Playa del Ingles – Swedish invasion

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Currently enjoying a week in the sun on Gran Canaria. It’s altogether a very Spanish experience. Er, well, maybe not.

Yesterday evening we headed off to a well-known dance palace called Playa del Sol. The reason it’s well known is because it is a Swedish oasis, in the middle of the tourist sprawl. A restaurant and dance club, this is where Swedes, mostly of an older generation, come to eat Swedish food, drink cheaply, listen to orchestra music and strictly come dancing. The place has certainly seen better days, with it’s tired decor, faded colors and jaded staff.

Last night a Swedish legend was performing. The 75 odd year old Lill-Babs is Sweden’s equivalent to the UK’s Cilla Black and she’s still going strong. The show was sold out and her white haired audience of regulars went wild as she crooned to her classic hits from previous decades. Her energy and her saucy jokes had the audience agog. They were in the palm of her hand.

For me, this was a fantastic cultural experience – a mixture of fascination, sentimentality and horror. But mostly I was a witness to how a singer can create a life long following of loyal and loving fans through her hard work and professionalism.

Lill-Babs is really proof that the show does go on. And it goes on and on and on in this little Swedish dance paradise on a small island far away in the Atlantic Ocean.

Reading the city

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One of the best things about walking around a city is that you can read the layers of architecture which gives you an insight into the lives and times of current and earlier city residents.

And Stockholm is no exception.

On the island of Södermalm, there is a cluster of old red, wooden houses perched amongst blocks of flats from the twentieth century. Most of these houses originate from the 1700’s and were homes to workers in the nearby tar yard and the docks. These were stinky, tough and perilous jobs. And, just like today, Stockholm was rapidly growing and people migrated into the city in droves. And just like today, there was a housing crisis even then. In the 1800’s and 1900’s these small, red houses were so overcrowded and filthy that they became dilapidated and dangerous.

Eventually in 1956, the government decided to renovate and improve the living standards for the poverty-stricken residents.

Today, the area is protected due to its cultural relevance and is still a residential area for a lucky few.

So next time you’re out walking, lift your eyes up. Look at the buildings around you – what does it tell you about your city’s earlier dwellers?

Happy Swedes? That’s the question.

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Yesterday, I ran a seminar on Swedish culture and I got a thought-provoking question from an audience member. It was a question I have never had before.

‘Are Swedes happy with what they are?’ was the question. Somewhat taken aback, I tried to answer the question in the best way I could based on my interpretation of it. I talked about anthropologists are yet to find a culture that thinks their way is wrong. Every culture thinks their way is the right way – otherwise they wouldn’t do things the way they do them. Being culturally competent is about understanding that there are lots of right ways.

After the seminar, I thought more about the question – are Swedes happy with what they are? It resonates around my head still. How happy is the average Swede? How happy is the average person in general? I sincerely hope that most people are happy and living lives that fulfill and enrich them. I hope they are living lives where they can be grateful for what they have and not envious about what they don’t have. I hope they are living lives where they can be the best they can be, surrounded by people they like and free to make the best choices for themselves. I hope their lives are full of life. For me that’s happiness. And in Sweden, that’s the life I am able to live.

So at least I’m happy to be the way I am – in Sweden!

Swedes – the world’s best bosses?

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If you are Swedish, I would like some help from you.

I am carrying out some informal research into what Swedes perceive to be the best management qualities and behaviours. There’s a lot of research out there, but a lot of it is old. I’d like to get some contemporary and fresh input. And I need your help.

If you’d like to help me, please answer the following two questions in the comments field below:

1) What do you think are the most important qualities of a good manager?

2) What do you think are the most important behaviours of a good manager (in relation to you and your work)?

List as many qualities/behavours as you want.

Thank you very much for your help!!

Swedish healthcare – best i test!

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I’ve always been a fan of Swedish healthcare. Socialised since the 1940’s but publically funded to some degree since the 1700’s, Sweden’s public health care is cheap, egalitarian and of high quality. At least that’s how I’ve always experienced it.

Living in Stockholm though, it seems like the best hospitals are not here. Nor are they in the other large cities such as Malmö or Gothenburg. According to the Medical newspaper ‘Dagens Medicin’, the best hospitals in the three classes ‘university hospital’, ‘medium sized hospital’ and ‘small hospital’ are in the towns of Linköping, Jönköping and Oskarshamn respectively.

So now we know where to head to if we need the best quality healthcare in Sweden.

Say ‘Welcome to Sweden’ – and mean it!

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Last night, I was thinking about my working career and realised that I have always had a job. I have never been unemployed more than a few days. When I lived in the UK, I hopped from employment to employment. When I moved to Sweden 20 years ago I got a job teaching English within a week.  Working in Sweden is probably one of the main contributors to my successful integration into society. Through working, I met Swedes, I learned the language and developed an understanding of the culture. I became participative in Swedish life, I paid taxes and I felt a strong sense of involvement and motivation to contribute.

I know I am one of the privileged ones. The latest statistics from Eurostat compares unemployment amongst foreign-born and native-born residents in various European countries. In Sweden during 2013, unemployment was 12.3% higher for foreigners than for natives. This percentage is only higher in Portugal and Slovenia. According to the research, ‘immigrants in Sweden are now more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their native counterparts. In part this is explained by the integration challenge, but in many cases the children of immigrants of certain ethnic backgrounds need to send twice the number of CV’s compared to native-born job applicants before landing a job interview – alongside the challenge, there is also a hint of discrimination.’

This is serious. On the one hand, Sweden is an open and tolerant country. On the other hand, we see the rise of nationalism and the focus on immigration and integration. I strongly believe that what is required are jobs. But not just McJobs. Qualified, relevant jobs. As in my case, through work comes involvement and integration. In Sweden, the foreign-born population is actually more likely to have a higher education compared to the native Swedes. But Sweden has failed to leverage on this. This leads to doctors, lawyers and engineers working as cab drivers and cleaners, something that is corroborated in the OECD International Migration Outlook report which shows that Sweden’s over-qualification rates are among the worst when compared to other advanced economies.

It is no surprise that a failure to integrate foreign born population into Swedish society creates frustration and anger on both sides of the equation. This can be allievated through broad, far-reaching employment initiatives which Sweden has been so good at historically, So be shocked by the statistics and shout this out to the politicians! When we say ‘Welcome to Sweden’, we should mean it.

Please walk on the right

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On the way to work this morning I tested something out. I have to admit I was a bit scared. I took my life in my hands and my heart was beating rapidly. I saw, coming towards me, a group of people. Freshly off the train, they hit the pavement and were stomping with determination to their places of work. As they approached me, I decided to test cultural expectations and see what would happen.

I shifted position and walked on the left side of the pavement.

In Sweden, cars drive on the right side of the road. On escalators, people stand on the right side and let people climbing the escalator pass on the left. It’s an unwritten cultural rule that this also translates to the pavement. When masses of people move along the street, they automatically migrate to right-side walking.

But not me. Not this morning anyway. I wanted to test this cultural assumption.

As the masses approached me, and I walked on the left, I paid attention to the expression on people’s faces. Many ignored me. Others saw me and looked surprised. But the majority, gave me the evil eye. This came in a variety of forms, from staring at me and grimacing, to rolling the eyes upwards to audibly tutting as they walked past or were forced to navigate around me. Nobody reproached me or scolded me. Nobody told me I was doing it wrong. But many of them looked annoyed at my existence and the fact that I was inconveniencing them.

This little experiment highlighted a classic concept in intercultural competence. We are so preoccupied with our own view of the world that we fail to see other people’s perspectives. There are often situations where others don’t know the ‘rules’, but we judge them as though they do know the rules – but are just idiotic or rude. Consequently, we become angry or frustrated and this affects our interaction and our communication.

The solution? Instead of thinking ‘that person’s an idiot’, we can think ‘that’s interesting, why might they be doing that differently?’  

Think about that next time you get irritated because somebody isn’t following the norms that you believe in.