Around the World
Doing Business in Sweden
September/October 2010, eSide Supply Management Vol. 3, No. 5
With its modern distribution system, strong economy, excellent internal and external communications, and skilled labor force, Sweden remains a popular international sourcing destination.
For buyers of steel, electronic devices, paper products, machinery, dental/pharmaceutical supplies, automobiles, petroleum and clothing — or suppliers of military vehicles, semiconductors, construction materials and organic chemicals — a business trip to Sweden might be imminent, as all these are among the country's chief exports and imports.
Before you travel, be sure to master some basic elements of business etiquette.
Meeting Planning and Preparation
Book in advance. Schedule business appointments at least a few weeks in advance. Call to confirm your meeting before you travel.
Windows of opportunity. The best time to schedule a meeting is between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., or 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Try to avoid June, July (especially), August, December, and February to early March, as these are prime vacation months for many Swedes. Also keep in mind that vacation allowances in this country are five weeks long on average.
Don't be late. Punctuality is common courtesy in the Swedish business world. If tardiness can't be avoided, give your counterparts advance notice if possible, along with an explanation.
Prepare an agenda — and make your presentation snappy. In Sweden, meetings follow agendas closely. Clearly state the purpose of the meeting in this document. Also, make sure your presentation is clear, concise and to the point. Back up any assertions you make with facts, figures, tables and charts.
For men: Quality suits and silk ties are the best option for businessmen. Opt for dark colors (black, navy blue or gray) and understated patterns.
For women: Pack business suits, dresses and pants that are stylish, but understated.
For both: Think conservative, but stylish. Given the egalitarian nature that marks Swedish business culture, it's best to keep a low profile. To this end, avoid anything flashy — even Swedish executives don't dress more elaborately than their employees.
Also, pay attention to details. They might not say it, but your Swedish counterparts will notice, for example, a well-manicured set of nails or a fresh haircut.
What to expect. Swedes are generally regarded as shy, quiet and reserved at first. While this can sometimes translate as cold and unfriendly, many are warm and hospitable once a relationship has been established.
Also, business dealings are usually conducted in English. As such, an interpreter is rarely necessary.
Keep your personal life personal. Upon meeting you, your Swedish counterparts probably won't inquire about your personal life — your home, family, status or professional position. All these subjects are generally considered too private to probe. Instead, they'll likely get down to business after very brief cordialities.
Maintain your distance. Personal space is a priority in Swedish business circles. This is reflective of their focus on keeping personal and professional lives separate.
Welcome (and taboo) conversation topics. Being knowledgeable about Sweden's economy, high standard of living, sports, architecture and history is appreciated.
Never criticize any aspect of the Swedish culture or praise another city or area in Sweden over the one you're visiting. Nor should you compare Sweden to Finland, Norway or Denmark. As a rule, Swedes are proud of their own unique towns, regions, cultures and identities.
Enjoy the silence. During meetings, silent pauses are times for reflection. Resist the urge to fill the gaps.
Don't be a wise guy. Profanity of any kind is extremely ill-advised. Additionally, exaggeration and sarcasm (even in jest) aren't popular in the Swedish business environment because the culture prizes authenticity. It's best to be sincere with your Swedish counterparts, especially when giving compliments.
Introductions, Farewells and Everything in Between
The business of business cards. Most experts agree there's no need to translate English-language business cards into Swedish. However, do bring enough cards to distribute among everyone present, and don't fold or write on your associates' business cards.
Handshake (and hug) hints. Between men, handshakes are swift and firm. Between men and women, they are much lighter, and foreign businessmen should wait for Swedish businesswomen to extend their hands first. Women meeting other women might also shake hands or, if they haven't seen each other in awhile, exchange a light hug.
When you arrive to the meeting, if no one is available to introduce you to the group, introduce yourself. Follow it up with handshakes all around. Shake hands again when you leave.
Proper addresses. While it's common to address business associates by their first name in Sweden, it's best for foreigners to err on the safe side at first. Do this by using "Herr" (Mr.) or "Fru" (Mrs.), followed by your counterpart's last name.
Dining do's and don'ts.
- When toasting, make eye contact and nod to the others present before putting down your glass.
- Wait for the women present to put down their glasses first. (And, if you're a woman, don't wait too long to set down your glass — it can be annoying for everyone else.)
- Keep your elbows off the table.
- Keep your hands on the table, not in your lap.
- Try a little of everything you're served.
- Take a drink until your host has given a toast.
- Use your dinner knife for butter; a butter knife is usually provided.
- Eat only with your fork (even though it's common in the United States).
- Ask for a tour of the host's home unless you know him or her well.
Gift-giving guidelines. In Sweden, civil servants and private-sector businesspeople aren't permitted to accept more than US$60 in gifts per year. Anything more is considered a bribe.
Gifts to consider. Business gifts aren't common in Sweden. However, if invited to a Swedish counterpart's home, select gifts that represent your business or home area. Flowers, fancy chocolates, books or recorded music are also good ideas.
Gifts to avoid. Don't give your counterparts crystal items or objects made in Sweden.
A Done Deal
Don't expect an answer right away. Negotiations in Sweden are methodical, detailed and often slow. Plan to meet with your Swedish associates more than once.
Bottle your emotions. Remaining calm, cool, collected and in control is the order of the day when negotiating with your Swedish counterparts.
Embrace groupthink. The egalitarian nature of the Swedish business environment means final decisions are often made by consensus. In fact, many decisions fall to midlevel managers, who might even pass it further down the line. For this reason, don't channel all your energy into endearing yourself to top-level executives.
RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a senior writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. She can be reached by e-mail.
For more articles and resources on doing business internationally, visit the ISM articles database.
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