By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology
I was in the middle of a 12-hour flight, without wifi, and counting down the minutes until landing. Scrolling through the British Airways Highlife Entertainment programme, a documentary episode with the words ‘coffee’ and ‘ritual’ caught my attention. As a coffee enthusiast and an anthropologist, I could not allow myself to leave the plane without watching it.
“Knowing that word, it’s not just a fun thing, it’s actually a way of getting into society.” – (Female interviewee from Episode 1: The Ritual)
Fika: To Have Coffeeis a documentary on fika, or what Swedish locals typically refer to as having a coffee break. Now this may seem familiar to many of you (especially uni students and freelancers), but as an interviewee explained, “I guess you have the same concept in a lot of countries but you don’t have a name for it.” Fika is a slang word that originated from swapping the syllables of kaffi (an ‘outdated’ word for coffee) and omitting one ‘f’. With a dual status of being a noun and a verb, the term is used quite flexibly – you can have a fika to relax or to do work, with or without other people, in a coffee house or at home. The ways in which people and objects interact with each other in social events – from seasonal rituals to everyday life – are one of the hottest topics in the realm of anthropology. Here, I would like to briefly explore how fika in social and working contexts can contribute to the discussion.
Socialising subjects and objects
“I think it has to do with our way of being social. So we meet over something, and that’s where the fika part comes in. It’s the meeting between people more than the things you eat… or drink.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 2: The Social Bit)
The interviewee here suggests how people (e.g. sociable coffee-lovers) and things (e.g.coffee and coffee shops) are respectively seen as subjects and objects. What is particularly interesting is that he also places a distinction between them, despite how the coexistence of people and things constitutes an assemblage. Now this might seem like common sense, but conceptually dividing subjects from objects has been debated at great lengths in anthropology – including alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between the two factions.
“You have a reason to be intimate with someone. You could just talk to someone but it’s a little bit more strained on the conversation. If you have a cup of coffee then you can take natural breaks and, you know, there’s a reason for why you’re sitting there.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 2: The Social Bit)
Anthropologists such as Bruno Latour (1991) stress that we often undermine the status of even the most mundane objects of daily social life. In fact, they have a very important role in mediating human relationships, politics, and even morality. Building on this, architectural theorist Albena Yaneva (2009) discusses an approach addressing the issue, Actor-Network Theory (ANT), encouraging us to describe objects by focusing on more than just their practicality:
“Drawing on the ways technical objects take part in the making of culture, that is, the anthropology of technology, ANT shows how every single technical feature of an object accounts for a social, psychological and economical world” (2009: 276).
If we apply this to fika, we can say that the architectural style or interior design of a coffee shop (objects) can create different social dynamics between customers and baristas (subjects), and how their conversations flow and change.
A state between work and rest
“An important aspect of fikais work-relation, where you can also move seamlessly between work and other topics in your conversation… It’s… a kind of state in between work and rest. You can continue some kind of work discussion with your colleagues, but in a less formal mode so to speak.” – (Male interviewee from Episode 6: The Work)
Although primarily considered as breaktime, some locals also prefer to have a fikain order to do work. In particular, one mentioned that having an informal meeting over fikameans “no pressureto achieve something… things may be done, things may not be done.” Another fikaenthusiast explicitly made a comparison, whereby the material environment plays a crucial part in shaping certain social expectations. For him, “it’s often more creative and more productive to go with two or three colleagues to a cafe and have a fikatogether than sit in a formal meeting room discussing [certain topic]”.
Fika for thought…
“…design is not merely a beautiful aesthetic envelope that covers objects and makes [everyday life] pleasurable. Instead, design has a social goal and mobilises social means to achieve it, thus striving to enrich not to diminish, to fortify not to weaken the public bonds” – (Yaneva 2009: 276)
Generally, this documentary teaches us how having a coffee break allows us to enjoy the little things in life – not only in catching up with friends, but in being creative and productive with work as well. Still, if we look at fikafrom an anthropological perspective, it makes us question how we have taken our relationships with objects for granted.
Brones, A. (2015) What Is Fika? An Introduction to the Swedish Coffee Break. Kitchn. Available at: https://www.thekitchn.com/what-in-the-world-is-fika-an-intro-to-the-swedish-coffee-break-the-art-of-fika-219297 [accessed 20 August 2018].
Brones, A., Kindvall, J. (2015) Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. United States: Ten Speed Press.
Latour, B. (1991) Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: essai d’anthropologie symétrique. Paris: La Découverte.
Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 1: The Ritual. YouTube. Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vUIPwiCipo [accessed 20 August 2018].
Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 2: The Social Bit. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-qZsBAwk1I [accessed 22 August 2018].
Sweden (2016) Fika: To Have Coffee – Episode 6: The Work. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19t667yf_aM [accessed 22 August 2018].
Yaneva, A. (2009) Making the Social Hold: Towards an Actor-Network Theory of Design. Design and Culture 1(3): 273-288.