It would be difficult – perhaps impossible – to sum up the cultural character of a nation’s people in one word. After all, culture is a multifaceted entity, built upon layers of both visible and invisible elements, and no aspect of a given culture is random or unrelated. *
Nevertheless, Swedes have succinctly distilled their culture into a single word; an essence called lagom (pronounced law-gum), which is said to permeate the Swedish mindset. Loosely translated, lagom means “just enough” or “everything in moderation”. A recent article from travel journal, Roads and Kingdoms delves into this cultural phenomenon and what it means to Swedes.
To outsiders, lagom might be perceived as outward quietness or misconstrued as Nordic “coldness”, but the concept goes much deeper than that. The origin of the word can be traced to Viking days, when after a hard day’s sailing, they passed around a mug and drank a "lagom" amount and then passed the mug to the next person, ensuring enough remained for everyone to quench his thirst. †
For contemporary Swedes, lagom continues to shape attitudes and beliefs. They work hard enough, but not too hard; eat until satisfied, but not to excess. They speak enough to convey their point, but won’t ramble ad nauseam. Most importantly, Swedes are among the most egalitarian people in the world, known for seeking fairness and equality in all aspects of both their business and personal interactions.
If you’re traveling to or doing business with Sweden, it’s important to keep in mind that Swedes tend to be modest and downplay their accomplishments. Jante Law -- another uniquely Swedish phenomenon -- teaches the importance of being humble and not “thinking big”. This means that Swedish professionals tend to be group-oriented and like to come to decisions through consensus. They communicate in a direct and honest manner and prefer not to show emotion in the workplace. Given the egalitarian nature of the culture, it is important to treat everyone you meet with respect. Speak directly and avoid using hyperbole or superlatives.
Do you have experience working with Sweden? How does lagom or Jante Law manifest in your work life? How is Swedish business culture different from your home country?