Cultural Tips for Doing Business in Sweden

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••• Sweden. Copyright: Håkan Dahlström, flickr, CC 2.0

Scandinavia can be a great place to visit for business, regardless of the country your heading to. But it's important to keep in mind that cultural difference may exist! Business travelers heading to a country like Sweden should make sure they're not caught off-guard by some of the standard cultural differences and customs that they might encounter.

To better understand all the nuances and cultural tips that can help a business traveler heading to Sweden, I interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the book Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication.

Ms. Cotton is an expert on cultural differences and a distinguished speaker and recognized authority on cross-cultural communication. She's also President of Circles Of Excellence Inc., and has been featured on many television programs, including: NBC News, BBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, PM Northwest, and Pacific Report. For more information on Ms. Cotton, please visit www.GayleCotton.com. Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips with About.com readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling.

What tips do you have for business travelers heading to Sweden?

  • When doing business in Sweden, keep in mind that it is a humanitarian culture, where the quality of life and environmental issues are highly emphasized.
  • They shake hands upon arriving and departing. It’s done swiftly and firmly, and smiling or other nonverbal communication usually doesn’t accompany it -- especially if you haven’t previously met.
  • The Swedish business approach is more formal than informal, so no gum chewing, slouching, or leaning against things.
  • Keep your emotions to a minimum, as a cool, calm, and matter of fact manner approach is preferred. Swedes are also somewhat quiet, so speak in a subdued, modulated tone of voice.
  • Swedes are a proud people, but they never brag. While they respect someone with established knowledge and experience, you should never flaunt it. Instead show them by being well prepared, detail oriented, and logically organized which is important to get Swedes to accept an outside idea.
  • Facts and figures are crucial, and must be clearly outlined and detailed. Swedes emphasize the content of a presentation, not its colorfulness or flashy appearance.
  • The Swedish education teaches them to think conceptually and analytically, so they often look to universal rules or laws to solve problems.
  • The first business meeting will likely be low key, with the Swedes evaluating you, your company, and your proposal. Confirm all meetings well in advance, and never abruptly change the time and place.
  • Swedes believe in promptness, so it is important to arrive on time or it could be taken as a sign of disrespect or lack of interest. They also strictly follow the scheduled beginning and ending times of a meeting.
  • Swedes are fashionably well-dressed, and for business a more a conservative dress is appropriate with men wearing suits and ties, and women wearing suits or dresses. Subdued colors are a better choice than flashy colors.
  • Sincerity and seriousness, rather than friendliness, are the preferred business attitudes. Complimenting in public is not usually done, unless it applies to the whole group. There is no individualized element of competition or wanting to stand out.
  • Swedes typically get right down to business with little or no small talk. In conversation, it’s important to maintain eye contact as much as possible.
  • Swedes are very comfortable with long pauses and silence in the conversation, so it would be a mistake to hurriedly try to fill in the pauses.
  • The Swedish sense of humor is unique, and sometimes not understood by everyone. It’s not typical for humor to be used in serious meetings or negotiations.
  • Swedes will avoid arguing over sensitive topics, especially with visitors. If a discussion of this kind begins, a Swede may abruptly stop it.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Tips

  • Eye contact is very important to indicate your sincerity and attentiveness.
  • It’s helpful to show a knowledge of Swedish things, especially those that distinguish the Swedes from the Scandinavian cultures of Finland, Norway, and Denmark.
  • The Swedes love nature and the outdoors, so talk about anything related to Sweden’s natural beauty or sports -- like hockey and soccer.
  • Swedes enjoy discussing philosophy, the arts, travel, current events, and even politics if it’s not critical of Sweden’s socialized structure.
  • There is a great deal of pride in the local regions of Sweden, so it’s appreciated when you know something about the specific region you’re visiting.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Taboos

  • Asking personal questions, or discussing family unless they bring it up at some point in your relationship.
  • Don’t be superficial in any way, and avoid personally complimenting someone you just met. 
  • Avoid any showiness or bragging about rank, status, success, or income. The Swedes are very understated about this.
  • Don't use a lot of superlatives when speaking, because Swedes are opposed to stretching the truth in any way.
  • Swedes don’t like complainers, so even when things seem slow or process driven, it’s best not to show signs of impatience.

What is important to know about the decision-making or negotiation process?

  • Decision making may fall to the middle or lower parts of the hierarchy in Sweden, and there is an emphasis on teamwork and compromise.
  • Consensus is valued, and Swedes will try to avoid confrontation because they never want to personally offend someone.
  • Negotiations in Sweden can take time, but once a deal has been finalized and signed, you can rest assured that the Swedes will uphold their end of responsibility

Any tips for women?

Women and men are treated as equals in Sweden, so expect decision-makers to be of either gender.

Any tips on gestures?

  • Swedes prefer to stand a bit further apart in their interactions than some cultures, and rather than relying on nonverbal forms of communication, it’s best to keep your body language and hand gestures to a minimum,
  • With the exception of the handshake, Swedes don’t have a lot of physical contact, so avoid backslapping, embracing, or touching.