How to understand Swedish signals

Swedes are very modest and restrained in their communication; they will take every pain not to offend you or alienate you. Omtanke, which they have taken in with their mother’s milk, forbids them to do that. That means that criticism is often wrapped up in discreet (counter) suggestions or questions. And people from other countries often do not perceive that as criticism.

Listen for the Swedish ›no‹!

The same applies to the Swedish no. In a negotiation with representatives of other countries it can happen, for instance, that one side (the foreign) states that the suggestion is impossible. There is no way that there could
be an agreement.

Swedes think exactly the same way, but they say, ›(J)aaa, not a bad idea. We can think about that.‹ That is the Swedish no, but foreigners often just don’t hear it.

So sharpen your ears for Swedish criticism and the Swedish no, and take pains to express yourself as diplomatically as possible so as not to be perceived as impolite or even aggressive. Discussions too take place in Sweden in a different way.

Discuss in a Swedish manner!

Perhaps you became acquainted at school with a way of debating or discussion that is also an everyday occurrence in firms: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. That is, talk and counter-talk until you come to an agreement. That format of discussion is totally unknown in Sweden! So it can happen that you will be perceived as impolite and aggressive if you discuss in a way that is normal from your point of view. Without thesis and antithesis, a discussion in other countries is no fun at all, or else it is not a discussion!

Things are different in Sweden. Swedes discuss in consensus! That means that the thesis is changed bit by bit through questions or discreet modifications until finally a common consensus is reached. However, that way of discussing is almost impossible for people from other countries. That explains why there certainly can be misunderstandings that perhaps are not at all apparent at the start.

Take note of body language!

Like verbal communication, body language in Sweden is also rather modest and low key. Facial expressions and gestures are restrained and of course you should keep a respectful (physical) distance. Body contact, for example tapping someone on the shoulder (in public), is inappropriate!

You should conduct yourself in a natural, relaxed, and genuine way. Nobody expects you to change yourself utterly. But try from time to time to enter the Swedish perspective and to see what sort of impression you are making on the Swedes.

On the other hand, the Swedish presentation style with its restrained facial expressions and gestures and the quiet way of speaking sometimes seems a bit disengaged and boring to people from other countries. But that would be a false conclusion. Swedes simply do not want to make a big show of themselves because that would be impolite.

Another thing that might irritate you is e.g., that during a speech Swedes do not take their hands out of their trouser pockets. That for its part might seem as a lack of education to you. But that rule is totally unknown to the Swedes. The formal politeness that in other countries is looked upon as ›good education‹ strikes Swedes as unpleasant, but is not a social rule in Sweden. (You will find more on that topic in chapters 6 and 9). So do not judge ›Swedish behaviour‹ according to your own norms for gestures, facial expressions, and formal politeness and simply try to perceive how your Swedish partner might have meant his statements!

Uta Schulz

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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