(First published in Currents Magazine No. 3 2008.)
Let’s say you’re an American having dinner in Stockholm with a Swedish businessman. The food is delicious and the view of the Royal Palace across the water is spectacular. Everything would be perfect if it weren’t for the silence. “Why am I doing all the talking?” you wonder. “I thought we understood each other, but I’m not so sure anymore.”
Here you are in one of the most Americanized countries in Europe, yet you feel like you could be in Japan or China. You can’t read your partner’s mind, and his body language isn’t helping much. He, on the other hand, is satisfied with today’s meetings, but would rather go over a few details of the project than engage in small talk about personal stuff.
“Swedish businessmen abroad tend to be too single-mindedly focused on doing business, even at a dinner with their business partners. French and Japanese businessmen see this as a purely social event, an opportunity to get to know the person they’re dealing with, to learn about his hobbies, his family and children. To many Swedes, this is strange. They don’t understand the weight this is given in other countries, and even if they do, they don’t always know what to say, as they often lack knowledge about their own culture and history,” says Åke Daun, a retired professor of ethnology at the University of Stockholm and the author of several books about Swedish culture including Swedish Mentality (Stockholm, 1989), which shaped much of the debate on the issue in Sweden.
Once you get to know the Swedes, you’ll realize that there is nothing wrong with you, nor with your Swedish partner. It’s just that you’re coming from two different cultures. While Americans live in subcultures that are often ethnically mixed and overlapping, most Swedes live in homogenous environments where it doesn’t take much context to figure somebody out. This is why it’s said to be a “low-context” culture.
The Swedes have a reputation for being hard workers, great inventors, socially progressive, skilled at international diplomacy, as well as savvy business-men who have built global empires such as ABB, Electrolux, Ericsson, IKEA, H&M, Saab, SKF, and Volvo. But then again, they can be painfully shy and awkward.
Stereotypes are stereotypes, shortcuts we take when we can’t or don’t want to deal with reality in all its complexity. But once we take a closer look, the simplistic image seems to dissolve, revealing a more complex picture. Take Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, one of the most famous Swedes in soccer. Every Swede knows Zlatan. Next, Aquavit’s famous chef has a perfectly Swedish name — Marcus Samuelsson — but he was born in Ethiopia and adopted by a Swedish couple at the age of three. There are about one million Swedes like Marcus and Zlatan these days, and some of them have even made their way over to the U.S. In this issue you will meet some of Samuelsson’s friends in Blatte United, a soccer team made up of young immigrants who had immigrated to Sweden as children but have since emigrated to New York. They all speak Swedish, often with a southern accent, and are proud of their Swedishness, as well as of their “blatteness” (blatte is slang for ”immigrant” in Sweden).
So being Swedish doesn’t have to mean you’re blond, blue-eyed, and boring, but there are still Swedes who fit the stereotype. A foreigner with a little experience can usually pick out a Swede at a party. They hover among other Swedes like penguins waiting for their spouses to return from the long journey. The lucky ones find an acquaintance to exchange a few words with, but the conversation seldom gets going until alcohol has softened the grip of Lutheran guilt, which strangely enough has survived a century of secularization.
Åke Daun traces the Swedish mentality back to the country’s rough climate and late industrialization. The modern Swede was late in becoming urbanized, and when a large part of the population moved to the big cities and suburbs in southern and central Sweden (during the 1950s, 60s and 70s), they brought with them a rural village culture. Mr. and Mrs. Svensson found themselves lived in modern-looking cities and suburbs but were still peasants at heart, to quote Martin J. Gannon’s Understanding Global Cultures (Sage Publications, 3rd edition, 2003).
“When Swedes meet, they look for sameness, for the least common denominator,” says Daun. “It’s still one of the most homogenous countries in Europe, and its peasant culture survived well into the 1950s. Before the Second World War, most people lived in rural areas or small towns, and Stockholm was a very small capital with very few foreign tourists.
“The population’s homogeneity resulted in a strong expectation for likeness in social meetings. If you meet people you don’t know at a dinner party, you will almost instinctively look for what you have in common, whether it’s ideas, hobbies, work or common acquaintances. You will avoid divergent views during the initial conversation. A good host always tries to match up guests that have something in common to ensure that the dinner conversation will be nice.
“One result of this cautious ambition to find similarities is that it can be hard for a Swede to join a conversation with several people at once. Hence, the Swede might prefer to just listen and look interested,” Daun says.
Historically, Sweden’s rough terrain (only seven percent arable land) and short harvest season put a premium on hard work and practicality. You had to stick together and cooperate in order to survive the long, cold winter, and during the brief summer you had to work from early morning to late at night to reap the harvest. You had to be practical, one reason that Martin Luther’s puritan ethos gained such a strong hold on the Swedish mind. This down-to-earth, egalitarian attitude was later absorbed by the social-democratic labor movement that ruled Sweden for most of the 20th century.
When it comes to the shyness Swedes are so famous for, Daun says they share this trait with Americans. He points to research he did with his American colleague James McCroskey at the University of West Virginia, who is an expert on shyness. “We studied students in several countries and found that American and Swedish students were equally shy, but while the American culture encouraged the students to overcome this social handicap, the Swedish culture associated it with humility and high morals. The quiet person was seen as deep and reflective, while people who talked a lot were seen as superficial and difficult.
“While being outspoken and speaking up are seen as signs of self-confidence in the U.S., in Sweden this is seen as being boastful and lacking humility. In the U.S., on the other hand, as well as in Southern Europe, a person of few words is perceived as stupid, one who has nothing to say. Swedes take it as a negative if you talk a lot and are loud. It’s a sign of being a foreigner, of being different,” Daun says.
This can create problems for immigrants to Sweden, especially if you’re coming from an old-city culture where you spend a lot of time talking as a way of investigating your social environment. In such a high-context culture, you can’t take for granted that you understand other people, which is why you need to talk to them.
But the stereotypical Swede is becoming far less typical, and this is especially true for entrepreneurs, innovators, and businesspersons. To run a business, you have to step out of the mold and dare to break the “Law of Jante” (i.e., the “Don’t believe you’re special!” attitude that grew out of Sweden’s egalitarian village culture and the bureaucratic capitalism which emerged during the 16th and 17th centuries).
Add to that that the entire Swedish society has gone through tremendous changes over the past few decades. Sweden’s already highly international economy has grown even more integrated into the globalized world, thanks to cross-national mergers such as those that gave us ABB and Pharmacia Upjohn, and the sale of Saab Automobile to General Motors and Volvo Automobile to Ford Motors. Today, more Swedes than ever are working and traveling abroad, at the same time that Sweden has become mixed economically, culturally, and demographically (13 percent of the population are first or second generation immigrants). Besides, we have a young generation that grew up with Facebook, Google and YouTube and is used to teaming up with people from all around the world to battle shoulder to shoulder in virtual wars. And finally, when Swedes go on vacation, they are as likely to go to Turkey, Thailand, or Trinidad as to stay in their parents’ little red sommarstuga.