Are Swedish business people really that ‘lagom’?

by: Colin Moon
Communications expert Colin Moon knows the Swedes better than they do themselves.

Swedish business people consider themselves lagom, meaning normal. They are often unaware that their international business partners may have a different opinion. Communications expert Colin Moon thinks they are amusing and, at times, really quite odd.

Take the Swedish meeting culture for example. Swedish business life abound with meetings. An abnormal amount of meetings. When Swedes say “Mötet gick bra” (“The meeting went well”), what exactly do they mean? There were heated discussions? The meeting went on for ages? An incredible number of decisions were taken? I doubt it.

Some people believe that the sole purpose of a meeting is to produce decisions. Swedes, on the other hand, hold meetings to find out whether or not they are at the meeting to decide when the meeting will be to decide when they will meet to talk about what happened at their meeting.

Consensus process
Swedish meetings are short but many. They are arranged to give Bengan, Maggan and Lasse a chance to say what they think. If you want to reach a decision, you’ll have to arrange another meeting because in the meantime Bengan, Maggan and Lasse have to go back to the office and ask Ninni, Kicki and Titti (yes, there are girls of that name) what they think.

In Swedish this is called förankringsprocessen, the consensus process. If Swedes mention the word “process” you’d better not be in a hurry. There’s a process for everything. This one means getting everybody involved in everything.

Everyone voices an opinion and everyone listens. Then they compromise. The word compromise is music to a Swede’s ears. Everybody gets something. Not too much and not too little, but lagom. Nobody wins and nobody loses. They may agree to disagree, but what they will agree on is the exact time and date of the next meeting.

Decision time
Swedes rarely say yes or no. This means that instead of saying ja or nej they say nja which means “yes-but-no-but-yes-but.” You see, saying “yes” or “no” can lead to conflict, so Swedes avoid these words and replace them with “it depends,” “maybe” and “I’ll see what I can do.”

Foreigners may get heated, irritated or even angry. In Swedish business life this is called hysterical behavior. Hysteria is abnormal and uncomfortable and should preferably not occur during office hours.

You may wonder how on earth they ever make a decision. Swedish business people themselves have sometimes called this beslutsimpotens, which, I suppose, means not having the balls to decide one way or another.

Someone once said that if the Swedes gave up their fika, coffee breaks, they could retire five years earlier. Coffee is an integral part of any meeting, either as an on-going self-service affair during the discussions or as a separate break. The coffee break is not to be confused with the briefer, more frequent leg-stretcher, or “bone-stretcher” — the Swedish word for leg and bone is the same. 

Work-life balance
Most Swedes are dedicated to finding a healthy work-life balance. They might say they work hard; it’s just that they are not often at work to do it. Many companies have flexitime and, when possible, Swedes may also be entitled to work from home.

However, fair’s fair — when they’re at work they’re very effective. But not before 8.30 as they make use of their flexitime, and not after 4 p.m., thank you, as they have to pick up the kids from pre-school, and not after 2 p.m. on Fridays, if you don’t mind.

Swedes will start to ask you about your plans for the coming weekend as early as Wednesday afternoon. By Friday lunchtime they have mentally gått för dagen “left for the day.”

Red days
Swedes have a fair share of public holidays. In a good year they take as many days off in May and June as most Americans take in a year. And they still have their five weeks’ vacation to take out when it suits them. Not only do they have “red days,” as the Swedes call their public holidays, but they may be given half the day off before, just to get them into the holiday mood.

If they’re lucky their office can also give them a klämdag, which is an odd day between a holiday and the weekend. Come May, June and July the weekends and public holidays more or less combine into one long vacation with the occasional day at the office.

Despite all of the above the Swedish way seems to be amazingly efficient. The mind boggles. The fact is that Sweden is considered an innovative and creative country, and one successful Swedish company after the other appears on the global market.

So, there you are. Time to realize that Swedes may not be quite as lagom as they think they are. And thank goodness for that, because odd as they may sometimes be, Swedish business people have found a recipe for success.

Source: Sweden’s official website:
Photos: Lena Granefelt/

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