Interview: Across distant seas, Sri Lankans, Swedes explore cultural differences

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Apr 29, 2016 (LBO) – Sweden, a land of the ancient Vikings, perched in icy northern seas, is as far away from the tropical island of Sri Lanka as one can imagine.

One would expect cultural differences when modern investors cross the oceans in search of trade and opportunities, and reach Sri Lanka — a strange place where people surprise you with sudden smiles.

Lanka Business Online spoke to Anna Liberg, the trade commissioner for Business Sweden in South Asia, and asked her this controversial question. Liberg, who had journeyed across the Indian Ocean with a delegation from Sweden, appeared pleasant and friendly.

Liberg said Swedes like to “plan in advance” as far ahead as possible, and they are very “organized in their approach.”

“This is not possible nor feasible in South Asia, and very often it takes time for Swedes to ease into and have confidence that beneath a surface that might seem unorganized, everything is actually working out perfectly,” she said.

Sri Lankans, admittedly, have a problem being organized. If you see their public bus drivers speeding down their roads, you will know why.

But, the island has rapidly reached middle income status, and industries such as apparel and information technology have begun to set international trends. And most Sri Lankans follow road rules.

The all-business attitude of Swedes can confuse Sri Lankans as well.

“South Asians might experience Swedes as stringent and less socializing when it comes to business discussions, since business and private often is kept separate, carefully by Swedes, to communicate professionality,” said Liberg.

“My advice to business people of both cultures is to be patient, open-minded and observant of ones counterpart and always try to think one extra time of how the situation might be perceived from your business partners’ perspective, regardless of how it seems to you,” she said.

Trade between the two nations has a rich history.

Sweden is a leader in infrastructure and sustainable technologies, and Sri Lanka is known for business process outsourcing, garments and spicy cuisine.

Sri Lanka’s spices and gems are some of the best in the sea-faring world. They have also produced the likes of Chamath Palihapitiya, a Facebook investor who cashed out, and is now a co-owner of the U.S. basketball team, the Golden State Warriors.

With free trade agreements with India and Pakistan, and a possible one with China in the offing, investors foresee Sri Lanka becoming a logistics hub for the region.

Liberg said Sweden can’t negotiate bilateral free trade agreements directly as Sweden is a member of the EU. The next best thing might be to access these markets through a country like Sri Lanka.

So, are cultural differences a barrier to trade and investment? At a time when cultural stereotypes seem to be increasing, this question seems relevant.

The popular Swedish phrase “Lagom” refers to the value of moderation, and “just the right amount.” It’s a notion valued highly by Sri Lanka’s Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.

“How is my hair cut?”
“Lagom,” a Swede would say.

Swedes too can take comfort knowing Sri Lankans are deeply spiritual people, most of the time, when they are not driving on the roads.

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