Communicating across borders Part I of IV. Northern Europe

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Communicating across borders Part I of IV. Northern Europe

18/07/2018 Europe 0

Nobody speaks European

By Eleonore Breukel 

Part 1 of 4 articles on the European Union

  1. Northern Europe

If the name “European Union” gives you the impression that the countries of the EU really form an internal union, you are unfortunately mistaken. Visit a European expo or fair and you’ll soon find out. The Polish businessman in booth 23 speaks a different version of English than 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 too close to him. Meanwhile, a German customer looks impatiently at his watch, complaining that his Hungarian vendor is 10 minutes late for their appointment…. In short, nobody in Europe speaks European.

In a series of four articles we will take you on a cultural journey through four regions of Europe, looking at the different ways in which Europeans communicate, meet, make decisions and cooperate in daily business. The four regions of the EU we will describe are:

  • Northern Europe (Sweden, Denmark, Finland and The Netherlands);
  • Western Europe (United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and Belgium);
  • Southern Europe (Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta and others);
  • Eastern Europe (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic in the north, and Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Greece in the south.

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, in their perception centers 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. The family nucleus tends to be small, consisting of a mother, father and one or two or three children. Parents are considered responsible for this nucleus, but not for the extended family. This means that there is no grandmother or aunt looking after the kids while the parents work. It also means that at the end of the month the parents spend their pay check 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; family members or friends usually not.

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 ageing parents. All countries in this part of 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 maintain this social system, those who do work pay a considerable amount of tax to the government.


Northern Europeans tend to believe that everybody is equal. This means there is little hierarchy between people in business. Your Northern European client’s secretary will talk to you in the same way as her boss does. A very young employee may give you instructions, regardless of the fact that you are far superior to him in rank, education and age. Candid speech is considered respectful.

In this environment of equality, again, everybody assumes his or her own responsibility for matters. A client may sometimes seem very young to you, but nonetheless he will take full responsibility for his negotiations. He does not have to consult his boss before making deals. This explains why he 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 – not his entire company.


Northern Europeans are not hard-core negotiators. They want to have the feeling that everyone is getting a fair share of the profit and that all parties involved are pleased with the deal. Perhaps this attitude originates from their schooldays. There are very few competitive elements in Northern European education. Children are never pushed to be the best student or the best in sportsperson.

The Contract

If you’re negotiating a contract, check during the conversation whether you have properly understood your client by summarizing his words. After the meeting, summarize your verbal deal in an email to your client, preferably the same day. This will improve your credibility. You may be accustomed to a culture in which you seek trust and security by building strong relationships with your clients and their companies. The individualist client of Northern Europe, however, seeks trust and security through making written agreements on the deals he closes with you. These agreements or contracts are supported by the law.

Business versus relationships

No matter where you live on this globe, we all want to maintain good relationships with our clients. Our ideas on what makes a good relationship can differ, however. Having lunch together in order to get to know each other better is one way of maintaining a good relationship. If you come from a culture that is relationship-oriented this may well work for you. The individualist, however, may find this a waste of valuable time. Northern Europeans tend to be task-oriented: to them, a good relationship is based on complying with the details outlined in the contract. On-time delivery and a smooth operation, to him, are more meaningful than a good lunch: he wants to make as many deals as possible in the little time he has available.

Direct Communication

Bringing a present for a client may be fine as long as it is a small present otherwise your individualistic client may feel morally obliged to buy your goods. This goes straight against his philosophy, which is all about being free to make the choices he considers best without any obligations to anyone. In fact, he may even respond to your invitation for lunch and your present with a flat rejection. The Dutch are especially known for their directness. It is often interpreted by others as bluntness. But in the Netherlands using social lubricants is paramount to concealing the truth.

A few tips

Here are a few tips that may help you gain your footing in the business culture of Northern Europe.

  • 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.

© Breukel,E. Nobody speaks European part I, CBI News 2005 March/April. Adapted 2018

* CBI, the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, contributes to sustainable and inclusive economic development in developing countries through the expansion of exports from these countries to Europe. Annually, CBI supports more than 800 entrepreneurs to become successful exporters on the European market through our export coaching projects. Moreover, CBI publishes around 450 market studies every year.