Pitfalls for the US speaker in Scandinavia

(To be updated, I hope. Suggestions?) 

One of the reasons one has a blog is that it is a great place to put things to refer back to. I recently hosted Dan Pink at a conference here. Before the conference, we had a conversation, and I outlined some errors I often see European management speakers make when visiting Scandinavia (or even Europe in general). It occurred to me that this was something I could put here for the benefit of others and to save myself having to repeat it. (Dan, incidentally, didn’t hit a single one of these. Excellent.):

  • Don’t use big-name US companies (General Motors, General Electric) as examples without explaning who they are. Outside top management echelons, most people will only know their brand names (incidentally, for GM in Scandinavia, that is Opel) and not the companies themselves.
  • Never use the US mobile telecommunications industry as an example of something good or advanced (or, at least, be very careful). Mobile communications in Scandinavia outshines the US mobile phone industry by a factor to high to compute – you can essentially get into your car in Northern Norway and drive to Rome while continually being on your cellphone. Try that in the US. (This comparison isn’t fair, there are many pockets of innovation in the US cellphone industry, but most people will judge the industry in terms of connectivity and coverage when they go to the US themselves.)
  • Be very careful about using banking examples – US banking is seen as very backward by Europeans, because of the continued use of paper checks. In reality, the US banking industry probably leads the world in technical innovations, but services between banks are not nearly as integrated as in Europe – and therefore are seen as backward. Plus, European banks have a wider range of services in the payment area – services that credit card companies and PayPal do in the US.
  • Be careful that you don’t talk about Europe as if it was a country like the USA. There is much more variation between countries in Europe than between states in the US – language, history, culture, attitudes, economics, etc. Check each country on Wikipedia (particularly economics if you are speaking to a business audience) and make sure you don’t say things that are wrong about a country.
  • Don’t refer to going to church in your talk (for example, refer to someone as "we belong to the same church" or similar). In Scandinavia, at least, less than 10% of the population goes to church regularly, and religion is a very personal thing. You will be seen as belonging to some strange cult or something.
  • In general, Europeans are less inhibited in the off-color joke department than Americans –  not that it takes much – but there is considerable geographical variation. However,  this apparent frivolity comes with subtle pitfalls: If you tell something that can be construed as demeaning to women, for instance, it will fall very flat even in an all-male audience. The telling of off-color jokes should not be attempted unless you really know your audience (or if you possess an English accent more pronouced than Stephen Fry’s.)
  • In general, Scandinavian business people are less formally dressed than Americans during daytime, but they dress up (or keep their business suits) for dinner. Quite the opposite from the US, so don’t change into jeans for that after-work restaurant thing. Unless you work in software, which is thorougly Americanized. (If in doubt, ask. Preceed it with an "In the US we do this, what’s the custom here?")
  • No US-only sports metaphors! (Which, incidentally, for most US speakers will mean no sports metaphors.) Though Europeans know what American football, baseball and basketball is, they generally don’t know these sports well enough to understand individual terms such as touch-down, loaded bases or rebound (though they might understand "slam-dunk" from context.) So, unless you are throughoughly familiar with soccer, handball or (in Scandinavia) cross-country skiing, ski jumping or biathlon, don’t use sports metaphors. They simply aren’t used as much in Europe as in the US. (As seen in Henrik Lindstad’s comment below, though, no rule without an exception.)
  • Some opinions which are labeled "conservative" in the US, are considered fascistic or simply crazy in most of Europe. The "right to carry arms", anti-abortionist sentiments, and, quite frankly, much of what George W. Bush is doing at the moment is viewed with horror by many Europeans. While most audiences will view an American speaker as a any speaker on a specific topic, mentioning that you are a member of the NRA will (for those in the audience who knows what that is) position you as a person with a frighteningly loose grip on reality for most European audiences.
  • more to come, suggestions?

6 thoughts on “Pitfalls for the US speaker in Scandinavia

  1. Henrik Lindstad

    I recently joined a demo held by some americans who were exceptionally well prepared, making it through your list and beyond without making any mistakes. And as a bonus one of the speakers wanted to make an example from baseball – then thinking / switching to “the european version” Cricket – to the crouds great joy – since he could show that he knew of this difference as well and who plays it – cause who understands cricket?

  2. Espen

    Thanks for that tip! I can’t understand how I forgot to mention “no US-only sports metaphors”, which, of course, means essentially “no sports metaphors”….

  3. Arild Rugsveen

    When I attended IT-tinget in Tønsberg, Norway this fall I witnessed John Battelle making a reference to the android Data in Star Trek during his presentation. I think maybe 5 of the 500 people there understood it. This was perhaps more due to the individuals in the audience than cultural differences, but there are probably some references to popular culture that are best avoided. At least adjust it to the situation, as you suggest.

  4. Petter K

    Great list – very relevant.
    I would add a couple:
    * Be cereful about naming prominent people as “friends” and refering to them by their first names. In Norway, “friend” implies a fairly high level of intimacy, usually reserved for the private sphere. “Bill Gates is a friend of mine, and…” or “As Kofi often says…” will tend to make you look boastful and leave people unimpressed.
    * Don’t expect to score points by mentioning your distant Norwegian ancestry (or even worse, Swedish – ref. the Europe-is-not-one-country bullet). For some reason, this does not build “common ground” with Norwegians.
    * The following concepts are not understood by most Norwegians: Gallons, feet, miles, mph, degrees Farenheit, Thanksgiving, SUV, the distinction between “state” and “federal”, Blackberry, TiVo, [expand list here]

  5. Espen

    Arild and Petter: Great points. I think you can score points on your Nordic ancestry if you manage to be specific and show some actual knowledge, but the “my great grandfather migrated from Wormland, and it feels great to be back…” will make you look out of touch.
    As for the single words, that’s a great idea, especially since the person hiring the speaker often will understand it, but not all in the audience you are speaking to.

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