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Is fitting in the real problem?

NEWS: APR 03, 2009 / ISSUE: 2-09

After a seemingly endless number of years, I am finally looking forward to completing my PhD studies in Linguistics at the University of Gothenburg. Eventually I will look for a job, hopefully in research. However, I’m equally passionate about going into organisational consultancy or a participating in project to promote international trade and good relations between Sweden and Singapore, the two societies I now belong to.

However, even as I write this, I find myself considering many issues that are at least tangentially related to my studies of the Swedish management style outside of Sweden.

One of them is the use of the Swedish word "kultur". As a linguist it’s second nature to me to reflect upon the thoughts that underlie the choice of a specific word. Flipping through the daily newspapers, I am troubled by the way the mass media in Sweden and even the Ministry of Culture increasingly viewing culture primarily as the arts (i.e. music, theatre, dance and museums), while seldom addressing culture in its broader meaning as the beliefs, languages, values, ethics, morals, religion and all the other ways in which people build and interact within an evolving society.
The fact that Swedish mass media often chooses this narrower definition of culture at the expense of the broader one prevents many cultural problems from being adequately discussed as such. In the news, the Muslims try to explain that they are not all suicide bombers; journalists try to distinguish between criticizing Israel and being anti-Semitic, and Volvo PV executives feebly try to explain that things have become "different", since Ford’s acquisition. The word "culture" would have facilitated an understanding of many of these discussions, but as things stand now, readers would associate to song, dance and theatre instead of values, beliefs, hierarchy and language.
A Museum of World Culture would have been a gift from above, provided the word ‘culture’ were given a more academically correct definition. Imagine an exhibition of burkhas set up and explained by a woman who actually wears one to work every day. I know of a Saudi Arabian businesswoman who wears a different burkha, depending on the country and cultural background of the male counterpart she is to meet that day. She faces many restrictions as a businesswoman, but her cultural sensitivity and understanding of gender roles in the Middle East are subtle yet absolutely astounding. Speaking to her showed me that an understanding of culture is crucial in global trade, and even regional trade.

How does all this relate to my quest for a Swedish-Asian Management style?
In studying Swedish managers abroad, I can easily identify a Swedish culture that is unique and easily distinguishable in Swedish-managed corporations in Singapore. However, it is difficult to seriously discuss this issue with Swedes back in Sweden since Swedish cultural patterns pretend that everybody is not only equal, but alike.

The concept of fundamental cultural differences is so taboo that the Swedes have relegated the entire sphere of "culture" to museums, theatre, song and dance. In Swedish media, assimilation is camouflaged by the more politically correct word ‘integration’, as if "fitting in" were the only problem.
Contrary to this commonly-held belief, the results of my own research and several other published works I’ve read seem to indicate that integrating with the host country’s culture is not at all in the best interest of businesses, organisations, and society at large. Nor is it necessarily the best option for a senior expatriate manager. It appears that in the society where a foreign person is expected to work or contribute, a lack of integration is actually preferred in many cases.

From the corporate point of view, the point of sending a person from the home office abroad is mostly to have the values and policies of the home office transferred and applied to the foreign organisation. Any significant integration is thus counterproductive. For the individual, any adaptation to foreign ways of work and life makes one’s return even more difficult.Regrettably, Swedish society appears to lack understanding of the importance of culture on many levels due to the narrowing of that term by the mass media. In addition, Swedish traits that are special or uncommon are generally played down in the newspapers, government research and even by scientific communities that should know better.

What makes highlighting the uniqueness of Swedish management style outside of Sweden so difficult is paradoxically a cultural trait that makes Swedes so very special: a refusal to believe that anyone can be really different, and belief that the Swedes are the most "lagom" people in the world.

Cheryl M Cordeiro-Nilsson
Post-doctoral student in Linguistics

photo: Johan Wingborg


Sidansvarig: Allan Eriksson|Sidan uppdaterades: 2012-12-21

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