Doing Business in Sweden: Three Things You Have to Know

Perhaps you are on your way to Stockholm for the first time.  You know nothing about Swedish culture beyond what you learnt from the Muppet Show and you don't have time to read an in-depth cultural analysis or attend a culture workshop. Even if you have just a few minutes, though, you can learn enough to make a difference by focusing not so much on superficial details like handshakes and hugs, but more on the fundamental concepts underpinning Swedish culture. Master the top three of these and you will already be more effective and probably more confident, too. Here are these three essential concepts.

PUNCTUALITY. In Sweden things happen on time, or at least they are expected to do so. Swedish people assume that meetings will start on time, schedules will be respected and deadlines will be met without reminders. A 2pm meeting starts at 2pm and if you promised to deliver a document by Friday everyone will expect it then, not a few days later. Deadlines are entirely your responsibility so make a note in your calendar, set an alarm and don't expect any reminders to help you.  And if you are going to be late for a meeting -- even just five minutes -- you should always call.

DIRECTNESS. Swedish people are also among the world's most direct communicators, so people say what they mean and mean what they say. They do not say one thing to hint at another. This can cause problems when working with indirect speakers from Asia, southern Europe or England. The direct speech of Swedish people can be misinterpreted as rudeness and often direct statements are incorrectly understood as hints when no hint was intended. This also means that when you invite someone to dinner they might immediately say no because it is not possible, rather than giving a polite, enthusiastic yes and then regretfully declining later. Be careful to interpret everything in context and don't assume people are rude because they don't respond the way you would.

EQUALITY. Swedish culture also emphasizes equality between people, regardless of their gender or role in society. One of the worst gaffes you can make is to show any sort of patriarchal attitude and sexist jokes that might be tolerated at home will cause serious offence. Hierarchies are also very flat and to show signs of inequality is also considered inappropriate. People are informal in dress and the way they talk, they make strenuous efforts to reach decision by consensus and they have an ingrained dislike of servility. You will notice that self-service is much more common in cafes, employees will greet you just with a simple "Hej" --never "Good evening sir, how may I help you" -- and if you pay someone to do your housework you would keep it quiet. For much the same reason it is good policy to minimize your achievements when you introduce yourself.

Obviously there is more to Swedish culture than just this, but with just these three ideas clear in your mind you will be able to avoid some of the most difficult cultural misunderstandings. You will also be better prepared to observe the nuances. Remember also that people are not standardized. There are variations between regions and every individual has their own distinctive profile.

Related posts about intercultural issues:
How Building Team Culture Makes Global Teams More Effective
Culture and Technology. How Cultural Factors Impact Engineering Decisions
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  

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