Why you should embrace your annoying Nordic neighbours

by Christina Berthelsen

5 years ago, I moved to Stockholm from a small, sleepy town in western Denmark. Naively I thought to myself, “How different can the Nordics countries be?”. Foreigners struggle with telling them apart and every Nordic person begrudgingly agrees that the countries are basically the same. Well, after 5 years of dealing with Nordic companies I can now tell you that they are infuriatingly different!

Get on with it already!

In my work life I have had to solve a lot of problems. With a lot of stakeholders. And a lot of opinions. And I started to notice patterns. At first I couldn’t put my finger on what it was; I just knew that the Danish (not so politically correct) side of me secretly sighed and rolled her eyes when receiving yet another meeting invitation in the inbox and most of all wanted to march in, slam a hand on the table and yell, “WE’RE DONE DISCUSSING, MAKE A DECISION ALREADY OR I WILL MAKE IT FOR YOU!”

It turns out there was a reason for that – other than my being a redhead and eternally impatient by nature. And it all made sense once I stumbled upon these communication models from Richard D. Lewis (When Cultures Collide). I mean, just look at the Swedish model! What are they doing? Around and around and around they dance to reach the magical place called “consensus”. And the ever-present process that cannot be disrespected or neglected in any way. It’s frankly exhausting.




Damn Norwegians/Finns/Danes/Swedes

I give Swedes a hard time because I live here but the other Nordic countries are not without their flaws. I will bet you that you have some sort of stereotype or inside joke on the other countries, but even though they may be exaggerated they do tend to be based on some level of truth.

Norwegians are seen as the cheerful people with a language that fits the profile. They are born with skis on their feet and thus leaves the office at 2 pm every day to spend time in the snow or hiking up a mountain – just because they can.

Finns are almost the exact opposite of Norwegians. Straight-faced, seemingly introverted and dislike wasting words on meaningless small-talk, especially not when spending time in the sauna. A true Finn is the master of speaking without words or facial expressions – it’s almost an art form. At work they are thorough, efficient and stick to the subject. Because the Finnish language has its roots in Eastern Eurasia, my heart goes out to all Finnish translators that have to deal with a character limit.

And then there’s Danes. Sigh. Danes are not flawless either. Even I get annoyed at Danes now – a sure sign that the transition to a full-blown Swede has begun, oh no! Danes can be annoyingly pushy and impatient. Sometimes I suspect that the other Nordic countries simply let the Danes take charge and do their thing because the less talking they do, the less time you have to spend trying to understand their mumbling hot-potato-in-mouth language. Despite this, Danish “hygge” – a feeling of cosiness – is essential and may God have mercy with anyone who dare say that “hygge” is overrated.

Is there any hope for us at all?

Needless to say, the Nordic countries have a love/hate relationship with one another, like siblings. However tempting it is to cross your arms, pout in your room and refuse to understand each other, that will only result in a lot of eye-rolling and no teamwork. We need to understand who we work with in order to work together more effectively.

If, instead of seeing all of these traits as flaws, we see them as strengths… How would a Nordic collaboration look like? Some might be bossy, yes, but they get stuff done. Some may always be coming up with new ideas, yes, but they’re viewing the project from all sorts of angles and might come up with ideas that wouldn’t have been considered if we went with the first idea that came to mind.

Think of a group assignment you had to do in school. If you had four similar personalities working on the assignment, how would that work out? Miserably! Instead, embrace the different personalities and let Sweden take charge of presenting the setting and the facts, Norway take charge of ideation, Denmark take charge of keeping the project moving and making decisions and Finland take charge of securing that everything goes according to plan and no errors are made.

Learn from your Nordic neighbours!

Or better yet, embrace the different strengths and learn from the weaknesses, including those of your own nationality and personality, to become more efficient at work on your own. A good place to start discovering strength, weaknesses, quirks and patterns is the awesome Scandinavia and the World comics that playfully highlight our differences. My personal favourites are the ones about fish, fighting over language and Denmark winning over Finland in hockey (!).

I will probably never stop secretly giggling when a Swede assures me that it’s completely fine to go into a room and “bolla” with someone if I need to. Nor will I ever stop wanting to slam my hand on the table and yell, “GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!” after way too many meetings on the same subject. But I try to balance my Danish roots and newly acquired Swedish manners, thereby getting one step closer to being the perfect Scandinavian hybrid.

Christina Berthelsen
Content Manager
christina.berthelsen@river.se