Pitfalls for the US speaker in Scandinavia

This is an slight update of something I wrote in 2006, adding a few points and incorporating some of the (very good) comments from back then. [Notes: Small updates April 25, 2014. Some of the examples are getting a bit long in the tooth (incidentally, another expression that doesn’t travel well.)]

Here are some pointers for US management speakers wanting to avoid the most obvious pitfalls when visiting Scandinavia (or even Europe in general), in no particular order:

  • Don’t blindly use big-name US companies (Walmart, General Motors, General Electric) as examples without explaining who they are. Outside top management echelons, consulting companies and business schools faculties, most people will only know their brand names (incidentally, for GM in Scandinavia, that is largely Opel, in the UK, Vauxhall) and not the companies themselves. Some well known US companies frequently used as management examples (Nordstrom, Verizon, Comcast, Best Buy, AT&T, USAA, Sears, Netflix) do not operate outside the US, at least not with their normal brand names and standard business processes.)
  • 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 (and Europe) generally outshines the US mobile phone industry – 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 (and the difference is shrinking), 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, something that disappeared in the 1980s and 90s in Europe. 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.
  • The same goes for airlines and trains – most Europeans don’t understand that the US railroad industry – in my opinion second to none in the world – transports goods, not people. And Europeans certainly don’t like US airlines. Not that most Americans do, either. (Yes, I know much of this has to do with government subsidies and lack of competition. But impressions are formed from actual use.)
  • Be careful that you don’t talk about Europe as a single 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 know which country you’re in (and where your audience is from..)
  • Don’t refer to going to church (for example, refer to someone as “we belong to the same church” or similar). In Scandinavia less than 10% of the population goes to church regularly, and religion is a very personal thing. Openly referring to church will make many in the audience think you belong to some strange cult.
  • 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 pronounced 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 bash. Unless you work in software, which is thoroughly Americanized. (This is changing – if in doubt, ask. Precede 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 (especially basketball, NBA has quite a following via cable and Internet), don’t rely on them to know them 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 thoroughly familiar with soccer, handball, cricket (UK only) or – in Scandinavia – cross-country skiing, ski jumping or biathlon, don’t use sports metaphors. They simply are not used as much in Europe as in the USA.
  • Be careful about Star Trek and Star Wars and various references associated with US TV series – they may be known, but check that first (and this is changing). In the UK, the sci-fi cultural peg of choice is Dr. Who. Good luck to you.
  • Some opinions seen as merely “conservative” in the US are considered fascistic or simply crazy in most of Europe. The “right to carry arms”, anti-abortionist sentiments, or religiously based politics is viewed with distaste, if not horror, by most Europeans. 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. (Nevertheless, some countries in Europe have more gun ownership than in the USA, but we are talking perceptions here.)
  • Never suggest union-busting or de-unionization or trying to stop people from forming unions as a strategy. It is illegal, against the culture, and against anything considered good management by almost every Scandinavian manager. In most companies in Scandinavia, relations with unions are cordial, collaborative and valued.
  • By the same token, saying that you should fire large groups of people (or, indeed, individuals) very often just isn’t practical advice. In most of Europe, you formally cannot fire people unless they are doing something seriously illegal or are underperforming by a really large margin. Moreover, you have to follow a lot of very time-consuming, legalistic procedures before you can get there. You simply have to work with people to a much larger degree. (And you may think it is stupid and limiting, but that is the way it is.)
  • Be a bit careful about naming prominent people as “friends” and referring to them by their first names. In Scandinavia, “friend” implies a fairly high level of intimacy, usually reserved for the private sphere – and then, you probably wouldn’t refer to them in a management speech. “Warren Buffett is a friend of mine, and…” or “As Steve Ballmer said the last time we met…” will tend to make you look boastful and leave people unimpressed – unless you can show that your conversation has made them change their behavior and that you really have influence.
  • The terms “corporate”, “company”, “enterprise”, “division” and SBU have fairly precise definitions in the US. Not so in Europe. Most Europeans do not understand the difference between Vice Presidents and Directors – as a consequence, most people called Directors (on their English-language business card) in Europe are actually VPs. The guy with the title “Director” might just be CEO. Or just a director.
  • Don’t expect to score points by mentioning your distant Norwegian ancestry (or even worse, Swedish when in Norway – ref. the Europe-is-not-one-country bullet). For some reason, this does not build much “common ground” with Norwegians. 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 just make you look out of touch.
  • The following concepts are not understood by most Norwegians: Gallons, feet, miles, mph, degrees Fahrenheit, Thanksgiving, the distinction between “state” and “federal”, TiVo, “right on red”. “Leverage” is a rather peculiar word: It has no good definition in Scandinavian languages (and it took me years to understand it and use it properly). The same with “ubiquitous” – so if you say “ubiquitous leverage”, nobody will have any idea what you are talking about. Not even you, methinks.

And there you are. All this being said, you will probably be fine even if you break a few of these. We are after all, quite forgiving and will refrain from complaining. Instead, you’ll just be branded an American, and your opinions and suggestions filtered a bit…

(For suggestions or comments, well, that’s what the comment field is about!)

2 thoughts on “Pitfalls for the US speaker in Scandinavia

  1. Bill

    You could also add music references.

    I was talking with some Europeans – Brits actually. I mentioned the Grateful Dead (not that I’m a huge dead head), but was met with some blank stares. A couple of people had heard of them, but were only vaguely familiar with them.

    I’m sure the same would hold true for numerous other groups.

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