Norwegians are like Fire and Ice
Reports from an American Visiting Oslo
Lizzie Stark is an American journalist and author of two nonfiction books, most recently, Pandora’s DNA, about the history and science of the breast cancer genes. At first she traveled to Norway to research for her first book, Leaving Mundania, about roleplaying games, but now she keeps coming back to visit the friends.
I love Norway for its people. A friend once described them to me as “fire and ice.” Norwegians can be difficult to get to know, but once you break through the icy exterior, both the people and the culture are quite warm and friendly. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Oslo several times during the “spring” (read: winter); my longest stay lasted a month, and in that time I picked up a few tips on surviving in the cold dark north.
One thing I found in Norway: it is wise to beware the daylight. Where I live in the US, at noon, the sun is nearly straight above me in the sky. During my trips to Oslo, in the Spring and Fall, it never reached that height, and I felt it was perpetually either 10 am or 2pm. [ Aside from the wicked jet lag, this far north the light only ever shines at an angle that suggests it’s perpetually 10 am or 2pm,] On the upside, the beautiful dawn and twilight last hours. Don’t trust the sun. Trust your clock.
The US is a competitive culture full of individuals trying to stand out. In Norway, the tallest poppy gets mowed down with dirty looks and subtle social ostracism. I’d never heard of the law of Jante before I visited, but reading up on it after I got back explained a lot of dirty looks. The rules of social engagement aren’t obvious here--if you don’t neatly stow your luggage on the bus, or if you cross against the light, you’ll get glares.
When I hang out with friends in the US, we take turns telling anecdotes. We interrupt and talk over one another constantly--depending on how extroverted a social group is, interrupting may be the only way to get a word in edgewise. A pause in conversation of ten seconds or longer qualifies as a social emergency, and someone better jump on that hand grenade by telling any story--even a long boring one. In Norway, conversation doesn’t mean swapping anecdotes. Rather, it means talking across the table and ensuring everyone contributes. Pauses in conversation are quite normal and interrupting is considered rude.
These styles can cause havoc when combined. During what a Norwegian believes is a normal pause in conversation, I launch into a long story to save everyone from the terrible silence. The Norwegians don’t interrupt me because it’s rude. Ten minutes later, I’m deep into an anecdote about my love of rubber bands, when I realize all the Norwegians are staring daggers at me. I don’t know how to stop talking because I’ve never been able to finish a thought in conversation before. Why isn’t someone interrupting me?
On the Street
I’ve been told that Americans are extremely friendly. I think we just have different standards for social interaction. Depending on where in the states you live, it can be normal to make eye contact, smile, and say hello to strangers you pass on the street. In fact, in some small towns, it’s rude not to. In big cities, often you exchange small talk or fashion compliments with people who sit next to you on the plane or the bus or the train, or share eye rolls with someone waiting close to you in a long line. If you see someone who looks confused on a street corner, maybe you offer some directions. Talking to strangers, especially if you work in a profession like journalism, is as natural as breathing.
Upon landing in Copenhagen one time, I saw a guy with a banjo strapped to his back, so of course I sallied up to him in the passport line and asked whether he played (yes) and what he played (bluegrass) and whether he was Danish (yes). The whole time he was staring at me like I was about to stab him to death and steal his wallet. Later, a Danish friend explained the concept of “privacy in public” to me, namely the idea that it’s not polite to get up in a stranger’s business, even if the intention is friendly.
I find this both relaxing--I’m an introvert and like to be able to go about my daily business unmolested--but also odd. Being able to talk to people on the street means I’ve gotten to learn about the lives and beliefs of taxi drivers, nurses, waitresses, police, doctors, computer coders, venture capitalists, and archeologists this way, and there’s something nice about that.
In the US, standard greetings include “how’s it going?” or “how are you?” The answer, unless your hair is literally on fire, is always “good” or “fine.” If I’m talking to my mother, or a close friend, I might say, “just OK,” or “I’m feeling stressed,” and then will elaborate if I’m asked. In Norway, if you ask “how’s it going?” you better be prepared to hear about someone’s sore throat and the furniture they’ve just moved around their apartment.
I’ve heard that Americans can come across as fake, since we don’t want serious answers to these questions. I think it’s adorable that Norwegians take us at our word.
In a Bar
Nearly everywhere I went in Norway--including a full bar or restaurant--I could hear myself talk, even if music was also playing. This is because, unlike Americans, Norwegians don’t shout all the time.
In my country, there are two parties. So it has been and shall ever be, most likely. My poor brain only has the infrastructure to deal, at most, with two. To me, Norway’s wide array of parties is dazzling, particularly given that the “conservative” parties often seem far to the left of the most liberal US politicians. Maybe it’s a product of the Norwegians I know, but I’ve also heard people tell me with no shame or irony that they are “Marxist.” In the US, the only thing that’s dubbed “Marxist” is a school of literary criticism, or if it’s an election year, the politics of the opposing party (often with disparaging references to Scandinavian socialism).
After visiting Norway, I’m amused of the way our politicians talk about the evils of Scandinavian socialism. Norwegians get more than a month of paid vacation, paid parental leave, unemployment benefits and free healthcare. In the US you’re lucky if you get more than ten paid days of vacation, and of course, we have no paid maternity or paternity leave. Instead, people save up their sick days and are back to work in a few months.
Norwegians seem to eat lunch--sandwiches--for two or three meals a day. That took a little getting used to, but I soon came to love pate, pickles, and even that odd brown cheese. After eating toasted slices of seed-filled brown bread with butter and cheese, American bread seemed like a weak, too-sweet, flabby travesty when I returned home. A friend did take me out for lutefisk once, and I have to say, while the gelatinous texture did make me hesitate at first, I thought the sides were pretty delicious. And of course, a few snaps never hurt.
I have to say, though. I did miss proper Mexican food, and zippy hot sauce.
Americans who drink with Norwegians have to cry all night into a single beer, because if you buy two, it’d bankrupt you. The cheapest beer at a dive bar costs more than the hourly minimum wage in the US. The cost of a fancy beer, well, in the US that same amount of money would buy you a martini with decent gin in Manhattan. I was not prepared for the sticker shock.
...for the hyggelige!
Overall, I’m a big fan of Norway, and am hoping to make it out to some of the spectacular scenery my friends have told me about on another visit. (Cabin culture sounds like fun.) Though I’m still working on my tolerance for lutefisk and conversational pauses, I’m a fan of Oslo’s lovely dark woods, snaps, and my ability to finish a coherent thought in social situations. And I can’t wait for the chance to again try out the only Norwegian phrase I can reliably spit out-- “hei, lenge siden sist”.