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Business in Sweden – an expat’s view

Swedish business people consider themselves lagom – average, or just right. They’re often unaware that their international business partners may have a different opinion. To be perfectly honest, they sometimes come across as odd, writes Englishman Colin Moon, a Sweden resident since the 1980s.

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Photo: Lena Granefelt/ imagebank.sweden.se

Swedish meeting culture

Swedish business life abounds with meetings. An abnormal amount of meetings. When Swedes say ‘Mötet gick bra’ (‘The meeting went well’), what exactly do they mean? There were heated discussions? The meeting went on for ages? An incredible number of decisions were taken? I doubt it.

Some people believe that the sole purpose of a meeting is to produce decisions. Swedes, on the other hand, hold meetings to find out whether or not they are at the meeting to decide when the meeting will be to decide when they will meet to talk about what happened at their meeting.

Consensus process

Swedish meetings are short but many. They are arranged to give Bengan, Maggan and Lasse a chance to say what they think. If you want to reach a decision, you’ll have to arrange another meeting because in the meantime Bengan, Maggan and Lasse have to go back to the office and ask Ninni, Kicki and Titti (yes, there are girls of that name) what they think.

In Swedish this is called förankringsprocessen, the consensus process. If Swedes mention the word ‘process’ you’d better not be in a hurry. There’s a process for everything. This one means getting everybody involved in everything.

Everyone voices an opinion and everyone listens. Then they compromise. The word compromise is music to a Swede’s ears. Everybody gets something. Not too much and not too little, but lagom. Nobody wins and nobody loses. They may agree to disagree, but what they will agree on is the exact time and date of the next meeting.

Decision time

Swedes rarely say yes or no. This means that instead of saying ‘ja’ or ‘nej’ they say ‘nja’ which means ‘yes-but-no-but-yes-but’. You see, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can lead to conflict, so Swedes avoid these words and replace them with ‘it depends’, ‘maybe’ and ‘I’ll see what I can do’.

Foreigners may get heated, irritated or even angry. In Swedish business life this is called hysterical behaviour. Hysteria is abnormal and uncomfortable and should preferably not occur during office hours.

You may wonder how on earth they ever make a decision. Swedish business people themselves have sometimes called this beslutsångest meaning ‘decision anxiety’. Eventually Swedes do make a decision – as soon as everyone has been involved in the process.

Someone once said that if the Swedes gave up their fika, coffee breaks, they could retire five years earlier. Coffee is an integral part of any meeting, either as an on-going self-service affair during the discussions or as a separate break. The coffee break is not to be confused with the briefer, more frequent leg-stretcher, or ‘bone-stretcher’ – the Swedish word for leg and bone is the same.

Work–life balance

Most Swedes are dedicated to finding a healthy work–life balance. They might say they work hard; it’s just that they are not often at work to do it. Many companies have flexitime and, when possible, Swedes may also be entitled to work from home.

However, fair’s fair – when they’re at work they’re very effective. But not before 8:30 as they make use of their flexitime, and not after 16:00, thank you, as they have to pick up the kids from pre-school, and not after 14:00 on Fridays, if you don’t mind.

Swedes will start to ask you about your plans for the coming weekend as early as Wednesday afternoon. By Friday lunchtime they have mentally gått för dagen ‘left for the day.’

Red days

Swedes have a fair share of public holidays. In a good year they take as many days off in May and June as most Americans take in a year. And they still have their five weeks’ holiday to take out when it suits them. Not only do they have ‘red days’, as the Swedes call their public holidays, but they may be given half the day off before, just to get them into the holiday mood.

If they’re lucky their office can also give them a klämdag, which is an odd day between a holiday and the weekend. Come May, June and July the weekends and public holidays more or less combine into one long holiday with the occasional day at the office.

Despite all of the above the Swedish way seems to be amazingly efficient. The mind boggles. The fact is that Sweden is considered an innovative and creative country, and one successful Swedish company after the other appears on the global market.

So, there you are. Time to realise that Swedes may not be quite as lagom as they think they are. And thank goodness for that, because odd as they may sometimes be, Swedish business people have found a recipe for success.

Last updated: 31 March 2014

Colin Moon

Colin Moon

Colin Moon is an expert in communication skills and speaker with Talarforum. He is a trainer and consultant in English, French and business communication. He has written Sweden – the secret files, In the secret garden of Sweden and regularly publishes articles in different papers. He is a well sought after and appreciated speaker and moderator at events. talarforum.se