Dress to Impress Vs. Scandinavian Relax

Some time ago I stumbled upon blog post by a Russian make-up blogger where she was discussing natural aging and surgery methods for staying young. Her position was firm and clear. The blog had a compilation of celebrity photos: those aging naturally versus those who use plastic surgery and the botox injections, – and the former seemed to be losing the game. The author argument was like that: there are many natural processes in our body, like body hair, which we don’t accept and fight, by epilation or shaving. So natural aging is not better, and should be fought by all means. In her comments a man supported that point of view: “It is the strongest that survive. So if you can find the means to look young and beautiful – of course, you should use them!”

My reaction was strong and emotional. I had a recollection of the culture where I grew up, the culture that believes in “survival of the fittest”, and for a moment I felt thankful for living in a different reality. I was born and grew up in the city in Eastern Ukraine (Soviet Union then), with the strong Russian culture and language traditions. It was that kind of place that make (Western) Europeans gasp and wonder. Why do they do it? Why – in the country with an unreasonably low wages – do the guys have the latest versions of smartphones? Why do girls look like they just got out of manicure salon, balancing on high heels in the mess of bad pavement?

Because this is Eastern Europe, I would say. A place where you must impress, you must fake that you are richer and cooler than you are. And since people don’t have enough money to impress with houses or cars, they would impress with phones and clothes. The streets can be messy, but on every corner there would be a barber’s shop, a beauty parlor or a solarium. And nowhere else but in my city will you see a girl on high heels, with a party make-up and sexy gear, heading to her usual office job on a Monday morning.heel

I come from a competition culture. You have to prove yourself. You have to impress. Wherever you go you try to signal that you are rich, tough and superior. Otherwise you will be considered a loser and gain no respect or even decent service. While some may support this “jungle law”, I got tired of it. Because it is tiresome! Either you pretend you are something, or you don’t – but it is also a fight. In my culture there was little accept for “just be yourself” thing, so that choice felt like a fight. And all that takes so much energy.

When I moved to Norway, first as au-pair, it took me some months to recollect the fact that I was in one of the richest countries of the world. Here I was, in the coastal town of Haugesund, looking out of the window – and I could not see the signs of the superior richness. There were nice wooden houses. But no huge mansions or little castles with towers and princess balconies that rich people of my city were building. There were cars, usual cars, but where were the jeeps and cars size of a cabin, that were filling the streets of my hometown? Then I moved to Oslo, the capital, but nothing changed. Still no private castles, no oversized cars, no impressive street fashion. The big thing of discussion in Russian community in Norway was the style of the females. No make-up, no high heels, no sexy skirts or dresses. Matching sneakers and backpacks with everything (it was 10 years ago, when sneakers and backpacks were still dreaming of entering the fashion world). Easy relaxed style. Dressing up only on Saturday night.  We, Eastern Europeans, had a hard time accepting it J. In a rich country of the world the people were not flashing their richness. Unbelievable!

For a long time I considered that attitude to be strictly Eastern European phenomenon. The history of Turkish and Mongolian invasions, I would say. The influence of luxury lifestyle popular in Middle East.  The closeness to Asian culture. But now and then I am reminded of another great country with that culture of competitiveness and impressive consumption, which is not Russia. Which is the United States.

Just yesterday I was talking to an Italian who is often in L.A. to visit his girlfriend, and his description is this: “Everyone wants a bigger house, a newer car, you have to impress and be better than you neighbor. And you have to earn a lot of money, otherwise it is a hard fight”. Wait a minute… That rings a bell. So you don’t buy the latest smartphone to impress your buddies but you buy the latest car. And you don’t wear party make-up and heels early on Monday morning – but you buy a lot of stuff for the house to impress your neighbors. Really? Is that so much more different? (ok, the example is from L.A., which is not a good picture of the whole country. But is it very different from the rest of the country?)

Back to Norway and back to Scandinavia. What is different here is the attitude. It is more about community and social support than a competition. More about respect for individual as she is, than impressing others in order to get respect. High value of human rights and strong tradition of welfare state and socialism (and, yes, there are downside to this too, people using the system and so on, but where is it perfect?). The “humanness” of the culture, the value of a person with her imperfections, the simple and authentic choices. Which reflects in the personal style and way of living.

Now as this Scandinavian concept of “hygge” is becoming popular around the world, the Scandinavian lifestyle makes people curious about it. My guess is that the core of it lies in this idea of being authentic and unpretentious, because you are valuable just as you are. Like the author of well-known bestseller on hygge “The Cozy Life”, Pia Edberg, puts it:

“There is no need to seek approval or impress anyone. Sometimes, in North American culture, we feel the need to prove how successful or interesting we are to everyone else. But this is not the case for hygge. When you hygge, you indulge in the moment without worrying about being anyone but yourself. You’re carefree and at ease, accepting and accepted for who you are, not the things you have”.

As Ikea catalogs put it when they make the images of chairs in different styles around one table where the people will get together. It is not about the polished look, it is about a cozy time with others.

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For me, this is the heart of Scandinavian style: the natural materials, the unpolished looks, the simplicity, the raw, used character of things, and the coziness. In fashion, in interior design, and in lifestyle. It is not about running around on high heels, achieving and succeeding. It is not about impressing others with your latest purchase, bag or gadget, or whatever. It is finding your way to live your life – in a relaxed and easy manner that reflects you and your values.

P. S. The discussion of culture is a tricky thing. To show culture to someone is as challenging task as showing water to the fish. You don’t see your culture, because for you it is “the nature of things”, and all the elements, even the foreign and weird ones, can be placed in the system. I am sure, that Russians can defend the competitiveness calling it “the search for perfection”, and North Americans can call the Norwegian relaxed attitude “laziness” or “sluggishness”. So is there any point in this discussion? I guess so, because as we bring different cultural voices together, we can create new choices and thus a new freedom, where people can choose attitudes and design their own lives acting upon them.

15 thoughts on “Dress to Impress Vs. Scandinavian Relax

  1. Hello, Living in Norway myself for 9 years in my experience people still want to impress’others wit possessions and all. It might not be as obvious as in the US or the Ukraine but keeping up with the Joneses is still here.

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    • Hi! I totally agree, because showing the status is the part of every society. So Norwegians cannot be some exception here. but they do it in such subtle ways that we foreigners don’t notice that 🙂

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  2. Nice try but no. Norwegians want a better house, a better car, boat than their neighbours. When it comes to clothing and food they don’t have that tradition. They claim the weather doesn’t allow to have shinny show. Therefore everyone is dressed like they are going to the mountains. Boiled potatoes and fish are the bases of norwegian culinary. The rest is imported. Family cosiness? Most people want to live as far as possible from the nearest neighbours. Many live alone

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    • Good observations, Johnb! 🙂 Thank you. I especially liked your take on the cuisine and the fashion. I agree with you that there is a competition in Norway too, this is what makes it a society, I guess. I have lived for two years with Norwegian families (with cars and big houses), and I could not spot that competitive attitude, maybe because it is very subtle here. With the pietistic culture and Janteloven it is hard to see it for us, foreigners, who are used to more in-your-face attitude. It also depends on where one lives. As I live now in the central part of Oslo, I see people who own no car, willing to live in the small apartments of Gruneløkka, with many neighbours and party noise, for the promise of urban life)) But this hipster part is surely not representative for the rest of the country. I just like their egalitarian values and respect for individual (which I miss when I am in contact with my culture), and tried to convey that message.

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  3. I think we all want- that desire to have is in our human nature. I love my ‘things’!!! But I would still be me without them…
    I guess it’s the motivation for wanting- is it bringing me joy? does it bring a smile from deep within? or is it more a need because I find myself wanting? Wanting as in lacking. When I find myself needing ‘stuff’ to be happy, or to be considered ‘someone’, there’s inner work to be done to discover that happiness inside. it won’t come from outside. I’ve learned that the long hard way.

    I love your writing- thanks for the observations and the view from another vantage point.

    : ) janet

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    • Thank you, Janet! I like your way of thinking. I know what you are talking about, I have made the similar way too. Getting things I want, and then learning to look beyond them for happiness. finding the roots of happiness/unhappiness within me.
      When I was writing this post, I thought about “buying things you don’t need to impress the people you don’t know”. as it is very popular in my culture, and the rich look is considered almost a necessity 🙂 I enjoy the different attitude of Norway. though they for sure do their stuff to impress, but is invisible for me X-)

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      • I recognized the stereotypical Russian woman we see in Helsinki – I’ve always envied their ability to walk on high heels naturally! I’m a sneaker girl. 😊 I think there’s a difference between us Finns and Scandinavians in that our collective self-esteem is maybe a tad lower than our neighbors’. Well, not for the younger, urban generations, but for the rest. And dressing down is a result from either modesty (Finns’ pet peeves are pride and self promotion), comfort (it’s too cold for skirts and dresses!) or street trends (the the the young urbans). So in a way, I recognized things from your post, but with a slight twist 😊

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      • Interesting! I have never been to Finland, and I thought there is little difference between Finns and Scandinavians. Deep analysis of values you give here. I would say, that Norwegians have low self-esteem compared to Swedes and Danes (can it be even lower? :)). the same goes here: cold climate, modesty – plus an old tradition of being a poor farmer country kicks in, I guess. Mind you, Russians from Murmansk which is also cold would still try to look fancy – the collective urge is stronger than the weather, hehe.

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  4. I liked this post very much. I appreciated your thoughtful observations and how you made your points by contrasting your experiences in different countries. I am Canadian and have spent some time in the USA and Australia. I can definitely agree there are subtle differences in cultures and societies that I picked up by spending that time there. It also made me notice my own culture which, as you say, is like showing water to a fish. I would love to travel to Scandinavia next, any suggestions for which country to see first?

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    • Hi, Bridgette, thank you for stopping by! Glad you liked the post! Isn’t it funny how we start to learn that what we thought was “natural” is actually “cultural”, and can be totally different in another country? I like to play with perspectives))
      Scandinavia is a great destination! I would recommend Copenhagen as #1 destination, it is a beautiful city, with long history, great architecture, that hipster twist, relaxed living and tasty Scandi food. I am in love, and would come again and again to this city. And I find the Danes so nice and open (at least, after Norwegians they seem to be, hehe).
      Second I would recommend Stockholm. It is monarchic and great, just as Copenhagen. I spent just 2 days there, and wish to come back. I don’t have knowledge of other places in Sweden or Denmark.
      As for Norway, where I live, it is famous more for its nature than for the city vibe. Oslo is a modern and developing city, but it lacks the charm and history that of grand European cities. But if your dream is to see fjords, mountains and magnificent nature, I would totally recommend Norway. Though this trip needs more money than a city trip 🙂
      Hope, that will help you with your choice!

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