The Stockholm syndrome

April 24, 2015

I recently had the good fortune of living and working in Stockholm for a change. The change didn’t last long, but it was as refreshing as being punched in the face by the north wind – very. How did it come about? I’ll tell you.

We have established a metaphorical bridge between our two offices to exchange ideas, skills and perhaps most importantly fresh outsider insight. The previous week Jenny from the Stockholm office was here in Tallinn sharing the peculiarities of the Swedish real-estate market as well as her tremendous talent. And then it was my turn. I was the first one to go work on the other side of the pond from the Tallinn office. As it turned out, that was the first first in a number of firsts to come.

Even as I was leaving Estonia I was met by my first properly thorough security check at Tallinn airport. I learnt that there is a fine line between frisking and frisky. Note to travellers, hide your excitement at the security check. Excitement can look like malice or even ill-will to an untrained eye.

I arrived at the buzzing bee-hive of an office inside a wonderfully historic Royal Mint building complex around 11 o’clock. I said my hellos, sat down, adjusted the seat-height of my new chair and like that the first day was over. That was the first time I realised that time works differently in the Stockholm office. I like time. I use it every day. So the lack of it made me anxious. Even going to a client meeting could take your whole day. In Estonia it takes a cross country trip to spend that kind of time.

Falling into work mode was surprisingly easy.

mihkel in stockholm working

The fresh smell of post it’s and whiteboard marker fumes made me feel right at home. Learning about new clients, their context, the reasons hidden beneath their wishes and coming back with ideas of value is a time consuming process. The only way to handle it in a one week time-frame is to compress the process into tighter iterative steps, shifting my usual choice of tools more towards pen and paper.

The software that I used was all in Swedish. However, it didn’t manage to faze me because of muscle memory. Big win for the inventor of short-cuts and a top tip for software designers – try and have a little more empathy for the disadvantaged. I spent the better part of an hour trying to change the language and as it turned out, managed to do that. But not for the interface. For the hyphenation rules. (Facepalm)

Apart from the language, much in the life in Sweden resembles that of Estonia. The historic old town, the temperament of people, the climate etc. It can sometimes be easy to become blind to the differences. Sweden is one of the fairest countries in the world. Number 4 in the global gender gap index, one of the lowest percentages of people in poverty, excellent medical system and so on. It’s no surprise that the idea of equality is in the bedrock of the Swedish mindset.

As we were working towards solving a problem of emphasising content quality in a digital project I encountered interesting feedback from a client. “Our members are equal. We need to highlight everybody!” The problem of course is that highlighting everything highlights nothing. It’s not that this concept is difficult to grasp, it’s the difference in communication. I suppose the short history and the quick climb back to relative normality after the collapse of the Soviet Union has made us Estonians a bit impatient or even blunt.

Lots of firsts and then some.

stockholm ice bar, fishing, karate lessons and the best burger ever

When it comes to hosting, the Brand Manual family in Stockholm did an amazing job. It was a highly considered action-packed week.

I had my first karate lesson after a 10-year hiatus with Göran, who is as friendly as his black belt is intimidating. Surviving that I had my first ever taste of mead (a honey based drink not dissimilar to beer) with Rickard at a vaguely viking-themed bar in the old town, allegedly owned by the euro-pop superstar e-type. Old-school reference for all you 90s fans out there.
After such severe obscurity I had a chance to try fishing. Also for the first time. Special thanks to Maimi and her son for taking me out on the open water. It’s a very relaxing activity once you lower your expectations. All in all I managed to catch my own sleeve, some algae and a bug for the past-time. The fun culminated with the whole gang going out to the extremely cool ice bar (I apologize for the pun). A bizarre concept for our climate to be honest. It’s very rare to actually hear someone say they miss winter.

I did make one tragic mistake though. DO NOT MENTION SURSTRÖMMING! I admitted never having tried this bizarre Swedish delicacy which has been frequently described as smelling like a corpse rotting in a swamp. As I did, I saw a sinister shadow fall upon my new colleagues’ faces. The entire week was clouded by the fear of an impending Surströmming challenge but in the end even the locals weren’t brave enough to follow through.

Thank you for that and everything else as well,