Lagom: The ideal middle way.
When interacting and working with Swedes, it is important to understand the meaning of the word lagom. It does not have an exact equivalent in English but translates approximately to "just right" or "everything in moderation." It implies an ideal place of moderation and balance. You can see its influence in everything from the decision-making process and the need for consensus, to how much food to put on your plate. The lagom "point" varies from individual to individual, but falls somewhere along the middle of a continuum. It can be difficult for non-Swedes to really understand, however a good rule of thumb is to think in terms being moderate, modest, and to tone things down. It is also important to remember that Lagom does not imply lack of ambition or self-confidence. Swedes are very quality conscious and believe in doing their personal best.
The lagom concept impacts many areas of life and manifests in many ways. Most Swedes are averse to excess and extremes. It can be seen in behavior, including emotional reserve. One should not, for example, speak too loudly, flaunt personal achievements or be unwilling to compromise. The middle way is even reflected in the Swedish social structure, which attempts to balance the ideals of socialism and capitalism, as well as the needs of the individual and society as a whole.
Swedes see themselves as practical and pragmatic. They value compromise and they favor cooperation. Consensus building is the most common form of decision-making in business. It means that everyone should have an opportunity to be heard and decisions should be based on the common good.
Status differences between people, based on finances or position, are downplayed. Business organizations tend to be flat; titles are seldom used, if at all.
For Americans and others for whom "the sky is the limit", the Swedish desire for lagom can seem limiting and inhibiting. But to the Swede, unbridled enthusiasm and optimism often seem unrealistic and not credible. You will be more believable and effective if you use facts and figures (not inflated) to show that you know your product or service and to present it in a non-hyped way. In other words, the Swedes are more interested in the steak than in the sizzle. If you are perceived as trying to "sell them," you are likely to be met by skepticism and resistance,
In the U.S., where attributes such as being "better than" are highly regarded, few Americans would hesitate to tout their success. In Sweden, on the other hand, it is a good idea to minimize self-promotion, as this is usually frowned upon. Accomplishments are important, but inflated claims of success generally are resented.
Read Modern-Day Vikings: A Practical Guide to Interacting with the Swedes, Yarmouth ME, Intercultural Press, 2001, by Christina Johansson Robinowitz and Lisa Werner Carr. Swedish Mentality, University Park, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania University Press, 1996, by Åke Daun.
Culture Shock!: Sweden, Portland, Oregon, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., 1997, by Charlotte Rosen Svensson
Christina Johansson Robinowitz is an intercultural consultant, trainer, coach speaker, and author, who specializes in Scandinavian-U.S. intercultural issues. She may be reached via her web site at www.culturalcoach.com.
World Culture Tips editor, Gary M. Wederspahn, is a leading intercultural business consultant, trainer, coach, speaker, and writer. His book, Intercultural Services: A Worldwide Buyer's Guide and Sourcebook, is available from Butterworth Heinemann publishing company and from Amazon.com.
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