Swedish Business Etiquette
By all means this is not a guide which stereotypes the Swedish people or is written in stone, these tips are more so an opportunity to provide you with greater cultural awareness and understanding of what the ‘norms’ are in Sweden when it comes to doing business. Remember to always respect the culture, values and traditions of your prospective clients.
Shake hands and make eye contact with every person at the meeting. When meeting recognise that the Swedes value their personal space, so do not invade it and avoid unnecessary touching.
Sweden, unlike other countries has adopted a more relaxed environment at work. Whether at school or in the workplace, everyone refers to each other by their first name as opposed to ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or .Dr’. But of course, in a business environment wait until you have been told by your prospective business client before going ahead and referring to them by their first name.
If you are able to, learn as much as Swedish as you can, even if it’s just some basic conversation starters. Even though English is widely spoken, this will really help forge a good business relationship. Also, make sure all your documents and presentations are available in English and Swedish at the start of your meeting. Respecting and recognising these differences between cultures will set you on the right foot during the business negotiating path.
There are no protocols in terms of presenting business cards, but it is advisable nonetheless to have a version of your business card both in English and Swedish and it is a good idea to present this with the Swedish facing upwards.
Planning your business meeting:
It is advisable to give yourself a fortnight to plan your meeting. When planning your business meeting be aware of the flexi-time approach to the working day. Many Swedes work from home and there is a strong understanding of balancing home life with work life, so in some businesses and industries, for some individuals the school run will take priority over meeting at a time you suggest.
Arranging meetings during the summer months can be difficult as there are many public holidays and it is traditionally the time when most Swedes take their annual leave. The Christmas period is also a difficult time to organise meetings.
The Swedes are a very punctual nation and respect the start and end of meeting times. Free time is highly valued so Swedes will avoid working overtime or outside office hours as much as possible. You must be on time to your meeting, have a clear agenda and finish the meeting on time.
When organising your meeting make sure that any documentation and/or presentations (in English and Swedish) are made available prior to your prospective business clients, in order to ensure efficient negotiations. Back your information up with relevant facts, figures and charts and be prepared.
Do not try to force your way in in order to set up a business meeting. If it is meant to happen it will. Swedes do not appreciate pushiness and unnecessary boasting or arrogance and over emphasis on this and a clear ‘trying to sell’ outlook will more than likely be seen as unprofessional and insincere.
Be prepared for a long discussion and negotiation process. There will be many meetings held before a final decision is made and you must show patience. This even has a name for it and is called the ‘förankringsprocessen’ – ‘consensus process.’ Everything that has been discussed in the meeting will then be discussed with colleagues who were not at the meeting. A decision will be made between these colleagues about the issues discussed in that meeting and then a next stage of meetings will be set up.
Be aware that 48% of the Swedish workforce is made up of women. The highest in the world. Foreign businesswomen are accepted widely and don’t really have any problems in the business world in Sweden. A foreign businesswoman paying the bill in a restaurant for example will not cause embarrassment.
The Swedes work on the principle of a special word called ‘lagom.’ This does not have an actual translation or equivalent in other languages, but the basic principle is that ‘lagom’ means ‘just right’ or ‘not too much or not too little’. Therefore when designating the time for a project for example it will be ‘lagom.’ There is no specific structure in the word. Long? Short? It possibly boils down to common sense in saying ‘just the right amount of time’ and recognising that there isn’t a right or wrong answer.
Unlike in other cultures, the Swedes do not have such a hierarchical structure to the work place. This is as a result of the strong working unions and working conditions with priority given to job security and equality. It is not uncommon for Swedish employees to have direct contact with their bosses as opposed to more hierarchical systems in other countries, where there is a strong emphasis and division between ‘the boss’ and ‘the employees’.
When negotiating be prepared to discuss information and ideas in a very open manner. The Swedes expect discussions to be clear and open before any decisions are made. Due to less emphasis on hierarchical structures, the Swedes will work in an environment where there isn’t a major person who stands out. As a result it can take longer to make a decision.
During your meeting, be prepared for moments of silence. Do not attempt to fill this silence with small talk, it is part and parcel of the business negotiation process.
Furthermore, you can expect there to be a non-committal approach of ‘yes but no but yes.’ This can be frustrating for foreigners who are negotiating in Sweden, but must be respected if negotiations are to be successful. This concept of fear over decision making even has its own name ‘beslutsångest’ meaning ‘decision anxiety’ and the Swedes are aware of it themselves. As long as you are aware of this then you will be prepared for any type of negotiation scenario when doing business in Sweden.
The concept of ‘fika’ is inherent to Swedish business culture. Fika means break and it is a time to have a cup of coffee or tea. This can happen two or three times during the working day and it is not uncommon in meetings for there to be a ‘fika’ break. Be prepared that if you have arranged a meeting that employee may be on a break.
Be aware of the regulations and laws within the country if you are looking to branch your business out in Sweden. In having a thorough background knowledge and understanding of these systems, you will save yourself a lot of time in terms of bureaucracy and will also demonstrate a clear and professional understanding to your clients of the work processes of the country.
Business meals will generally take place at lunchtime. Business breakfasts also take place but they are not very frequent. There is no etiquette in terms of when business can be discussed at the start or the end of the meal for example, it can be discussed at any time.
Toasting is an important element to a meal and you should not consume your beverage until your host has made a toast. The appropriate word to say is ‘Skål’ (Skohl). Make eye contact and nod to other guests before putting your glass down.
Keep your elbows off the table and hands on the table at all times, make sure you sample everything that is offered, it is rude not to do so.
It is not common to exchange gifts in business meetings, but it is acceptable to offer gifts during the Christmas season to a Swedish colleague. When offering such gifts, good suggestions include home related gifts or gifts relating to one’s business.
Avoid giving crystal or items which have been made in Sweden and if you offer flowers, make sure you remove the wrapping before presenting. Avoid offering flowers such as white lilies and chrysanthemums as they are associated with funerals. Items such as liquor, chocolates, books and recorded music will be well received.
There is an informal approach to work wear. Although it is not entirely casual, it is conservative and it is not unusual to see Swedes wearing sandals or tennis shoes to work. However, if in doubt men should wear suits and ties and women trouser suits or smart work dresses or skirts.
Don’t let it happen to you:
A business client arrived to work in Sweden and asked a client how long should be spent on a specific task. His co-worker responded ‘a lagom amount’ and walked away. He was left standing perplexed not knowing what it meant and consequently rushed through the work, messing it up and costing a valuable deal to the company, as opposed to realising that the concept is all about understanding the ‘not too much not too little’ approach to work.
Here at Lingua Translations, we offer cross-cultural training to ensure that your business dealings are not ruined by an inadequate knowledge of your target culture. Contact us now to find out more!