A lot of the culture of the Nordic countries are tied to their languages. Each country has words that simply do not translate to English. These words possess something essential about the countries and Nordic identity.
FIKA (fee – kah) means, quite simply, coffee break. What makes fika interesting as a phenomenon, however, is the near-religious significance it has to the Swedish daily routine. For anyone working, studying or simply living in Sweden, it is impossible not to notice that around 3pm every day, people start getting a little bit restless. This is when the post-lunch sleepiness has kicked in, motivation is running low, and at this point your average Swede will be craving fika – the chance to take a breather, have some coffee, and maybe a kanelbulle (Swedish cinnamon bun). Fika is the punctuation between lunch and dinner. The tradition of fika is widely respected in the workplace, especially within the public sector, which constitutes almost 30% of total employment in Sweden.
Fika is not only about the consumption of coffee and sweets, of equal significance is relaxation and connecting with friends – getting a break from work or daily routines and enjoying good coffee and good company.
Fika breaks, sometimes in both the morning and afternoon, are commonplace accommodations for a population used to taking the time for small pleasures.
GLUGGAVEÐUR (gloo-ga-meth-oor) is an Icelandic word literally translating as window weather. It conveys the idea of a weather that is nice to look at, but not nice to be in – a weather best experienced from the comfort of your own home, safely behind a window.
It is no wonder that Iceland, the beautiful arctic island with glaciers, volcanoes and mountains, but also harsh snowfall and icy breeze, is home to this concept. The sun might be shining, but the air can be freezing, and then it is better to enjoy the nature safe from the effects of the weather.
Gluggaveður goes beyond the act of staring through the window – it is an atmosphere. It is sitting down by your fireplace with thick woollen socks, sipping brennivín and listening to rain trickle down the roof, or watching snowflakes dance their way down from the sky.
HYGGE (huy-geh) is a Danish term similar in meaning to the Swedish mys, denoting a sense of cosiness and contentment, and appreciation for the smaller pleasures in life. The word has received broader recognition, especially in the UK, evidencing a growing interest in the Nordic lifestyle. The word evokes log cabins, flickering candles, and heavy knit sweaters. But don’t be fooled: hygge is more than a shopping list of physical products. Hygge is an attitude, comparable to the more trendy concepts of mindfulness and presence.
Specifically, hygge also has a social aspect: it is something to be shared with others. Hygge can be quality time spent with friends and family, and the sense of comfort and familiarity it inspires. This is a common theme in Scandinavian culture. Though sometimes viewed as cold and unsocial by the outside world – perhaps due to the no-nonsense attitude of the Finns – the Nordic peoples have a very real sense of community. Hygge, though ostensibly concerned with comfort and candles, underlines this admirable characteristic.
KALSARIKÄNNIT (kawl-saw-ree-kahn-eet) roughly translating as ‘underwear drunk’, condenses two stereotypes of the Finnish people; their love for alcohol and unsociable behavior. Drinking kalsarikännit means getting drunk at home on your own while wearing comfortable clothing, preferably long thermal underwear, with no intention of heading out.
With an average of 16 people per square kilometer (41 people per square mile), distances in Finland are long, and going through the trouble of heading out to an expensive (alcohol taxation in Finland is really high) night club in the cold is not always appealing. Kalsarikännit exist also for other than external reasons. Finns have learned how to appreciate one’s own company; how to cool down on your own without the pressure to entertain or socialize. So kick off your uncomfortably tight pants, sit back and enjoy some Finnish liquor pressure free.
Kalsarikännit is so deeply embedded in the Finnish culture, that the Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official emoji for it.
KOSELIG (kou-seh-lig) is the Norwegian word for ‘cosy’. Much like the Swedish mys and Danish hygge, it has strong connotations of intimacy and contentment. A fundamental aspect of all three terms is that they represent a contrast; between the cold and dark Northern winter, and the warmth and comfort of the home.
Coping with a cold, harsh Norwegian winter requires, above all else, a fair amount of stoicism, vitamin supplements, and warm clothing. Once these minimum requirements are met, consider that you will likely be spending most of the winter indoors (-30C is no laughing matter), and the importance of creating a koselig atmosphere becomes clear. Therefore, it is no surprise that koselig is an important concept for Norwegians, deeply embedded in the culture of the population surrounded by towering mountains and cold ocean waters.
To achieve the ideal koselig Norwegian aesthetic, liberally apply thick woollen rugs, blankets and multiple candles to your home. Wrap up warm in your favourite Norwegian woollen sweater, brew some coffee, and wait for the spring.
KVIÐMÁGUR (kvid-maurr) is an Icelandic word describing the relationship between two men who have slept with the same woman (doubtless a common occurrence on a remote island nation with a population of bit over 300 000). Literally translated, it means “abdomen brother-in-law” – classy. There are similar, but somewhat cruder, terms in both English and Swedish: eskimo brotherand kukbröder respectively.
Interestingly, the dating circle in Iceland is so limited that an app has even been developed to help Icelanders avoid the romantic faux-pas of accidental incest, by triggering an alarm if two users are closely related. Conversely, Icelandic people are recognised as some of the most beautiful in the world, so they must be doing something right.
LAGOM (lah – gom) is a distinctly Swedish concept that is hard to pin down and harder to explain. “Just the right amount” is a commonly accepted interpretation, but it lacks that certain something that the term evokes within a Swedish linguistic and cultural context. Although a more literal translation – “enough” – implies adequacy, lagom is not about being adequate (a word with distinctly less positive connotations in the English language). In Sweden, lagom represents balance; equilibrium even. The focus on achieving balance – between men and women, work life and home life, industry and nature – is a core value in Swedish and Scandinavian society as a whole. Whereas more aggressively competitive societies typically seek to have more, Swedes value the correct amount. Lagom, in a single word, crystalises this fundamental cultural facet.
For a culture so heavily invested in the pursuit of social harmony, lagom represents some of the best qualities Sweden has to offer: moderation, fairness, and equanimity.
MYS (muiss) is a Swedish term that denotes a state of comfort and relaxation. In the adjective form, mysigt, it translates as cosy, warm and pleasant. To a Swede, the concept of mys, much like fika, is about taking the time to slow down, relax, and recalibrate.
Fredagsmys (Friday relaxation) is a well-practiced expression of the concept. In many Swedish households, it is customary to spend a Friday evening with friends, homemade food, and a glass of wine.
To understand the importance of mys in Sweden, consider two climatic factors: the dark, and the cold. A Swedish winter is an inhospitable affair, with long months of heavy snow and limited daylight hours, which can cause depression and anxiety (see Seasonal Affective Disorder). Little wonder, then, that many find comfort within their homes (Scandinavian interior design is well-known for a reason) and in mys. When the temperature is subzero and the sunlight a distant memory, that is when warmth, security, and companionship become top priorities.
Mys is much more than a cosy design aesthetic. It is a flickering light in the long nights. See also the Norwegian version koselig and the Danish equivalent hygge.
SISU (see’ – soo) is a Finnish term that can be translated in a number of ways, yet none quite capture its essence; courage, grit, resilience, and stubbornness. It describes the willpower one must possess to fight against all odds; a sort of foolish bravery to keep going even though logically it is time to give up, but being eventually triumphant thanks to this attitude of unbreakable determination. Sisu can be used as the adjective ‘sisukas’: one who possesses the quality of sisu.
Culturally and ethnographically, it is evident why this concept has taken hold in Finland. Finland has historically been a poor farming country, with relatively fruitless soil. The cold climate takes a large share of the crop, and Finland has suffered from several severe famines. During the Swedish reign, Finland operated as a buffer for Sweden during its wars against Russia. After independence, Finland fought its own wars against its neighbouring superpower, the Soviet Union. From this poor and sometimes violent past, the Republic of Finland has somehow emerged as an affluent and innovative modern nation. This evolution has been aided, of course, by no small amount of sisu.