When entering the Nordic market, you probably aren’t looking simply to offer a product or service, but also to set up offices or shops, or even to send representatives to meet agents, partners and customers.
As a multinational translation and localisation company, Sandberg fully understands that localisation is more than just words: it’s cultural interaction. In this article, four of our Nordic translators (a Dane, a Finn, a Norwegian and a Swede), who all have experience of working both within their own countries and elsewhere, discuss some of the cultural differences that they’ve encountered.
We’ve condensed these experiences into three valuable rules of thumb to make your interactions with your Scandinavian business partners and clients as straightforward as possible.
1st rule of thumb: politeness (or lack thereof)
Scandinavians generally aren’t rude; they can just seem rude. Finnish translator Antti, who has over a decade’s experience of living in Britain and Ireland, can testify to this:
“Brits are a lot more roundabout and polite when they want something from you. This can be misunderstood by a Finn, to the point of not really being sure if the Brit in question actually wants you to do something or not. Are they just asking a question or are they asking me to do something? Finns, on the other hand, tend to get straight to the point, which can be seen as blunt or even rude, although this is by no means the intention.”
Antti also points out that after moving back to Finland, he’s noticed something he never thought about before.
“The British and Irish will always, always hold the door open for you if they see you coming in behind them. In Finland, however, people will let the door close right in your face, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that there’s a person coming in the same door right after them.”
Norwegian translator William says that in Norway people do hold doors, but don’t necessarily expect to be thanked for it. “Whoever is in the position to hold the door will do so. And it’s sort of taken for granted that the other person appreciates this, so they don’t need to express gratitude. Again, the silence is not rudeness, just a quiet, shared understanding – sometimes expressed with a quick nod.”
Danish translator Amila agrees and points out another thing: “There’s no one-word equivalent for ‘please’ in Danish. You have to use constructions such as kunne du ‘could you’, kan jeg få dig til at… ‘could I get you to…’, må jeg bede om ‘could I ask for’ and so on. That’s really weird compared to English where ‘please’ is a major component in all sorts of communication.”
“Well, there is of course vennligst (literally ‘friendliest’),” William points out, “but in Norway it’s often seen as a bit passive-aggressive – as if you’re being overly polite to make a point that the other person isn’t.”
Amila laughs. “True. We do also have venligst in Danish, but it’s regarded as quite formal so no one really says it. You may see it in some written communication, such as from the authorities.”
Swedish translator Lena adds that she finds it strange how the British very often insist on using honorifics, such as Mr, Mrs and Miss. They’re almost never used in Scandinavia, even in formal communications.
“Thank goodness for Ms,” she laughs. “I can’t promise that I’ll be able to resist the temptation to state my title as Captain or Lord ‘by mistake’ in one or two future forms.”
William agrees. “The use of Herr (for Mr) or Fru (for Mrs) would be regarded as extremely archaic. There’s also no equivalent to Sir and Madam. In most formal communication, rather than Kjære herr Smith ‘Dear Mr Smith’, it would simply say Til John Smith ‘To John Smith’. In less formal communication, Hei, John ‘Hi John’ is fine. To a Norwegian, it would matter a lot more that the letter or email came on time, than whether or not it used a certain greeting.”
“One more thing,” Antti says with a resigned smile, “we Finns also make the mistake of confusing politeness coming from a Brit as an indication that they like us. You can imagine how awkward this can be for the Brit in question.”
? First rule of thumb: Scandinavians don’t use language as their primary way of conveying goodwill in the same way that English speakers do. They’re polite but in their own way: formal courtesies matter less, but the underlying intent of kindness, consideration and respect matters a lot.
2nd rule of thumb: the law of Jante (no bragging please, we’re Nordic)
The 10 fictional commandments known collectively as Janteloven or the “Law of Jante” appeared in a novel by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose to express the enforced conformity of a small-town environment. But there are undercurrents in these precepts that resonate with every Scandinavian, and not always in a negative way.
Where the fourth commandment of the Jante Law says, ‘You must not think yourself better than us’, the flip-side is ‘We don’t think we are better than you.’ This is perhaps the broader Jante culture: seeing one another as having equal worth, regardless of position, success or wealth. It also corresponds to the relatively flat organisational structure that Scandinavian businesses and organisations have.
Lena says that it was quite a culture shock when she first started working in Britain as a waitress.
“There were more managers in this one tiny café than I could count. It was strange to me that there was a manager for the fridges, for example, and yet another one for the tills, etc.”
“It’s my experience as well that the British take a more hierarchical approach and that titles matter a lot more than they do in Norway,” William adds.
“That’s true,” Lena says. “A friend of mine moved back to Sweden and found that, whilst in Britain the hierarchy was very obvious, at her present job in Sweden everyone except for department managers has the same title and the level of responsibility is reflected in the salary.”
“The work culture in Denmark is also not very formal,” Amila remarks. “We use first names and there isn’t a strict dress code at work, and this is something that starts as early as school. I never wore a school uniform and we called our teachers by their first names.”
“Oh yes,” our Swedish translator confirms, “in Sweden as well it almost goes without saying that there is no dress code or at least fairly informal clothing – unless a uniform is required, naturally.”
But Amila also points out an aspect of the Jante Law that can be a pitfall for a non-Scandinavian:
“There’s a bit of an assumption in Denmark that the way things are done there is the best way. Friends of mine, some of whom are from bigger countries and used to very diverse input, told me that there wasn’t much interest in how they used to do things elsewhere, even simple things like work methods. Qualifications from abroad are not always trusted and it’s not unusual for people to have to take exams to get a Danish certificate to prove their skills.”
She adds a word of caution: “Tread lightly at first if you’re suggesting changes or improvements in Denmark, otherwise it could cause offence.”
“Oh yes,” William nods. “There’s almost a degree of chauvinism in that we Scandis do like to think we’ve got things just right and we prefer it if foreigners acknowledge this, at least before they start criticising,” he laughs.
? Second rule of thumb: Jante culture means a preference for flat structures, low levels of formality and equality of worth but also a certain suspicion towards what can be seen as showing off or thinking one knows better. Generally, you can expect a Nordic person to be more knowledgeable and capable than they say they are.
3rd rule of thumb: the workplace (keyword: balance)
For anyone planning to work in the Nordics or with people from the region, it’s worth noting that in addition to being flatter and less formal, Nordic workplaces also tend to be organised differently. Quite literally.
“I think one difference is that most people in Denmark are unionised,” Amila points out, “although the number is falling. This probably affects how people view work and behave at work. Unions have a natural role in our perception of work and I get the sense that people are (or were, when I still lived in Denmark) less open to unreasonable demands, like being available to their employer on the phone at all times, than you read about in some countries.”
“This is true in Norway as well,” William says. “We don’t actually have a general minimum salary set by law in Norway, however, because the national labour union and the national employers’ union have negotiated it, a minimum level has been agreed and is respected. Some industries have had minimum salaries set fairly recently so as to stop cheap un-unionised labour from abroad competing with Norwegian workers. This is the actual reasoning given by the regulator,” William chuckles.
Lena points out that whilst unionisation is strong and widespread in Sweden as well, “There’s this parallel job market in Sweden – as everywhere – of unsafe employment, such as agency work, temporary jobs and hourly work, where many of the things that Sweden often prides itself on (collective agreements ensuring certain standards for workers, unemployment pay, statutory stick pay, etc.) don’t apply.”
On the other hand, it’s also Lena’s impression that there’s quite a big focus on sustainability and health and wellbeing in Swedish businesses.
“There are loads of initiatives regarding mental and physical health – vulnerability has increasingly started to be seen as a natural part of the leadership style among managers and CEOs.”
“There’s an ambition to place health before achievement, financial support is often offered to employees for physical activities and time is set aside during work hours to exercise or meetings are held whilst going for a walk (‘walk and talk’). In addition, generous time for ‘fika’ [the Swedish word for a short break – often involving coffee and cinnamon buns], socialising and going out for fresh air are all seen as important.”
“Yes,” Amila interjects, “in Denmark too, the work-life balance is very important and prioritised.”
Our Norwegian translator chuckles. “I do remember working for an employer in London who expected me to be ready to respond at any hour, day or night, whereas an employer I had back in Norway apologised profusely for once calling me on my day off to deal with a client situation. The expectations can be a little different, although of course it depends on the individual company culture as well,” William remarks.
“One thing I did find easier when I was looking for a job in the UK,” our Swedish translator points out, “was that the salary was mentioned in almost every job ad. I found this transparency surprising given that salary is almost never mentioned in Swedish job ads.”
“Yes, although in Britain one does not discuss how much money one makes,” William laughs.
“True,” the Swedish translator replies, “I find that talking about money and salary seems a lot more awkward in Britain than in Sweden. Perhaps because when it comes to state-governed organisations, information about salary and taxation are required by law to be published for everyone to see.”
William nods in recognition. “In Norway, all taxable income and taxes paid are made public by the tax authorities so everyone can see how much you earn, what your assets are and how much tax you paid. Many people from other countries would find that a massive intrusion of their privacy and even some Norwegians think that. But it certainly means that any attempt at keeping your income a secret is in vain and some feel it contributes to openness, helping to reduce corruption.”
Our Swedish translator nods, “Generally I would say that trust is important for Swedes in the workplace: trust and transparency as well as managers having an advisory and supportive role rather than authoritarian. Controlling measures are considered a bit old school, whereas trust is the modern way.”
? Third rule of thumb: Scandinavians have a high unionisation rate and they value their work-life balance – don’t take it for granted that they’ll answer your phone call at 6pm or at the weekend. Management and business transparency is expected. Yet the workplace is seen as a place for cooperation, not conflict, and Nordic countries have some of the highest productivity levels in Europe.
And finally, if you want to impress a Dane, learn how to correctly pronounce rødgrød med fløde. Although Nordic people like to show off how good they are at English, they tend to be very impressed with any foreigner who has gone to the effort of learning a phrase or two in their respective languages. Lykke til! (Good luck).