Although most Scandinavians would laugh or be surprised to hear that you call their countries exotic or unusual, they really are like that. And it is important to be aware that Scandinavians may act and communicate totally differently than what you’re expecting.
Interested in Norwegian business culture?
Check out Working with Norwegians – A guide to Norwegian work culture and social life to be more informed and confident colleague, business partner and friend.
I was lucky enough to study Scandinavian studies with Norwegian as main subject, take MSc in marketing and communications, study at different institutions combined with hands on work experience, which gave me many great opportunities to work both for Scandinavian clients, and ond different projects related to Scandinavian markets for clients from over 15 different countries.
Currently, I’m a part of a Danish startup Opinodo, in charge of operations and growing the team in Serbia.
As the world is more and more global and Scandinavia offers some of the best internationalized economies not only in Europe, but in the entire world, as well as great infrastructure and encouraging policies, many businesses would like to expand to Scandinavian markets or cooperate with businesses from Scandinavia. But remember that this is a challenging process in every sense – none the less when it comes to cross-cultural communication.
Stereotypically speaking, if you were to start working with a company from Japan, it wouldn’t be a surprise that you did your research on Japanese business culture in advance. But you should do your research when it comes to Scandinavia as well!
If this helps, or if you have anything to add – do not hesitate to reach me through social media.
Scandinavia can mean different things!
People are somehow more surprised about this, because we don’t usually realise that culturally, Scandinavia is an exotic, different and exciting place as well. Just an example to illustrate this: most of us think we know what and where Scandinavia is, but… do we?
In the Nordic languages, when you say Scandinavia, you’re referring to Denmark, Norway and Sweden. However, some people mistakenly use it to refer to Finland and Iceland as well.
It is important not to mix Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden + 3 territories: Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland Islands), Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark and Sweden) and Scandinavian Peninsula!
If you got a bit dizzy from all this information, don’t worry: we’re getting to the point now: doing Business in Scandinavia (or with Scandinavians), refers to Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which you already know if you’ve read the introduction carefully.
3 golden rules for being successful
in a Scandinavian business environment
As each of us is a unique personality, different companies have different cultures as well – so all the things regarded as typical Swedish, Scandinavian, Danish …. [fill in the blank], should be taken with a bit of reservation, or as Norwegians say it – with a pinch of salt. But there are the values and principles that are really embedded in Scandinavian culture(s) and identity, that it would be highly unusual for a business or an individual not to respect them.
I based these golden rules for business communication in Scandinavian cultural context on those, and I hope they’ll be helpful!
Equality and a lot of freedom – but with a lot of responsibility
From early childhood, children in Scandinavia are thought to make their own decisions, be independent and think critically. There is less typical hierarchies in classrooms, in families or at work. This of course doesn’t mean there’s chaos. It just means that it is desirable to communicate and discuss ideas in an open and constructive way, and there’s usually no micro-management and no one is going to sit on your back and remind you and check every minute if you have done something. Freedom comes with responsibility, and it is expected that you do your part. Equality is really important part of Scandinavian (business) culture as well, and it means equality for everyone. There are places for improvement as well – for example, it can be harder to land a job with a foreign name – but when compared to the rest of the world, Scandinavia is a pretty equal place.
Open but polite communication – nuances are the key
Sometimes, communicating with my Serbian coworkers and friends I need to remind myself that I should be a bit more of a “balkan boy” as they don’t always get my messages. On the other side, I’ve been in situations where our Scandinavian colleagues in Serbia would be really worried about something a typical Serbian would experience as “slightly negative, kind of relaxed feedback – nothing to think or worry about”!
Scandinavians are open in communications, but they are really careful and polite at the same time. Nuances are usually the whole point, and it takes some getting used to it in order to properly understand the message being communicated. Usually, it is normal to find some positive points and then also negative ones, and here it is really important to be aware of all those nuances.
I really like the topic, and the first part of the blog post is really nice. But could maybe you go through the final paragraphs?
The pictures were really nice! Maybe it would be even nicer to check if we can rearrange them to go even better with each other?
I really like your humor, but maybe it would be a good idea to see if we should tone it a bit down, as the subject is kind of serious and other official posts are also a bit more serious. What do you think about it?
Depending of your cultural background and experiences, you may think that all these are (totally) positive feedback and that the work is good to go even as it is – but you should definitely reconsider and edit the parts mentioned!
Underpromise + overdeliver
Always be honest & realistic; Never brag
There’s a thing called Janteloven, and it is a real thing in Scandinavia. Of course, it’s not people literally disliking a successful individual, but no one likes to brag, and no one likes braggers. Mutual trust (related to honesty, as well as freedom and responsibility) is an important Scandinavian value. It is important that business partners can rely on each other, and it is important to be honest. I hope you’re successful and amazing in every way, but remember the last tip: it’s always smarter to show, not tell. Build trust and relationships carefully and responsibly.
Read also: Working with Norwegians by Karin Ellis
“Would you play chess or poker without learning the rules of the game first? Dealing with Norwegians without understanding the Norwegian way may be quite like playing chess or poker without knowing the rules. Norwegian workplaces are driven by a set of rules which are very different from those in other western cultures, leading to confusion and misunderstandings. Working with Norwegians explains in a clear and accessible way why they think and act as they do and what they expect.”
Parts of this blog were originally written in 2016, as a guest post for Jovana Miljanovic, one of leading Serbian bloggers. It’s slightly edited and published here on my personal website in May 2017, and edited again November 2017.