Your CV maps out your experience and skills. Your covering letter and your interview is the chance for you to show the person behind. The aim of this? The recruiter or employer wants to know who you are, how you are likely to act in a certain situation, and what role you will fill in a team. They also want to understand your ability to be self-objective, and to reflect and learn from your personal traits and behaviour. Therefore, you will need to describe yourself as a person, and how this manifests itself in a professional setting.
In different cultures, different personal traits are considered more or less important. We are subconsciously aware of this, and when asked to present our qualities, we often filter according to cultural norms. Sometimes, we do not even reflect whether these attributes actually apply to us. When looking for a job in a new culture, there is a risk that you might continue to describe yourself according to what is considered good in your native culture, although this does not fit with neither your true personality, nor the new cultural norms. Therefore, I would advise you to really get to know yourself, learn about your new culture, and emphasise the qualities that you have, and that are considered desirable for your Swedish employer. Please note, I am not suggesting that you should try to adapt traits that you do not have, but rather reflect on how you present your existing ones. Neither am I saying that Swedish people live up to these characteristics.
Use concrete examples
When a Swedish recruiter or potential employer asks you about your personal qualities, or when you describe them in your covering letter, it is important that you back them up with concrete examples from your professional life. Swedes are much more practically than theoretically minded, and are rarely convinced by abstract reasoning. Even better is to actually demonstrate your traits through the way you act during your interview. For example, as a recruiter I would not be convinced if you told me you are well organised and structured, if you cannot find the letter of recommendation I asked for.
Once in a while, newspapers publish lists of the most common personal qualities recurring in job adverts. I have collected a few of these lists, re-ordered and grouped them, and they do no longer occur in order of frequency. This first group consists of the ones that I find the most important to reflect upon, if you are new to Swedish work culture.
Prestigelös would translate into English as prestigeless, but I do not think I have ever encountered this word outside Sweden. I have chosen to put this first at my own list, as this is something that you should be acutely aware of when looking for work and working in Sweden. In my own experience, this is one of the most important traits asked for by your colleagues and management. This adjective describes a person who does not feel the need to be personally recognised for their efforts. It describes a professional who does not mind admitting a mistake, or taking responsibilities for others’ mistakes. It describes a person who praises the team around themselves, regardless of their minimal contribution to the success.
This is often ‘tested’ by your recruiter, who is very likely to ask you about a mistake that you have made in a professional setting. It is absolutely crucial that you do tell them about one, they will not believe you at all if you say you never made a mistake, and they will draw the conclusion that you are not at allprestigelös! They will also observe your behaviour when describing your mistake; does it make you feel stressed, do you seem to care about it, have you learnt anything from it? The best way to answer this question is to, as I said, describe a mistake you made, be clear about your own role in it, and describe how you took responsibility for it, solved it, and what you learnt from it.
Also bear in mind that Swedish business culture is very consensus oriented. We are not really interested in the big stars that stand out from the crowd. Instead, a big hero in a Swedish office is the one that gets on with everyone, makes everyone involved in team work, and who remembers everyone’s birthdays.
Being flexible, and not sticking to your own idea (although this one is definitely the best!) is vital. Being pedagogic and communicative means that you will share your knowledge and skills with your colleagues, not caring about them perhaps becoming better than you at your job, or that you will not have the time to do your own work. Remember, it is the team effort – not your personal effort – that counts!
Ambitiös is one of these words that look the same and linguistically mean the same in many European languages. However, connotations may vary. Being ambitious is an unambiguously good thing in Sweden, which I have understood is not necessarily the case in all cultures. To Swedes, being ambitious means that you do things the best you can and look for constant improvement, instead of being content with ‘good enough’. This should maybe be understood in the context that for most Swedish individuals and professionals ‘good enough’ is considered as exactly, good enough.
Remember that your recruiter or potential employer does not only draw conclusions from what you tell them, but also what they see from your behaviour at the interview. Recruiters are often tired of disorganised job seekers, make sure your impress them from the start with your excellent organisational skills. Did you bring, for example, letters of recommendation? How did you present them? Folded in your pocket, in an envelope with whole bunch of other paperwork, or in a folder?
A very good way to show how organised and well prepared you are, is to write down a long list of questions and bring it to the interview. During your conversation, you ask as much as possible, and at the end of the interview, you take out your list of questions, go through it, tick the ones you have already talked about, and ask the remaining questions. Many of my clients believe that this is somehow “cheating”, that the interview is some sort of exam and that you are supposed to know everything ‘by heart’. This is not at all the way your Swedish recruiter or potential employer will see it.
You Swedish employer will have a lot of responsibilities for you once you have a permanent contract. (This normally happens after a six month ‘trial period’). A potential burnout (which can mean long-lasting sick-leave and coming-back-to-work-very-slowly training, and all organisational consequences) is the fear of every employer, and they will look for signs already in the early recruitment process. Stress is considered the major cause of such syndromes, and they are interested in you taking responsibility for your well-being (so that they do not have to, in the end). Always describe your personal qualities with concrete examples in mind. Swedes are pragmatic (not necessarily by nature, but because this is the way we are brought up), and do not regard abstract reasoning as valuable as tangible situations. Describe a situation that made you feel stressed, and then a practical, concrete solution that made you feel better. Swedes tend to believe structure, anticipation, self-awareness and a healthy work life balance is the best cure for stress and its symptoms.
If you know your Hofstede well, you will be aware of the six cultural dimensions, and that Sweden scores very low on Power Distance. This means that our relationships in private and professional spheres are not hierarchally based. Your Swedish boss will not tell you what to do. And they will not tell you when you have done a good (or bad) job. (That would be considered patronising, and not respecting your knowledge and skills.) You are actually supposed to manage yourself as much as possible. This means a bit of initiative and autonomy is required from your part. Describe a professional situation where you took the initiative for a change, or for getting something done. Also act accordingly. Play an active part during the interview, see it more like a dialogue between two equals, and ask many questions.
This part makes me really sad, but I believe this is all based on a misunderstanding of the terms, and poor psychological insight. There seems to be some faulty belief that extrovert people are more socially skilled, and more suitable for teamwork, although there is no scientific evidence for this. As mentioned above, consensus is the key in Sweden. Do always stress your social skills regardless whether you are an introvert or an extrovert (or a bit of both, which I believe most of us are).
Being happy is not a personal quality, it is a feeling. But trying to be forgiving about limited knowledge of human psychology, I would guess that being positive, enthusiastic and open should be understood as not being what is not. That is, do not advertise yourself as being negative and unhappy. Simply, be professional.
Of course these traits often appear in job adverts, but in my opinion these are not culturally specific, but depend more on the type of position that is being advertised.
To use a cliché wisely, be yourself
Although these characteristics are often asked for, does not at all mean that your future employer is not looking for anything else. You probably have many personal qualities that not only make you a suitable candidate for a position, but also an interesting colleague. Do not be afraid of advertising this. Recruiters meet many applicants, and by showing who you are, they are more likely to remember you, and in the end, offering you a job.