Eleonore Breukel is the author of over 100 articles for various business magazines, newspapers and the virtual media.

She co-authored a book on how to do business in 19 countries across the world.

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Communicating Across Borders - Northern Europe I

Nobody speaks European Part I: Northern European Countries
Author: Eleonore Breukel  adapted 2012   Published CBI News

If the title “European Union” gives you the impression that the countries of the EU really form a union internally, nothing is less true. During a visit to a European expo or fair you may notice that the Polish businessman in booth 23 does not understand his Greek neighbor from booth 25. Although both businessmen try to speak English they obviously have different interpretations of what each one says. The Englishman from booth 26, across the corridor, gets uncomfortable when an Italian client stands very close to him. Apparently personal space is an issue here. A German client looks impatiently at his watch and complains that his Hungarian vendor is 10 minutes late for a scheduled appointment. Could it be that the German client and the Hungarian vendor have a different perception of time?

In a series of four articles we will take you on a cultural voyage through the four regions of Europe. We will look at the different ways people of different countries communicate, meet, make decisions and cooperate in daily business. We will also show you the effect your way of communicating or maintaining good relations has on your European clients who have a different cultural background.

The four regions of the EU we will describe are:

  • Northern Europe with Sweden, Denmark, Finland and The Netherlands;
  • Western Europe with, amongst others England, Ireland, Germany, and Belgium;
  • Southern Europe with France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta and others;
  • Eastern Europe with the north with Estland, Letland, Poland, the Czech Republic and the south with Hungary, Slovenia and Greece.

The new European member States of Bulgaria and Romania are not included in these articles.

The Northern Region of the European Union
The Scandinavian members of the European Union are Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The Netherlands is situated just south of Denmark but does not belong to Scandinavia. The cultures of these countries are in a certain way quite similar. Therefore we speak of a regional culture although each country has different values, customs and languages. Swedish, Danish and Dutch are Germanic languages. Finish, however, is an Ural Altaic language and has no similarities with other languages in the North of Europe.

Scandinavians and Dutch are individualists. They believe in personal freedom. Life is centered around the individual and not around the group as in most countries in the world. The individualist assumes responsibility for his acts in his personal life but also in business. Nuclear families are often small consisting of a mother, father and one or two or three children. The parents are responsible for their small family but not for the extended family. This means that there is no grandmother or aunt looking after their kids when they are at work. This also means that at the end of the month the pay check is spent on the kids and themselves, the house or on education and recreation. Rarely will a brother, cousin or friend knock on the door and ask for a loan. The bank is the institution that provides loans and not family members or friends.

Children are taught to be in charge of their own life at an early age. They leave home often at the age of 18. They have no financial obligations towards their parents when the parents become of age. Individualist countries in Northern Europe are social democratic welfare states. This means that the old, the sick, the disabled and the jobless are provided for by the government. In order to keep this social system working effectively those who do work pay a considerable amount of tax to the government.

Northern Europeans tend to believe that everybody is equal. This means that there is little hierarchy between people in business. The secretary of your client talks to you in the same way as her boss would do. A very young employee may give you instructions despite the fact that you are far superior to him in rank, education and in age. Speaking candidly to someone is considered respectful.

In this environment of equality everybody assumes his or her own responsibility for matters. The client may sometimes seem very young to you, but he takes full responsibility for his negotiations. He does not have to consult his boss before making deals. This means that the client will ask you many direct questions in order to know exactly what he is buying. So, be prepared to make quick decisions and remember you only have to persuade the client you are dealing with and not his entire company.

Northern Europeans are not hard core negotiators. They want to know that everybody gets a fair share of the profit and that all involved are happy with the deal. There are very few competitive elements in their education. They never were pushed to be the best in the class or the best in sports.

The Contract
Check if you understood your client well by summarizing his words often in conversation. Then, summarize your verbal deal in an email to your client, preferably the same day, which gives you credibility. You might be accustomed to seeking trust and security in your client by building a strong relationship with him and his company. The individualist client, however, seeks trust and security through making written agreements on the deals he closes with you. This agreement or contract is supported by the law.

Relations Oriented – Task Oriented
Wherever we are on this globe we all want to maintain a good relationship with our clients, yet the interpretation of what a good relationship is differs. Having lunch together in order to get to know each other better is one way of maintaining a good relationship. You probably come from a culture which is relationship oriented. Lunching with a client may work well for you but the individualist may find this a loss of valuable time. He is task-oriented and a good relationship is based on complying with the details lined out in the contract. He prefers a fast delivery without any problems and wants to make as many deals as possible in the little time he has available.

Direct Communication
Bringing a present for your clients may be fine as long as it is a small present. Your individualistic client may feel that if you give him a large present he is morally obliged to buy from your goods. The individualist’s philosophy is to be free and to make the choices he considers best without any obligations to anyone. Your invitation for lunch and your present may be turned down in a very direct way. The Dutch are especially known for their directness which often is interpreted by others as bluntness. Social lubricants would be considered concealing the truth.

  • Watch local TV and observe how people behave before going to an expo or fair.
  • All people are considered equal, regardless of social status or age.
  • Go for a win-win situation in your negotiations.
  • Invite your client for lunch but understand if he declines.
  • Directness is a way of telling the truth. Be very clear about what you want.
*CBI’s mission is to contribute to the economic development of developing countries by strengthening the competitiveness of companies from these countries on the EU market.

© Eleonore Breukel –
Adapted in 2012