Scandinavian buzzwords have been gaining ground internationally in recent times. First out was Danish hygge (a mood of cosiness and contentment), closely followed by lykke (happiness) and more recently Sweden's own giant of a phrase, lagom (just the right amount).
These buzzwords are not just trends but also representative of work culture. Every country has its own way of doing things and Sweden is no exception. For a relatively close European neighbour, things work surprisingly differently. Twenty years of working in Stockholm has given me plenty of insights, as previously shared in Ten things I've learned from two decades living in Sweden. Beyond lagom and the well-known basics of flat hierarchies and a focus on consensus, there are many striking contrasts between Swedish and Irish work culture.
1. Giving feedback
While nobody likes criticism, many Swedes seem to have a particularly hard time with giving or receiving negative feedback. A common method is the sandwich method whereby negative feedback is presented between two layers of positive comments. It’s also common that instead of providing feedback, your superior asks you to give yourself feedback on your own work.
2. Prestigelös – the most desirable characteristic
This word appears in just about every single job advert. The perfect candidate should be “without prestige”, meaning someone who doesn’t take credit for success themselves or blame others for collective failure. The second most popular word in job adverts is probably “humble”. Understatement is a key skill in Sweden.
3. How to brag in Sweden
If you really must brag, mention of any form of athletic or sporting accomplishment is impressive and acceptable. The more hard-core the better. The same applies to audible insistence on buying fair trade goods and organic foods, which simultaneously signals a healthy bank account and environmental concern. References to your shiny new car, big house, famous friends or children’s brilliant minds will, however, fall like lead balloons.
4. Trade unions membership is the norm
Joining a trade union is not viewed negatively by your employer and you may be actively encouraged to sign up. There are even unions for managers and executives. A common reason for joining is that trade unions provide benefits and facilitate unemployment insurance, which does not come automatically from the government if you lose your job.
5. Holidays and summer are sacred
If things don’t get done before annual leave, you’ll just have to wait until Swedes are back from holidays. And there are lots of them. 25 days annual leave is the minimum and 30 days is quite standard. It’s encouraged to take a minimum of three weeks consecutive summer holiday to maintain that all important work-life balance, and the whole country more or less goes into shutdown in July. Work is not a priority any time over the summer, including for those not actually on leave.
6. Squeeze days – a holiday bonus
A squeeze day, the literal translation of Klämdag, is an extra day off that is squeezed in between a public holiday and a weekend. (Public holidays are not usually scheduled for Mondays). Squeeze days used to be treated as public holidays, but current legislation dictates otherwise. Some employers still view these as days off i.e. no annual leave required. An annual email from your employer outlining the policy is standard.
7. Karensdag – a disincentive for work shyness
You don't get paid for your first sick day at Swedish workplaces. This day is called a Karensdag. Working from home is, however, quite widely accepted. Arguably the Karensdag system encourages Lutheran work ethic. That's certainly the goal. Whether this actually results in greater presenteeism or people taking two sick days to get value for their first unpaid day is up for debate.
8. Lattepappa (Latte dads)
This is a rather condescending term for men on parental leave, who meet up at coffee houses or just conveniently place a cup in the holder of their pram. Swedish parents are entitled to share a pot of 480 parental leave per child as they see fit. 90 days, however are reserved or each parent under a "use it or lose it" system. Both parents are entitled to take all their leave in one go or to divide it up into a maximum of three different periods of leave per year. Parents can also Vabba, the verb used to express being temporarily at home on 80 per cent pay to look after sick children. This benefit is available until children reach 12 years of age.
9. First names only please
Equality in the work place goes beyond women's rights and parental leave for men. Titles, for example, are not used and may even be ridiculed. Everyone, including the big boss, is on a first name basis. There's no need to waste time wondering how to address an important email as all emails simply start with "Hej!". The lack of apparent formality should not, however, be confused with being well acquainted - the relationship is still formal and topics of conversation need to be limited accordingly. Equality also extends beyond communications. Knowing where the dish washer is and how to load your own coffee cup is essential etiquette, regardless of your rank.
10. Small talk and safe conversation starters
Literally translated as “cold talk”, small talk is not highly regarded, and silence is not considered to be social death, unless as a direct result of a social faux pas. Swedes tend to keep a clear separation between work and private lives and are careful not to cross that line. Anything that can be measured or quantified is a safe bet as it avoids having to reveal opinions, which are generally considered private. Conversations starters such as “how often, how many or how far” therefore usually get a much better response than “what do you think about…”, sports matches excepted.
Interested in finding out more about working in Sweden or with Swedes?
Working in Sweden, The A-Z Guide helps bridge the cultural and language divide, explaining what you need to know and what you can expect at Swedish workplaces. It offers 250 essential Swedish concepts, events and insights, one for each working day of the year. The guide also provides concrete advice to international professionals who are new in Sweden. Co-authored by Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux and Anne Pihl, the book is inspired by our own personal experiences of cultural acclimatisation and those of our clients. Anne provides relocation assistance and intercultural training at relocatetosweden.com and Sofi works provides language training and intercultural support at beeswedish.com