Business Etiquette While Visiting Sweden

In the business world, no matter where you are, it’s rarely acceptable to be late for an appointment. In some countries though, it is proper to be fashionably late to dinner or social engagements. Not true in Sweden. Punctuality is considered common courtesy.

Schedule business appointments a couple of weeks in advance and make sure to call before traveling to ensure all engagements are still scheduled. The best times for scheduling meetings is between 9 and 10 a.m. or from 2 to 4 p.m. Try to avoid the months of June, July, August and February to early March since many Swedes take vacation during these months. July is an especially attractive month for vacationers. Vacations are usually 5 weeks long, no matter what job you work. General workdays are from 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Lunch is often from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. Many businesses are closed on Sundays as well as Christmas and New Year.

Business attire is conservative for men or women with pantsuits being acceptable for women. Choose dark colors and eliminate busy, colorful patterns for the office. It’s not unusual for the higher-ups to dress in the same manner as those with a lower business position. Making a show of wealth or being well-to-do is not generally accepted in Sweden. Although most Swedes are fashion-conscious they do not usually try to outdo one another in dress.

Don’t be surprised if the Swedes, upon meeting you, do not inquire about your personal life. Home and family, as well as status and position, are usually considered too personal to probe. During meetings silent periods are common so don’t feel as though you need to fill in these silent pauses with chatter. These are times for reflection. Exaggeration, even in jest, is not generally accepted since Swedes prefer the truth as it is. Profanity is absolutely taboo. Avoid topics of others’ personal backgrounds and families or criticizing anything related to the culture.

In some countries formality when addressing one another is absolute, whereas Swedes prefer a more comfortable and informal relationship. Don’t be surprised if you are referred to by your first name soon after meeting and feel free to do the same. However, if you are addressed by a title and last name, follow suit.

Generally speaking, gift-giving is not usually done between business associates, even during holidays. They are, however, sometimes given at the closing of a business agreement. If you do receive a gift from an associate, reciprocate without trying to “outdo”. Cards are appropriate during holiday seasons but should be mailed early enough to be received by the holidays.

Gifts are given, even expected, after a social event as a “thank you”. When arriving offer a small gift such as flowers or candy. If giving flowers make sure they are unwrapped before presentation. Never give chrysanthemums or white lilies which have ties to funerals. Red roses and orchids imply romantic intent so avoid these as well. Give flowers in odd numbers, not even.

Most Swedes speak and understand English so it’s fine to present business cards only in English. Take a moment to study any cards handed to you then take care to place them in wallet or briefcase. Never just take a business card and shove it in your pocket or write on it in front of others.

To make the best impression with the Swedes be prompt, knowledgeable and meticulous. Plan on meetings beginning, and ending, on schedule. First meetings are usually informal get-to-know-you sessions so plan on scheduling several meetings before wrapping up business matters.

Never show extreme emotions, whether positive or negative, during business meetings. Remain calm and controlled. As a matter of fact, the appearance of being somewhat shy will earn you more respect than the appearance of being overly confident. Avoid making jokes during meetings and instead, state facts and make presentations concise. Men and women are more or less treated as equals in the business world. In some countries, even after contracts are signed, changes are requested and expected. In Sweden, once the deal is reached, agreements will be kept.

When invited to a social event dress formally if the invitation says “formal” but dress semi-formal if it states “casual”. Casual dress does not include jeans and tee shirt, normally. Be almost formal in your behavior as well. Men always stand when a woman enters the room and both men and women stand upon the entrance of an older person.

Just because you’ve been invited to dinner don’t assume it’s okay to wander around viewing the home and grounds. In addition, Swedish homes often have hardwood floors rather than carpeting so be selective about the type of shoes you wear. You may also be asked to remove your shoes so avoid runs in stockings or wildly patterned socks.

If a smorgasbord is served take small helpings of several foods each time. Tradition is to sample each and every food so don’t fill up on one or two. A clean plate is used for each visit to the bar. If given a drink before dinner finish it before moving with everyone to the smorgasbord, do not bring it with you. Do not begin eating or drinking, at the smorgasbord, until the host or hostess has said a few words or made a toast. Do not begin eating until the host and hostess have begun.

As in many European countries the knife and fork never switch hands. The knife always remains in the right hand, the fork in the left. When completely finished eating place the silverware parallel to each other, across the right side of the plate, with the tips of the knife and fork pointing towards the plate. Even when not placed in this position, it’s a hint to the server that you are finished, if you leave the silverware on the plate for a length of time. In a formal setting the fork and the spoon at place above the plate are used for dessert.

Proper etiquette requires all diners to keep hands above the table whether you’re eating or not. Rest wrists on the edge of the table but never elbows. If dishes are passed instead of a smorgasbord, pass them to the left. Pass salt and pepper directly to a person’s hands; never set them down for the person to pick back up. Do not cut the lettuce in your salad but instead, fold it until it fits well on your fork.

Finger foods are almost unheard of except for bread. Cut meats one piece at a time rather than cutting the whole piece before starting to eat it. In some countries it’s an insult to leave some of your food remaining on the plate but in Sweden it signifies that you’ve had plenty. It’s considered ill-mannered to take the last serving on a platter. Do not leave the table, unless invited to do so, even if you are finished eating. When the host or hostess realizes everyone is finished eating he or she will likely ask the guests to adjourn to another room. When the evening is closing take time to shake hands with each person rather than waving to the group.

In an informal restaurant don’t be surprised if you are seated at a table with others you’ve never met. You will be expected to act as though they are not even there. It is not polite to begin speaking to them simply because they are seated with you. Make eye contact to call a waiter; never call their name out or gesture with hands or arms.

Overall actions, in-office or in public, should be low-key. Refrain from losing your temper and speak in subdued tones. In some countries others can get extremely close when conversing but Swedes prefer a little more distance when speaking. In addition, Swedes do not gesture a lot and you, too, should try to keep gestures to a minimum. Men must remove gloves before shaking hands with another man. Eye contact should be kept during introductions and conversation. Backslaps, touching someone while conversing and other personal gestures are simply not appreciated in this society. Women should never, even while wearing pantsuits, cross legs by putting one ankle on the opposite knee. This stance is okay for men in casual settings.

In public never chew gum slouch or lean against poles, signs or buildings. Be careful giving a toss of the head, even to remove hair from eyes, since this gesture usually means “come here”. Do not jaywalk and be very careful on streets with no lights since traffic may not always give you the right-of-way. Driving is done on the right side of the road. Laws against driving and driving are harsh – catch a cab if you’ve had even one drink. Hats are worn by many people in the winter; men should tip hats when passing someone on the street that they know but should remove it completely when speaking to a woman.

You’ll do well in Sweden if you are knowledgeable and concise about your business presentations and if you show respect for the elderly or handicapped. Do not, however, single out people for praise or criticism. Dealings are with the group rather than individuals. Be mild in your demeanor and speech and mind the manners of the area precisely.

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