The act of communicating involves verbal, nonverbal, and para-verbal components. The verbal component refers to the content of our message‚ the choice and arrangement of our words. The non-verbal component refers to the message we send through our body language. The para-verbal component refers to how we say what we say - the tone, pacing and volume of our voices.
Verbal: what we say As impossible as it is to count a number of words in a language, attempts have been made. As inaccurate as it is, the comparison between the languages displays that the number of words possessed by some of them is by an order greater than that of others.
See one example (with reservation made for the way you define and count words):
there are (said to be) 500 000 words in Russian, and 170 000 words in Swedish.
Basically, it means that Swedes use fewer words to express themselves, the Swedish languages is more “compact”. Sentences tend to be shorter – more direct to the point, so to speak. A virtue in some languages, eloquence is valued lower in Swedish. Content is primary, form – secondary. “We mean what we say and say what we mean”, a Swede would say with pride.
At meetings, avoid long and detailed introductions and extended background descriptions – or reframe your presentation and deliver the conclusion/essence first. Later, keep connecting the message to the relevant background, piece by piece. Relevance to the subject should be your guiding star for effective communication with a Swede.
When using interpretation, make sure your interpreter is skilled in handling the two different “types” of language – able to condense extended messages and keep “the red string” in the ocean of words said. Then and only then the interpreter facilitates communication and does not obscure the message for the Swede.
Para-verbal: how we say
Keep emotions to a minimum; cool, calm, and matter of fact is the preferred way in Sweden under all circumstances. Do not use profanity – especially if you have no reason for using it.
Speak in a subdued, modulated tone of voice, as Swedes are a generally quiet people. They might interpret your emotional involvement when speaking as a sign of being upset, and even try to make you calm down.
Swedes accept silence with ease, so it would be a mistake hurriedly to fill in pauses in the conversation.
Use metaphors – they will make you an interesting conversation partner, but avoid culture-bounded figures of speech – they are a low-value “communication noise”.
Irony is another thing you should probably avoid. “Saying what we mean” eliminates the need of it. Being ironic or, even worse, sarcastic could make you appear unfriendly and, even worse, arrogant.
Non-verbal: our body language
“Mind your space” could be a Swedish motto. While minding hers, a Swede would expect you to mind yours. Maintain a distance of two arm-lengths between you and the person with whom you are conversing. I have seen so many Swedes crawl backwards being forced by their advancing foreign conversation partners! Embassy receptions provide a lot of occasions for such observations.
“Minding your space” also applies to gesticulating. Swedes keep their body language and hand gestures to a minimum, rather than relying on nonverbal forms of communication. You see, waving with limbs (and by the way, talking too loud) is in a way “taking somebody else’s space without asking for permission”.
With the exception of the handshake, Swedes do not like physical contact with anyone. Do not backslap, embrace, or touch a Swede unless you know him well enough to know that he does not mind.
Avoid having your hands in your pockets as you talk to someone – it can be looked at as “a bit arrogant”, especially by the eldery. Younger people though are not likely to judge you harshly for doing so.
i. Greeting and Introduction
The proper Swedish greeting is to offer your hand as you make eye contact with the person and say, 'God dag', which literally means 'Good Day.' Most often, a simple ‘Hej!’ would suffice even if you do not know each other. Do not be surprised if a complete stranger smiles at you and greets you with ‘Hej!’ – it is totally normal. Do the same thing! When leaving Swedes say ‘Hej då!’ [ ‘hej do:’ ] .
The handshake is common. It is done swiftly and firmly between two men, but not as heartily between men and women or between two women. When a man meets a woman, it is appropriate for either one to initiate the handshake. Shake hands with everyone individually in a group when being introduced and when departing. Handshakes are also part of a Swedish goodbye. Eye contact during the introduction is direct, and should be maintained as long as the person is addressing you.
Usually, a third person will introduce you to a group, but if this doesn't happen, go around the room, shaking hands and telling your name to each person. When you are introduced to people, it is appropriate simply to repeat your name, so that you are sure they know who you are, and that you have the chance to hear their names again and learn them. The order of names in Sweden is the same as in the United States: first name followed by surname.
Once business or social rapport has been established, you may find that the handshake you once received from your Swedish contact will be replaced with an 'air kiss' on both cheeks. You should, however, allow your Swedish contact to set the tone.
ii. Address: Level of formality
Remember, even in public, formal is always better than informal - no gum chewing, slouching, or leaning against things. However, Swedes are rather informal people – also when addressing each other.
In the course of the language reform (‘the you-reform’) of the 1960s, the Swedes effectively “got rid of” the formal Ni (equivalent of Sie in German or the polite Вы in Russian when addressing a person). Since then, the singular pronoun Ni (as opposed to the plural pronoun ni) can be used when addressing an obviously elderly person, and only with the intention of showing her/him special respect. It is by no means a must. A shop assistant might want to do that when serving an elderly lady.
Otherwise, Swedes say “du” to each other. The exceptions are Their Majesties and the Crown Princess whom you address in the third person, i.e. “His Majesty” or “The Crown princess” [“What is His Majesty’s take on the forthcoming hockey match?”].
Swedes like to establish relationships on an informal, but not familiar, level. As people are generally friendly, even to strangers, one might get an impression that everyone knows each other. This is certainly not the case, and getting really knowing each other might take a long while. Once a relationship has been formed, they move to a more familiar level.
Older, upper-class people can be more formal. In this case, be sure to shake their hands when greeting and when departing. They sometimes avoid the pronoun 'you' but instead refer to people in the third person [e.g., when greeting Mr. Jarl, they will say, 'How is Mr. Jarl today'?]. To be appropriately formal, you should respond in the same way, although few young people use this method of speech.
Expect to address a person by his or her first name. Titles are not important in Sweden. Unless you specifically ask the person you talk to what he/she works with you might never find out the title. As in many other Swedish contexts, relevance to the situation decides on whether or not to name one’s title. Titles are no longer part of the address, so instead of “Good morning director Andersson!” you should simply say “Good morning Lars!”.
iii. Topics of conversation
Swedes are not so good at small talk – the sooner to the main subject at hand the better. One exception – the weather! Swedes have a profound appreciation of nature; unlike some people who put human beings above nature, Swedes consider themselves a part of it. Pay attention to their names: Björn (‘bear’), Arne (from archaic ‘eagle’), Ulf (‘wolf’), Alf (‘elfin’), Bergström (‘mountain stream’), Lund (‘grove’), etc..
Weather is a safe subject – make sure you have a phrase or two or at least agree with what your Swedish conversation partner says. Often Swedes complain about “Swedish summer” meaning that it is very short. Swedes love their summer and can get quite romantic describing it!
In connection to the weather-conversation, you might want to inquire about your partner’s country-side home – most of the Swedes own one and are quick to leave the workplace on Friday for spending the weekend there.
Other welcome-topics could be:
Travel Hockey Swedish history Current events Politics [if you know what you're talking about] Vacations and holidays Music Nature
Whatever the topic, avoid superficiality in conversation. Being a very ‘specific’ people Swedes are good at sensing it and can lose interest in you.
Avoid conducting a private conversation in public areas, and if you have to do it – do it in a quiet and subdued manner.
“Public” and “private” are two different things, so do not be offended if Swedes do not inquire about your family, work, and so forth. Their assumption is “by asking personal questions I might ‘drop a brick’ and intrude into your intimate area”. You don’t have to avoid it by all means – rather be sensitive and “read” your conversation partner. If the discussion gets sensitive, don't be offended if the Swede abruptly puts it to a stop.
Do not expect a Swede to support your overly critical remarks, especially about a person – it is not really appropriate to criticize in public and especially when the person in question is not present. For the same reason, do not expect a Swede to be overly critical about her employer or working place.
Do not use a lot of superlatives when speaking. The Swedes are opposed to stretching the truth; in fact, they try to limit the superlative effect - like in a phrase “It was fairly fantastic!” [“Det var ganska fantastiskt!”].
Do not use profanity at any time. It is only “uncivilized” or “drunk” people who do that in Sweden.
Scandinavians appreciate knowledge of the differences among the people of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Showing knowledge in things Swedish, especially aspects that distinguish the Swedes from other Scandinavians would be greatly appreciated.
If you speak any Swedish at all, make the effort to use it. Your efforts will be appreciated, and most Swedes will be impressed that you know some Swedish at all. Recognize, however, that as soon as you are identified as an English speaker, your Swedish colleagues will probably switch to English, if they know it.
In Sweden, one hears “thank you” (‘tack!’) much more often than in other countries. Swedes thank when they take and when they give. A clerk in the bank can welcome you by a “ja, tack!” meaning “How can I help you?”
Foreigners are amazed at how many different dialects there are in Sweden! Phonetically, there are up to 1000 variants of Swedish. Formally, six “tongues” (‘målområden’) are distinguished in Sweden; they differ not only phonetically but also lexically and stylistically. Naturally, there is also a “neutral” tongue (‘rikssvenska’) spoken in TV, radio etc…that one learns at school.
There is a great deal of pride in local regions; speaking your dialect is a virtue for many Swedes. A Swede can almost always say which region his Swedish conversation partner comes from. However, when everyone speaks English it is hard to hear the person’s origin. To be on the safe side, do not praise one area over another - it is easy to make a mistake.
Topics you might want to avoid or play down
Income Religious preferences Sexual orientation Anything associated with rank, status, and showiness Complaining about the high cost of living in Scandinavia Criticizing the Swedish bureaucracy Criticizing the Swedish culture Personal background
(after Christine Demsteader, a freelance writer based in Stockholm)
Question: What do you get when you cross an 18th century poet with the king and a British hotelier? Answer: The key to the Swedish sense of humor.
The kind of humor that really cracks up the funny bones of the Swedes isn’t actually home-grown. One (but not the only) important contributor to Swedish humor is, in fact, a highly strung hotel proprietor from south-west England. You may know him as Basil Fawlty, or perhaps that should be John Cleese. “We are culturally oriented towards the British comic tradition,” Jonas Engman, professor in ethnology at Stockholm University, says.
That is probably the reason North Americans often find the Swedish humor incomprehensible. Likewise, Swedes do not comprehend what’s so funny when one slips on a banana skin.
During the 20th century Sweden transformed rather dramatically, from highly hierarchical to egalitarian. Swedes tend not to tell jokes about the prime minister or politicians – political satire is not too popular. Unless you make fun of the leaders as human beings – then you laugh as equals.
Traditionally, Swedes tell jokes about Norwegians, Norwegians about Finns, and Danes about Swedes. Just like in a big happy family!
If you want your joke to get across in Sweden – make sure it is not sarcastic. Sarcasm is rather a sign of bitterness, it is not funny. Avoid “sexual” jokes, too. Even if you feel it is an excellent one, a Swede is unlikely to laugh at it in public – to be (politically) correct is more important.
And – do not be offended if a Swede tells a joke about war that you might consider insensitive. You see, the modern Swedes have no reference to war sufferings - they have been out of war for over 200 years. Unlike the Finns who still remember the World War II campaigns – Finns would not joke about it.
Sweden, along with many other countries, undergoes a modern demographic transformation – from a relatively culturally homogenous country that it was fifty years ago, it is being transformed into a relatively heterogeneous one. Humor today is rather generation- and national culture-bound.