The case of the battling tools


Sometimes foreign language speaking can be just so wrong.

I was running a workshop in communication the other day, and one of the participants described a problem that he had experienced. He had a template that he wanted to introduce at work, but a colleague had a different template that he also wanted them to use.

The problem was that both had competing templates that served the same purpose. So I aked the participant how he solved the problem.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it was very easy. I just asked him to show me his tool. Then I showed him my tool and we agreed the one with the best tool would win.’

As I said, sometimes foreign language speaking can be just so wrong.

Top 10 Stereotypes about Swedes


In my job as a trainer and lecturer in cultural difference, I have the privilege of travelling all over the world. On these trips, I often carry out informal surveys on the people I meet to try to understand their perceptions of Swedes. These are usually professional people, male and female, who have some experience of working with Swedes in one way or another. Some of them may have a Swedish boss, others may have Swedish colleagues, subordinates or customers. The majority of the people asked are European.

Very often the same perceptions come back, and it’s interesting that some of the old stereotypes of Swedes still hang in there.

Top 10 stereotypes about Swedes

1. Honest (‘can always trust a Swede’)
2. Unemotional (‘don’t know how they’re feeling or if they’re even interested’)
3. Exotic (‘cold, snow, ice, chilly’)
4. Sexually liberated (‘open-minded and have many partners’)
5. Independant (‘men and women in work place and they travel everywhere’)
6. Slow (‘at deciding things, getting things done and in discussions’)
7. Naive (‘easy to manipulate’)
8. Modern (‘adopt new technology, drive new cars, follow latest trends’)
9. Good-looking and health-conscious (still ‘blonde, blue-eyed, tall’)
10. Arrogant (‘think the Swedish way is the best and only way’)

So are these stereotypes useful? Sure, they are. Firstly, they help us understand how others see us and then we have a choice what we want to do about that. Do we want to act in ways which reinforce the stereotype or in ways which contradict it?

Stereotypes also give us a place to start in our communication with people from other cultures.

But there’s one crucial thing to remember. Every person we meet is an individual. They may be typical of their culture or not.

So we should always try to check our assumptions about each individual and not just presume they are their stereotype.

Social outcast


Today I felt like a social outcast.

Sitting in my office, the rooms echoed with their emptiness. Everyone had gone home even though it was only 3 o’clock. Only I sat there – working.

You see, tomorrow is Midsummer’s Eve, possibly the most important celebration in the Swedish calender. And though it isn’t officially a bank holiday, it is a day off.

But the interesting thing is how Swedes always take half a day off the day before a day off in order to prepare. No matter what the holiday. Midsummer being no exception. Only lonely souls and Neil No Friends are left rattling around empty offices like peas in an empty tin can.

But why do Swedes take half a day off before the holiday day? Is it because day care is closed? Is it because the food takes a long time to cook? Is it because people are travelling long distances? Maybe.

But I think the real reason is to do with alcohol. On Midsummer especially, the off-licenses are packed. The day before Midsummer is by far the busiest day of the year for them. This means that it takes such a long time to buy alcohol that they need a good few hours to queue.

Happy Midsummer, wherever you are.

The little people


Right now, Carl Henrik Svanberg must be the most famous Swede on the planet. The CEO of BP was filmed giving his statement of apology to the American people and this film has spread like, well, an oil slick, all over the world. In his apology speech, he said,

‘We care about the small people’

And this has caused a mixture of outrage and ridicule. Of course, he meant to say ‘ordinary people’. ‘Small people’ is a direct translation from Swedish and can be equated with ‘the man on the street’. And it’s a clear example of inappropriate Swenglish.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, maybe, if ‘small people’ wasn’t such a derogatory comment in English. Small people – the insignificant, unimportant, expendible people who have suffered in the wake of the worst oil disaster in history.

In a tv interview on Swedish televsion the day after, Carl Henrik excused himself saying that his English is not perfect, it’s ‘alright’.

For me, this is not acceptable. I fully accept that people don’t speak a foreign language as well as their own. Lord knows my Swedish is no way near as fluent as my mother tongue. But I am not the CEO of a global corporation.

On that level, there is no excuse for bad English, no matter where you’re from. There’s no excuse for making stupid language mistakes that could so easily be avoided. And there’s no excuse for being so blasé about it afterwards.

So, Carl Henrik, welcome back to Sweden. You’d better enjoy it because this is where you’re going to have the rest of your career.

Sweden – the feminine society


Last night, I experienced something that I rarely experience in Sweden. I found myself at O’Leary’s Irish Bar. O’Leary’s is a sportsbar. Screens and televisions on every wall blare the latest football and hockey matches. Lots of different matches, on different screens – all at the same time. The beer flows and the menu consists mainly of burgers, spare ribs and buffalo wings.

But it wasn’t this that was a strange experience. The strange experience was the masculinity of the environment. Apart from two women, the place was full of, presumably straight, men. For me, this is a rarity in Sweden – an environment devoid of women and overflowing with testosterone.

When we talk about culture, we often describe it using various cultural dimensions. These dimensions help us compare different cultural tendencies. One such dimension is called ‘masculinity-femininity’.

According to research Sweden is the most feminine culture in the world.

This doesn’t mean that all men in Sweden are ‘pussies’, although the Finns tend to think so. What masculinity-femininty is about, is partly about the prevailing values of a society and partly about the gender role division.

In masculine cultures, men do things which are traditionally ‘male’. They have the higher education. They bring home the wages. They often have the power, the money and the position in their societies. Women stay home and look after the house and the kids. People in these types of culture tend to strongly value competition, assertiveness, individualism.

Feminine cultures, on the other hand, are culures which tend to value cooperation, nuturing, understanding. They are cultures where the gender roles are more diffuse. So, in feminine cultures you will find men taking parental leave, changing nappies and fetching at the day care centre, for example. You will see women with a high level of education and in roles that are traditionally ‘male’ – eg doctors, judges, politicians etc.

It’s easy to see how problems can arise when people with these fundamentally different views meet to work together, or even to start a family.

And with this definition, it is easy to see why Sweden is the most feminine culture in the world.

However, this is probably not something I would have said last night to the drunk lads in O’Leary’s!

A nation of hard workers


According to statistics from the Swedish Statistical Office, unpaid overtime in Sweden increased by 40% last year. It was a majority of men who worked additional overtime and it is believed that this is the result of the financial crisis.

Ask most Swedes how hard they work, and the majority of them would say they work extremely hard. Unfairly hard, some of them may even say.

And yes, they do work hard. As long as it’s not before 9am or after 3pm of course, since they have to go to day care to pick up the kids. And not between 11.30 and 1pm because that’s when they eat lunch and exercise. Nor should it be mid-morning or mid-afternoon because that’s the coffee (fika) break. And as long as it’s not on a Friday afternoon because then they’re winding down for the weekend.

Nor should it be anywhere between the end of June and the second week of August because that’s the summer.

And as long as it’s not on a bank holiday (of which there are many), or a day between a bank holiday and a normal weekend, or the day before a bank holiday.

Yes, apart from that, they work very hard.

Pancake Thursday


In all cultures, there is an element of predicatability. Some things that you can feel will always happen. Things that give you a sense of security because you can depend on them.

In Sweden, it’s pancakes.

Today is Thursday. In every lunch restaurant and every staff canteen that sell Swedish food, pancakes are on the menu. You can rely on it. It feels dependable. The pancakes are served in a particular way – with whipped cream and jam – and always, always served together with a bowl of steaming pea soup and bread.

It’s fun to watch Swedes on Thursdays. In the staff canteen, grown men queue up to ladle their soup into their bowls and pile pancake after pancake onto a plate like a Scooby snack. Then they gleefully paste on the jam and smother it with whipped cream. It’s like watching a jelly and ice cream party for 10-year olds.

Pancakes on Thursdays is especially interesting for us Brits. You see, we are deprived. We only get to eat pancakes once a year – on ‘Pancake Day’. ‘Pancake Day’ as it happens was last week, Shrove Tuesday. And on this day, when Swedes traditionally tuck into Lent buns, we Brits make pancakes and cover them with sugar, lemon juice and chocolate sauce.

But only once a year.

It’s not always that easy to understand how the rules of different societies work, especially when it comes to food. A Swedish customer of mine once told me a story about some Japanese visitors to Sweden that he was responsible for looking after.

The Japanese were visiting on a pancake Thursday. At lunch time, the Swede took the Japanese visitors to the company restaurant. Unsure of what to do when faced with the lunch time food, the Japanese took a bowl each and filled it with pancakes. They then spooned on jam and cream. And finally, they poured pea soup over the whole lot. They were left with an unholy mess seaping over the edges of the bowl.

The Swede saw what his Japanese visitors had done and was unsure of how to handle the situation. He could tell them they had made a mistake by not putting the soup in a bowl and the pancakes on a separate plate. But he felt this could potentially embarrass them and force them to lose face. This could be devastating to them and their business relationship.

So, he did the only thing he thought an adaptive, culturally-sensitive person should do. He took a bowl, filled it with pancakes and cream and then he smothered it with soup. He sat down with his Japanese visitors and slowly forced down the soggy contents of the bowl with a spoon.

It’s nice to know that however dependable and reliable a tradition is, it is not so rigid that it can’t be adapted if the circumstances decree.

And, in this case, those circumstances are known as hospitality.

Negotiating with a Swede

In today’s multi-cultural business world, we often find ourselves negotiating agreements with people from other countries. In this situation, we often notice that people have different negotiation styles. These differences can partly depend on culture.

Stereotypes of cultural negotiation style often exist. For example, the American hard nose. The emotional Italian. The evasive Brit. What then is the Swedish stereotype? Firm, unemotional, punctual are a few of the typical stereotypes I have heard.

But can stereotypes be useful when we negotiate? Sure.

For example, many international negotiators are aware of the Swedish stereotype of time-consciousness. And they use it as a tactic against them.

I know certain negotiators deliberately schedule negotiations with Swedes on a Friday afternoon, and make the discussions drag on, and on….an on. This, they believe, is a sure-fire way to put pressure on the Swede. The Swede just wants to get home to the family. His weekend is fully packed with ice hockey practice,food shopping,training, and an afternoon party for one of the kids from day care. There is no way that he can miss the plane home on a Friday evening. Feeling the pressure, he makes concessions just to get the deal done. A very different approach from some other cultures who might cancel all plans and stay an extra week if that’s what’s required to gain the business.

No right or wrong, just different ways to do something. And different ways to use stereotypes against us.