I once had a student who told me – with enthusiasm, that her impression of Sweden was ‘like Germany, but better’. A few years later, her opinion has changed. Sweden, she said recently, is ‘not at all like Germany, and not better’. Nor worse, she added. Just different. Especially when it comes to relationships at work. However much she tried, she never managed to understand how to make a good impression.
She is not alone in this observation
At first glance, Swedish work and business culture can appear similar to that in continental Europe. In my mind, this is reinforced by us Swedes, who are convinced we are much like our European neighbours. Well, almost like the Europeans, bearing in mind, of course, that we are somehow ahead of things, more organised, adhering to superior rules for health and safety, enjoying a healthier work-life balance and gender equality in more productive organisations rid of hierarchies.
In addition to that, we believe we are somehow too modern, a society for cultural particularities. National culture, we think, is something from the past, now distilled into a couple of folkloric events evenly distributed over the year.
Apart from those, we see ourselves as cleared of such irrational oddities, and give ourselves the self-proclaimed title of the most normal place on earth. To justify this, we blame lagom, claiming that anything we do is everything but extreme.
Under this illusion, we cannot be found guilty of culturally biased patterns of communication, and misunderstandings are often taken personally. There are quite a few situations where Newbies or Oldbies are likely to misinterpret the intentions of their Swedish colleagues, or at least feel a little confused.
Yes or no
You might think that this word-pair is pretty clear in meaning. However, Swedes consider opinions as belonging to the very core of your soul – the most private part, that should be treated carefully. We will do anything to avoid expressing a differing standpoint, as this would reveal what different individuals we are.
Trust, in Sweden, is built onto the recognition of personal similarities. Instead, if opinions differ, we try to avoid the conversation entirely, by changing the topic without taking a stance.
There are no standardised expressions for a socially accepted no – that would make it too clear and defy the purpose, but a few common examples are the following.
- I don’t know.
- That sounds interesting.
- We will talk about this later.
As you can imagine, misunderstandings often arise from conversations where a subtle no is taken for a yes, but then followed by contradictory action. If unsure about what your trying-to-be-polite Swedish colleague is trying to say, a rule of thumb is that unless it is a clearly articulated yes, reinforced by exclamations such as absolutely, amazing, definitely, it is likely to be a no.
Having understood Swedes’ preference for not expressing our opinions, you might believe that indirectness is the clue to politeness. However, Swedes clearly distinguish facts from opinions, standpoints, and personal preferences. We strongly believe we do the receiver a huge favour by communication facts as directly as possible. We fail to see the point of hiding the real message in elaborate forms of address, or intricate phrasings to show how well we master the language.
Instead, an efficient and polite email is thought to be straight-to-the-point, factual and as short as possible. We will minimise any email content to a bare minimum to spare the receiver the effort of looking for the most important part.
If you come from a culture where a little nice stuff and fluff is evenly distributed before, after and throughout content, you may be a little surprised to receive an email like this:
“Hi! The meeting has been re-scheduled to ten. See you.”
“Bring the documents this afternoon. /D”
These are examples of efficient and polite Swedish communication. Actually, you should be more worried if you receive something like,
“I would appreciate if you could bring the documents this afternoon”
as this would be the Swedish way of A) signalling distance, and B) hinting that you are perhaps not capable of handling such a responsibility.
Making a good impression
Anyone coming to a new workplace, is probably keen on showing how seriously they take their new job, and that their employer has made a wise investment in hiring them. In most countries, this might include working a few extra hours, not taking much holiday, performing better than co-workers, or trying to improve existing procedures.
Anyone’s expectations is probably first of all, to keep their job, but perhaps even a significant raise within the next year or at least some nice words from their manager.
Swedes take a different path. First of all, it is not to our boss that we will need to make efforts – but our team. Us Swedes congratulates ourselves on our consensus culture, which means all decisions – formal and informal, are supposedly taken as a group.
This has a curious effect when it comes to assessing other people’s performance. Consensus is built onto the principle of compromise, and when everyone has had their say, the conclusion is that the person they like, is an average of themselves.
Naturally, performing well is a positive thing, but it will definitely not be your Swedish colleague’s first priority when joining a new workplace. Instead, we would focus on becoming a part of the group, through the following methods:
- Joining in all fika breaks.
- Discussing only neutral matters, facts, anything that can be quantified.
- Sticking to the plan rather than doing something exceptional.
- Keeping everyone posted on what they are up to, and sharing all their knowledge.
When all of this is secured, we will have built a good relationship and mutual trust with our team, and we can start focusing on our own performance. Good performance, in this sense, is defined as anything that can be a benefit to the whole team and therefore not a threat to others.
(It might be worth noting that significant pay raises are almost non-existent in Swedish work culture. If you are lucky, you will get 5% in one year. The only good method for receiving a worthy pay raise is changing jobs.)
No feedback from your boss
You might have done outstanding work at a particular task, and more or less saved the company from bankruptcy. Now you are waiting for a well deserved well done from your Swedish manager, or at least from one of your colleagues. And nothing. Everyone seems to be busy getting along with their everyday work, and you receive no recognition at al.
There are two reasons for this. First, Swedes do not believe in supervision. If we hire you, we trust that you will comply with the work ethics and standards, and we are not expecting you to perform neither better nor worse. Praising you would imply that we have been checking on you, and that, according to the Swedish mindset, would be somehow patronising or a sign of distrust. In fact, we are showing our respect for your professionalism by not commenting on your work.
Second, as mentioned earlier, group performance is always more important than individual achievements, and it would be considered intrusive from a Swedish point of view to embarrass you by making you stand out from the crowd.
So how do you know you are doing ok? This will not be clearly communicated, but you will notice small changes in your responsibilities. If you are asked to take notes during a meeting, for example, things are going well.
No one seems to care about you
Actually, not only your boss, but most of your Swedish colleagues, seem completely uninterested in your person and well-being. No detailed questions about your family. No dinner parties. No social events outside work whatsoever. If you come into work one day with a broken arm, it is not unlikely that nobody will ask you what happened. Your Swedish colleagues probably seem passionately disinterested in you as a person.
Your first reaction may be that this is because you are a foreigner. I can assure you this is not the case. We display the same miserable attitude towards our Swedish colleagues. However weird it seems, we are actually trying to be polite towards you by respecting your privacy.
The logic here is that if you know that your colleagues know about your private life, you would maybe have to maintain a private life that is incompatible with your values – in order to make a good impression at work. By not enquiring about your private life, we give you the freedom to do whatever you want, without any risk of harming your professional image.
The Swedish idea of politeness is centered around the belief that the privacy of each individual should be protected. We believe that the best way of ensuring privacy is to make everyone seem like each other. If nobody stands out from the mass, nobody will be noticed. Think zebras.
We will not ask about your private life, nor reveal much of our own. We will not put you in a situation where it is clear that our opinions are in conflict, because then we would appear as different. We will not embarrass you and your colleagues by bringing up any dissimilarities – such as good performance, between individuals. We will not bother you with unnecessary information. We just want you to get on with your things, not being forced into contrived social relations that we think you cannot be bothered with. We want you to feel free.
Quick fix for making a good impression at your Swedish workplace
- When greeting someone, or saying goodbye, shake their hand, and maintain eye-contact. This applies to men and women.
- Address everyone with their first name.
- Arrive five minutes early to appointments.
- Answer your phone with your full name.
- Sticking to the plan is more important than doing well.
- Dress code is often informal, but conservative. Discreet is key. Read more on how to handle this in winter on my blog.
Have a job interview coming up? Read more on my blog what to think about when meeting your Swedish hiring manager.
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