Lessons Learned from Working in Sweden as an American

Melanie Aronson Panion founder black and white

writer icon Melanie Aronson     DRAŽEN LOVRIĆ   |   Startups     🕐 25. Sep. 2019

I recall a time in my early twenties when I told my father I was considering becoming a lawyer. Like everyone else at that age, I felt directionless and the possibilities seemed endless. I still barely knew myself. In response, my father said, “Melanie, practicing law is about enforcing rules that already exist. If ‘you’ become a lawyer, you will just get frustrated, wanting to re-write the laws you don’t believe in.”

At the time, his insight preceded my own self-awareness of my rule-breaking tendencies. Still, it marked the beginning of my taking a good hard look at what type of professions would align with my personality and what type of person I wanted to become.

I have never been great at following rules. So how did I suddenly find myself in Sweden, a country brimming with bureaucratic boxes and abundant social constructs?

Moving from New York City to Sweden, I soon found myself trying to figure out how to exist within the confines of a society based on "jantelagen" (The Law of Jante). Jantelagen essentially means trying to fit in without seeming like you are better than anyone else. Let’s just say this is the antithesis of my American upbringing.

I’m not the first expat to frustratingly blog about the concept, so I will keep it brief, but I want to introduce this sudden dissonance as the context for the lessons I have come to learn from doing business in Sweden. Particularly as an American immigrant working both as a freelancer in the film industry and as the founder of a Swedish startup:

Always speak nicely
I had never even recognised the extent to which Americans could be so demanding until I started to have American clients while living in Sweden.

When I would go back to the U.S. for a visit, I was often shocked at the ways in which people would impatiently snap at each other, even in the business world. I guess you see it in movies, but I had become so accustomed to the brash, need-it-now, customer-is-always-right attitude that I was quite blind to the possibilities of a world where people always try to speak nicely until I stepped outside of its borders.

Now, having lived in Sweden for almost 5 years, I realize that speaking nicely to your colleagues, employees, and even the most annoying of customers, builds a more peaceful environment for everyone to grow. It can help people recognize their own shortcomings without imposing unnecessary shame.

I have run into quite a few people since living in Sweden, who refuse to do business with American customers because of the condescension and overly demanding attitude. This makes me sad. I wish I could bring some awareness to my own culture, but all I can do is try to be an example of change myself.

Be patient, but not complacent
Everything in Sweden moves at a fraction of the pace that it does in the U.S. and while at first that can feel frustrating, embracing it can help you achieve a better work/life balance.

I have come to love the silence in my inbox on a Sunday. I'm living in a culture where I can unplug on the weekends because I know I won’t be missing anything.

On the other hand, certain bureaucratic procedures in Sweden can seem endless, and if you are too patient to the point that you never take action, you will definitely not move forward.

I cannot even count the number of times I have called the various migration, tax, and business bureaus to check up on my case, only to find that my file has somehow ended up in limbo on someone’s desk who is now on vacation. While I have come to enjoy the space in my schedule, I also realize that, in a country filled with perpetual vacations, you can easily fall between the cracks.

Take actual breaks – not just to go to the bathroom
The first experience I had in a work setting in Sweden was as a researcher at Lund University. It was here that I learned about the Swedish concept of "fika", which is a coffee and pastry break with colleagues or friends. I learned how an occasional change of scenery and some social activity can actually improve one’s efficiency.

I have also come to embrace the Swedish work lunch. It conveniently commences, like clockwork, at 12 o’clock on the dot. Lunch consists of a deliciously warm and hearty meal with an array of side salads, bread, coffee and sometimes even dessert. It puts shame to my former habit of eating a quick sandwich at my desk with my left hand while continuing to work with my right.

Taking the time to enjoy a 3-course meal for lunch has again taught me how to slow down and take care of myself and my mind. As our lives become more and more dependent on technology, it is important to notice the mental benefits of socialising while unplugged, even for just an hour.

Consider different cultural paces
Living in Sweden, I have come to understand both the frustrations of working in a country that can collectively go offline for certain periods of the year and the beauty of it.

I remember my first job out of college, working for a translation company in New York City, and how difficult it was to get any of the European linguists to complete projects in the summer months. At the time, I remember some of my colleagues referring to Europeans as lucky and others as lazy.

I could not fully comprehend the reasons behind taking so much vacation time until actually experiencing the benefits it brings to society as a whole. What it has taught me, is to be considerate and respectful of the different ways in which people work and to find the way that is right for me.

In my early days in Sweden, some of my U.S. clients would email me at 23:00 Swedish time, annoyed I hadn’t responded within the last hour. At that time, I would end up working across multiple time zones, but today I am trying a new approach - educating my clients about how to work with people in other timezones and cultures.

How can I expect clients halfway across the world to know that in Sweden we do not work on the weekends, or respond instantly to emails just before midnight when they come from a culture that does the opposite? So I calmly explain the differences in work culture and help them understand the best way to communicate with me. I often find this type of honesty just further strengthens our relationship.

Pair criticism with compliments
In my first year of living in Sweden, I was working as a freelance documentary cinematographer. I started working quite regularly on a number of projects with one particular client, and one day we decided to hold a meeting to discuss our process working together and how to improve our workflow.

I immediately got to the core of it, listing the miscommunications that had occurred and suggesting strategies for improvement. I was excited to get some stuff off my chest and eager to find a new way forward. However, my comments were met with sudden shock. Apparently I had offended the two women with whom I had been working by my blunt and efficient attempt to resolve our issues. I was told that in Sweden you should always begin with a compliment before giving any criticism.

At the time I thought to myself, are we overly-sensitive children, who cannot handle the realities of working relationships, and who first need their egos boosted in preparation for any type of feedback?

However, as I continued to bump into this unwritten rule, I came to see its benefits. Yes, we all need the blow softened sometimes. Why should we all be required to grow a thick skin in the world of doing business? Why can we not stop to see the positive contributions of our colleagues, even if only to pair it with some constructive criticism?

Maybe it’s less efficient. Maybe it’s only half true, but as I mentioned with learning to speak nicely, it’s all about creating a peaceful work environment where people feel valued, heard and respected.

While there have been a number of growing pains transitioning from an American to Swedish work-style, some Swedish practices have truly impacted my outlook on how to find balance in the workplace and provide the ideal setting for my team. That said, there are still some elements of my American upbringing that I cannot escape, like valuing hard work and determination.

There is one thing I can say with absolute certainty. Everyone should experience another working culture at some point in their lives. While it might help you slow down or become more efficient, it will definitely improve your cultural sensitivity, helping you empathise with those who may have learned to do it differently.

In the end, you will become more self-aware about your own needs and in turn realise what type of CEO, colleague, consultant, client, etc. you yourself want to become.

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