sweden and Denmark, had a longstanding policy of not accepting tips at all, reasoning that they were outdated and put diners in an uncomfortable position. But in 2021 CEO Henrik Kruse decided to change tack:

“It was a purely financial decision. We were under pressure due to Covid, and we had to keep wages down, so bringing back tips was the solution,” he said, adding that he has a collective agreement and staff also get a union bargained salary, before tips.

Yet for Kruse the new machines, with their pre-set tipping percentages, take things too far:

“We don’t use it, because it makes it even clearer that you’re asking for money. The guest should feel free not to tip. It’s more important for us that the guest feels free to tell people they’re satisfied.”

But for those restaurants that have adopted the new interfaces, the effect has been dramatic. Card processing company Kassacentralen, which was one of the first to launch this feature in Sweden, told Svenska Dagbladet this week that the feature had led to tips for the average establishment doubling, with some places seeing them rise six-fold.

Even unions are relaxed about tipping these days, perhaps understanding that they’re a significant extra income for their members. Union representatives have often in the past spoken out against tipping, arguing that the practice is demeaning to staff and that tips were spread unevenly, with staff in cafés or fast food joints getting nothing at all. But when I called the Swedish Hotel and Restaurant Union (HRF), a spokesman said that the union had no view on the practice, and it was a matter for staff, business owners and customers to decide.

So is tipping now expected in Sweden? The old advice probably still stands; waiters are still not as reliant on tips as staff in many other countries, so a lavish tip is not necessary. But as Swedes start to tip more generously, you might stick out if you leave nothing at all.