In the current era of intensive globalisation, the marketplace is growing at a fast pace. This means expanding business borders and sometimes customising business practices. The subsections that follow give an overview of Iceland’s business practice to give a comprehensive picture of doing business in Iceland.
Regardless of the situation and place, communicating without creating barriers can only be an advantage and bring benefits.
Icelanders are known to be relatively direct in the way they communicate. This should be taken into consideration when spending time with them and no offence should be taken if they come across as being a bit too straight-forward. Straight talking, punctuality, accountability and honesty are values that hold great sway in Iceland and therefore one should not overpromise or set expectations that are unlikely to be fulfilled. Icelanders also value friendships and instead of just sticking to business it is normal that pleasure and business are interwoven.
Icelanders might seem to be somewhat shy at first as they do not want to appear intrusive, but as is often the case with Nordic people, they will loosen up. The best places for getting Icelanders to open up for conversations are pubs, parties, bonfires and sometimes also hot tubs.
If a visitor wants to use the Icelandic language when greeting Icelanders then it is advised to say Blessuð or Komdu sæl to females and Blessaður or Komdu sæll to males. A less formal greeting is Hæ or Halló even when meeting for the first time.
It is relatively normal that in business settings that involve non-Icelanders English is spoken, so there is no need to master Icelandic before going to negotiations. Iceland has its own language, but one can get by most of the time with either English or Danish as they are both compulsory languages in the Icelandic school system. The Icelandic version of Danish is also often called Skandinavíska and it widely understood among Norwegians and Swedes too.
Here are some of the most useful phrases a visitor can use when visiting Iceland:
- Hello: Hæ , Halló
- Good morning: Góðan daginn
- Good night/evening: Gott kvöld
- See you!: Sjáumst
- Goodbye: Bæ, Bless
- Have a nice day: Njóttu dagsins
- How are you?: Hvernig hefur þú það? or Hvað segir þú gott?
- What’s your name?: Hvað heitir þú?
- Pleased to meet you: Gaman að kynnast þér
- Welcome: Velkominn (males) Velkomin (females, plural)
- I don’t understand: Ég skil ekki
- Yes: Já
- No: Nei
- Thank you: Takk
- Sorry, Excuse me: Afsakið, Fyrirgefðu
- My pleasure: Mín er ánægjan
- Of course: Auðvitað
- Help!: Hjálp!
A non-Icelander might be unfamiliar with the Icelandic alphabet as there are some letters that are unknown for many foreigners. The letter ð is supposed to sound like ‘th’ in ‘the’, the letter þ is supposed to sound like ‘th’ in the word ‘thing’ and the letter æ is supposed to sound like the word ‘eye’.
When asking Icelanders their name, they will usually answer with their first name. Sometimes they might also give their middle name or even their full name. Only a few Icelanders have original surnames and that is why they often call each other by their first name even when doing business. Even in telephone directories people are listed by their first names. This is because of the way in which surnames are built; they are a combination of the father’s and/or mother’s first name plus ‘daughter’ or ‘son’. If for example an Icelander named Fridrik Jónsson has a son named Dagur, Dagur’s complete name will be Dagur Fridriksson instead of Dagur Jónsson.
In Iceland business and pleasure are often interwoven. Things do not have to be written down on paper for them to be binding. Icelanders place a high value on keeping their word, in fact an oral agreement is binding according to the law of Iceland.
Icelanders often seem quite reserved at first, which is not uncommon for Nordic people. However, they are very friendly and it is likely that if visiting the country for business you will be invited to private homes and/or to experience the country with the locals in other ways. Icelanders also often ask what a foreigner thinks about Iceland. When this happens, one should always express interest in Iceland and have something nice to say about the country.
Shaking hands is a normal way of greeting business partners. Kissing one another on the cheek might be appropriate for women once they are well acquainted but otherwise not. One shouldn’t be too worried about when and where it is appropriate to make contact. Icelanders do not have many rules on social interaction, they behave in a very a familiar way towards each other and there are not many taboos. Icelandic companies are streamlined with flat organizational structures which means that CEOs might be in direct contact with managers from lower levels. This gives us an indication that Iceland is a classless society and approaching people from different socio-economic groups is totally acceptable.
Just as in the English language, Icelanders do not have a formal way of saying “you”. Rather formality is expressed through the vocabulary one uses and the tone of voice. It is typical for Icelanders to address each other by their first names. Sometimes they also refer to each other as Herra, Frú and Ungfrú, equivalents for Mr, Mrs and Miss, but these words are very rarely used. This is true even in the Icelandic school system.