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Intercultural communication is not easy

There was once a man who collected fine china from Sweden and was introduced to the Swedish term, „lagom,” during a period of study in the country. He accepted an invitation to dinner at the home of a professor one evening, and was quite well-intended when he complimented the host by telling her that, “The food was very lagom!” Quickly, the man realized his faux pas from the reaction upon his professor’s face. For, lagom, according to intercultures Consultant Uta Schulz, means that something is, “not too warm or not to cold; and not too fast and not too slow”; it’s something that is not extraordinary, though sufficiently good and does not need to be made better. Unfortunate for the man, he had misused a common term describing an accepted standard in Sweden. Since picking up her new book at the Stockholm Airport, the man in our story wrote to Uta to share this anecdote of how he had learned Swedish culture by fire!

Developing German-Swedish intercultural competences

The compact guidebook, Swedish Business Culture, authored by Uta Schulz, draws upon her 10+ years of business experience working with, and as a liaison between, Germany and Sweden. While Uta’s target audience is German-speaking business people seeking to more effectively reach their business targets in working with Sweden, insights are also offered on working with Germans and Swedes for those who are less familiar with both cultures. The guidebook was published in Sept. 2014 by Conbook as the most recent in a series of quick and comprehensive reference books. Click to read an overview and reviews of the book in GermanSwedish or English.

The Keys to Schwedish Culture

Even in less than an hour during our interview with her, Uta was able to condense her years of business experience into a few easy lessons on keys to Swedish culture. Her book offers solutions of how to manage the cultural characteristics described below. For your information…

…Sweden is a distinct northern neighbor from Deutschland.

Obviously the two are distinct states! Yet, Uta revealed that many assume more similarities between the two countries than are true. Indeed, Sweden and Germany are Western countries located in the same geographic region; they are market economies; predominately Christian-identified; and democratic. “There has been, of course, a very close cultural connection even before World War II,” shared Uta, “But in several central values, Germans and Swedes are almost opposite to each other. This is very surprising for most people because they would not have expected it from the beginning.”

…Swedes tend to make decision by consensus.

According to Uta, “Consensus is nothing that the Germans strive for, but it’s one of the important things for the Swedes. As long as they [Swedes] do not have a consensus, there can be no decision. Germans often cut off the discussion to get a decision.” This can cause a culture-driven perception on the part of the Germans that the Swedes feel the need to discuss in excess and work inefficiently. Add to that the contrast between a top-down German communication culture and communication in Sweden that tends to run more like a grassroots democracy in which decisions are successively discussed from the bottom up. “If everyone who is concerned is not involved in the decision, it is not a good decision in the Swedish point of view,” said Uta. That “the classical kind of German decision is not a good decision from the Swedish point of view” may also be a culture-driven perception on the part of the Swedes. Uta adds that there is often a feeling on the part of the Swedes that Germans’ tendency to explore the antithesis of an idea feels aggressive or uncomfortable.

…Swedish communication culture is relatively indirect.

And not just in comparison with German culture. Uta asserted that, “Swedish culture is one of the most indirect cultures of the world.” According to Trompenaars’ research on national cultures, German communication culture is one of the more direct on a global scale. “It’s quite natural that there is conflict,” said Uta.

An expert for German-Swedish cooperation

In these days of globalization, you can’t be sure that a person with a name like “Schulz” is German. In Uta’s case, it’s true. German-born and, in part, Swedish-educated, Uta began working in German-Swedish companies after university. “I believed that I was well-prepared because I could speak Swedish fluently…but then I realized that we could misunderstand each other very good!…These misunderstandings did not happen because we were speaking different languages, but because we had different expectations.” Like her colleagues, Uta was not engaging in her work at the time with the assumption that there were differences in business culture. Since 2013, Uta has worked as an intercultural coach and trainer with a focus upon Scandinavian countries, including Norway, Denmark and especially Sweden. Her clients tend to be Germans who seek to cooperate with Scandinavian countries or Scandinavian countries wanting to break into the German market.

Swedens global impact

When asked what impact Sweden makes upon global business, Uta was quick to name a number of examples. In recent months, Sweden was counted among the top ten most competitive national economies in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15. Daily and worldwide, people use Swedish inventions unaware of their origin: Skype, matches, absorption refrigerators, pace makers and zippers, to name a few. Uta spoke to the numbers of Swedish managers who earn success on a global scale. She attributes the impact of Sweden upon the global market to what she describes as curiosity and innovativeness. Plus, with the guiding principle of lagom, Swedish products may be more likely to make it to the market—even if there are some quirks to work out. With a country of nine million people, “They have to be innovative to survive in global business,” said Uta, “and at that they are very good.”

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The above article was included in the Mar. 2015 intercultures e-newsletter. 

Picture Credit title Picture: Getty Images.

Picture Credit „Portrait of Uta Schulz”: Uta Schulz.