Monday, August 25, 2008

In the Swedish Board Room and Working World

As August wanes and the shadows become noticeably longer and that breeze just isn’t quite as warm as it was a couple weeks ago, it becomes apparent that summer is leaving us way up here in the north. Even in Sweden, school has started, non-summer cities such as Linköping are startlingly full of people once again and business is in full swing.

For the past couple years, the readership of Linköpinglivin’ has been evolving. What started out as solely family and friends quickly became a whole lotta native Swedes. Then came foreigners visiting Sweden who were searching for something else and accidentally stumbled upon this peculiar, but informative, observation of Sweden and the Swedes in English. For any English speaker coming to Sweden to do work, this blog (or so I have been told) comes up repeatedly in all sorts of contexts (from directions to cafés to baby strollers and more).

I’ve recently started to consider particularly useful topics for the foreigner (be they American or not) to be aware of should their professional or personal life bring them to Sweden. This week’s topic will probably not be of much use or interest for a Swede, could perhaps provide some small interest to the American who is interested in business and company culture, but will be crucial for the foreigner coming to work in Sweden and wanting to understand the subtly different Swedish work world.

As with most considerations of culture and differences when examining Sweden, one must first start with the all-important Swedish Jante Law of “thou shall not consider thyself better than others.” Swedish equality and desire for participation and consensus is the key to understanding the Swedish work world. Bosses are not better than their subordinates and well-educated people are not paid nearly as much as their peers in other countries in comparison with less-educated employees. Decisions are made not necessarily by an authority at the top of a hierarchy, but by a group that only goes forward when consensus has been reached. Meetings are vital. Facilitating, not deciding, is often the role of the Swedish manager or CEO. There is still accountability and responsibility, of course, but this is not nearly as evident in the day-to-day behavior of employees.

Communication between colleagues is also a bit different due to the cultural expectation of non-confrontational communication. Communication is simply more courteous and softer, sometimes even sacrificing clarity amongst colleagues or within companies. All individuals in the company are accessible for everyone else – once again, no one is better or off limits to anyone else due to Jante’s famous law. Equality and personal pride are highly valued in all circumstances. In this way, communication and overall business in Sweden is much more like Japan than it is a European or American business environment. Teamwork, not individual achievement, is the most valued element of a Swedish work environment.

The Swedish office is noticeably more informal than the American or British counterpart. Jeans or slacks, along with an open collar and rarely a tie, is the norm. One should not stand out too much by dressing up or down (Jante Law, again), as opposed to the American rule of “you should dress for the next job you want.” Though in this age of globalization, one could make the argument that attire expectations are now guided more by industry than country, such as the informal and almost-juvenile dress expected at high-tech companies with young geniuses creating software for the next century.

A few other areas or interesting tidbits about the Swedish business/work world:

*With few exceptions, an 8 or 9 – 17:00 work day is expected throughout all industries in Sweden. If you work too much or not enough, you will stand out from your colleagues. If you haven't noticed yet, this is not a good thing in Sweden…

*Despite their nationwide pride in equality, the Swedish woman often has just as hard a time climbing the corporate ladder as her counterparts in other countries. There are still many “old boys clubs” throughout Sweden connected to University days, sailing clubs and other long-held, male-oriented fraternities.

*Unions are strong throughout Europe, but none more so than Sweden. It is virtually impossible to terminate the employment of a Swedish worker, unless there is some blatant breach of trust. This may sound good for the workers, but there are unfortunate consequences such as pushing employees out in other, arguably more emotionally painful ways, as well as lots of short-term contracts without company commitments to their workers. One realizes that there are two sides to every coin with having this much power to the people, in this case the work people.

*Emails in Sweden will often go without a response if the recipient is not in agreement or is uncomfortable with the topic of exchange. Rather than confront a difficult situation and cause a losing of face of one party or another, the lack of a response will serve as the clearest form of non-confrontational disagreement, which is understandably misunderstood by (and aggravating for) foreigners.

Okay, enough of a boring blog entry. If you have read this far, you must be coming to Sweden to take a job...congratulations.

Check back next week for some more fun from Linköping.

(Pictures above are of the most famous companies in Sweden, and one close to my heart that is slowly getting there….)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Göteborg (and the introduction of video on Linköpinglivin')

You probably know by now that advanced technological prowess is not my strength in cyberspace, but even I had to enter the world of video blogging at some point. Come take a ride on Linköpinglivin' for the first time as we "do" Göteborg!

Also known as Gothenburg.

Americans have never heard of Gothenburg, much less Göteborg (pronounced “Yerte-bori”). Sweden’s second city, located on the west coast, and the leading shipping port in all of Scandinavia is a virtual unknown to my fellow countrymen and women. I should know. I had never heard of Gothenburg until first coming to Sweden.

We Americans generally know that Stockholm is in Sweden. We might know that Oslo is in Norway, but the only thing we know about Oslo might be the Peace Accords. We love to say "Copenhagen," but don’t know whether it’s Danish or Dutch, but it doesn’t really matter because we don’t really know the difference between the two, anyway. Finally, Helsinki is an unforgettable English word and most know it’s connected to Finland, but many aren’t sure which is the country and which is the capital!

Without further ado, this weekend I finally made the excursion to Göteborg. If Stockholm is the distinguished, responsible, refined, “first-born,” city of Sweden, then Göteborg is the laid-back, enthusiastic, energetic and fun, younger sibling of Sweden’s cities. Göteborg, at least on a summer weekend like we just had, is a playground.

In just over 29 hours in Göteborg, some friends and I walked through a botanical garden and found meat-eating (and therefore, one’s imagination can declare “man”-eating) plants, strolled the “Champs Elysées” of Sweden on the Avenyn, ducked under low-hanging bridges during otherwise peaceful canal rides, were soaked, thrashed and dropped 10 stories on roller-coasters at Sweden's most beloved amusement park, discovered the wonderful world of nature and science at yet another impressively planned, presented and educationally-oriented Swedish museum and even managed to make it outta town before the skies opened up and reminded us that Sweden’s summer is quickly fleeting….

I almost never went to Gothenburg because I knew I would regret not going more often…Sure enough, that has happened.

For you Swedes familiar with Göteborg, here are some thoughts and observations on various elements of this enjoyable city:

Botaniska Trädgården: A great stroll for a family or couple – and a perfect leisure time activity in between more adventurous parts of this playground. Special bonus points for the Botaniska Trädgården when I even saw drinking fountains, some of the first I've seen in Sweden!

Liseberg: I thought Swedes only got excited about Melodifestivalen and Zlatan, but Liseberg is pure Swedish childlike enthusiasm. A must on any trip to Göteborg, as you well know.

Universeum: Fun for kids, fascinating for adults, so leave yourself at least three hours and don’t miss the interactive exhibits!

Paddan Canal Tours: Watch your head. That tour guide is not kidding! Hilarious….

Avenyn: Probably better at dusk and evening – not much during the day, especially if you consider shopping poisonous to a tourist weekend, as I do.

And don’t forget that splendid Göteborg Pass because if you ever have a chance to save money in Sweden, you must do it!

Pictures above:

1. The harbor and the maritime environment is the heart of Gothenburg's past and present.

2 - 4. The well known, albeit touristy, Paddan Canal Boat Rides are informational and, for a country known for all things-safety, dangerous! Watch your head, as we did....!

5. Keep the mice and small children away from this plant, known to digest meat and found in the greenhouse of the Botaniska Trädgården, along with certain worldwide jungles and rain forests.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Summer Olympics According to the Swedes

Att dunka – “to dunk” in Swedish.

This verb was used early and often in yesterday’s U.S vs. China men’s basketball opener watched by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide. Normally a little uncomfortable with American dominance (this team has had to start over and "re-learn" to play basketball like a team in order to win gold on a world-level, which hasn’t happened since 2000), I now find it fun to actually root for the U.S. basketball team again. If they do win gold, they will have earned it. But this is a blog about Sweden, not the U.S.

Let’s make one thing clear in the beginning. Given the choice between the Summer and Winter Olympics, most Swedes will choose Winter. The reasons are obvious and recent national success only increases this Olympic selection.

However, this is Sweden. And wherever in the world the blue and yellow is being represented, the country is well-aware and usually tuned in. With not one, but two public (and, therefore, commercial-free) television channels showing almost round-the-clock coverage from "Peking," if a Swede doesn’t know every last thing there is to know about these Beijing Olympics, it’s their own fault.

After initially whining that I couldn’t get my American Olympic coverage over the internet, and was “forced” to watch the Olympics from a Swedish perspective, I have enjoyed the experience of watching these beloved (to an American) games from another perspective. Here are some observations so far:

*Since we’re only seven hours behind China, most of the coverage is “direkt” (also known as “live”). Always fun to be watching something as it happens and not avoiding seeing scores and results until NBC finally gets to show it 10 hours later….

*American Olympic coverage is often criticized for being overly focused on only American athletes. Sweden is guilty of this as well and I am sure every country is “overly focused” on their own athletes – and hey, for non-Americans reading this, it’s good for you to know that at least some people in the U.S. care about what athletes from other countries are doing!

*But give the Swedes credit, their excitement around and coverage of the American men’s basketball team, Michael Phelps’ quest and other storylines, both American and others, has been a pleasure to watch. And the minor sports, the ones you only hear about during the Olympics no matter what country you’re from, get just as much coverage as anything.

*Handball looks like it would be really, really fun!

*If there is a darling of these Olympics for the Swedes, it is 14 year-old Sarah Sjöström. For those dabbling in the Swedish language, yes, her name is Sarah “Lake-Stream.” You guessed it. She’s a swimmer….I love Sweden.

*As an American, I am embarrassed by our focus on the “medal count.” Does it really matter who gets the most medals? And if it does, then shouldn’t it be a reflection of the population of the country? Shouldn’t the U.S. be doing a lot better than we're doing since we have 300 million to choose from? And shouldn’t China be disqualified from the next Olympics if they don’t get at least 1/7th of all the medals since they have 1/7th of the people in the world? And shouldn’t winning the decathlon count as 10 medals? The medal count is the height of national self-absorption and the opposite of what the Olympics are all about. Go Palau!

*Speaking of the Olympic spirit, did anyone see the medal podium embrace of the two female athletes – one from Russia and the other from Georgia? That’s what the Olympics ARE all about.

*Watch for Swedes Stefan Holm (high jump), Susanna Kallur (hurdles), Carolina Klüft– the most well known of Swedish Summer Olympic athletes since her heptathlon gold in Athens (triple and long jump) and Stefan Nystrand and Therese Alshammar (swimming).

*Countries like Sweden will only finish the games with 7 – 10 medals total, but those winners are celebrated like no other. Emma Johansson, the surprise silver-medalist in a cycling event yesterday, became a household name overnight. There’s some more Olympic spirit brought to you by the blue and yellow, a silver is "good as gold."

Pictures above:

1. Beijing Olympics. I was first introduced to the Summer Olympics when they were almost literally in my backyard in 1984 - Los Angeles. What a great summer that was!

2. Emma Johansson wins Sweden's first medal of the games.

3. Sarah "Lake-Stream" is a 14 year-old Swedish swimmer.

4. "Att Dunka" - Kobe Bryant

5. Georgian (on left) and Russian medalists embrace on the medal podium even as their countries were beginning a war.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Abbreviated Summer (even in Sweden)

It’s August (and, yes, a now-annual re-formatting exercise. Isn't it better than the dark background and light lettering - kinda like the move from MySpace to Facebook, don't you think?).

Anyone who has a job that relates to University students knows that August means “Your summer is over. Ready or not, here they come!” Though I live and work in Sweden, a place known for an endless summer holiday, my summer is essentially over (and the recent rain in Linköping only serves as a cruel reminder of the inevitable).

However, if summer is concluding, it means that Linköpinglivin’ is back up and running, hopefully better than ever as I begin to give some conclusion and closure to my cherished Swedish experience. My current plan is to terminate my work here in November/December to be home in time for an American-style Lucia and Christmas (I gotcha covered, Mom). You will hear all about my mixed emotions regarding this as the next few months unfold, but for now, know that I will be valuing every moment of my fleeting time in a country I will always remember fondly (and be visiting often - that’s a promise).

Linköpinglivin’ is currently receiving approximately 500 hits per week from what I think is about 300 – 400 monthly readers, but since the last entry in late June, it has received over 2,300 hits. Sharing my journey continues to be one of the most surprising and rewarding elements of my time abroad. Thanks for continuing to meet me in cyberspace, Swedish-style.

There’s still plenty of Sweden life to be discovered and uncovered in the coming months. Undoubtedly a few fun facts and top 10 lists will grace this blog yet again, as well as a couple more reasons why Linköping remains one of the coolest places to live in all the world!

For now though, a few pictures from my summer, which included stops in London, Seattle, Santa Barbara and the hometown of La Canada near Los Angeles and was highlighted by the visit of what will probably be my last visitors to Sweden: Heather Doud, Jennifer Ratcliff and Rachel Owen. While their journey was long and their visit too short, it was indeed as memorable as predicted from Stockholm to Linköping. Thanks for the visit to the land of the Vikings, ladies. See you in December!

(And as the Summer Olympics get started before the next Linköpinglivin’ entry, I expect all of you Americans following this blog to keep a special eye out for the blue and yellow Swedish representation. Heja Sverige!)

Pictures above:

1. Left-to-Right: Rachel, Jenn and Heather strike the Viking pose in Stockholm.

2. Overlooking Stadshuset on a classic summer’s day in Stockholm.

3. With friends at Dodger Stadium – Los Angeles, California.

4. Big Ben says “hello” rising above the English flowers in full bloom.