Is Norwegian culture lonely?

I hope, you will disagree with me and prove me wrong. Really. I am here not to drive any point home. I am just wondering: is it just me or is it true for others? So here is the thing. Is Norwegian culture lonely? Or just very independent? And where does the difference go? Sometimes extreme independence and freedom can look like loneliness (but is it so?).

To begin with, I appreciate the independence and freedom a lot. A LOT. I was born and grew up in the Ukrainian city, with the social control like in a village. Our culture was (and I guess, still is) very collective oriented. The people around you can support you, and they know you well, but it can also feel suffocating. As a kid, I knew all the neighbors in my block, and the most in my backyard. You could borrow salt, matches and money from your neighbors, and you could babysit for them for free. At the entrance to every house there were benches, occupied by the old ladies of the block. They functioned as a daylong news station. They held all the information about the neighbors, they knew who didn’t clean her house, and whose husband was drinking too much. Sometimes I wonder if they were bribed by KGB for keeping the information up to date :).

Where I grew up, it was normal to be asked by your neighbors “Why are you not married yet?” and get a dating or relationship advice. It was normal for people on the bus to start a heated discussion of politics and bring it almost to the point of fighting.  It was normal for people to ask very private questions about your life. So it was a relief to come to Norway where people respect your privacy over everything, and where it is not normal to ask about your salary and which party you are going to vote for in the next election. It was like a breath of fresh air. Freedom.

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picnic on the lake Sognsvann, Oslo

But  there was also a downside to my freedom.
Loneliness. There have been weeks when I didn’t talk to anyone. It was depressing because I just need to talk, I am a chatty girl, and keeping silent for me is torture :). This sharp loneliness happened to me first in Norway – and mind you, I had lived in other countries before. As au-pair I stayed in two different cities in Germany, and then I spent a year in Austria. Getting friends is difficult in a new place, it was for me at least. But nowhere had I experienced that acute feeling of loneliness like in Norway, first in the coastal city of Haugesund, then in Oslo. But that is me and my personal experience. Maybe, I just had bad luck, you will say. I would not argue, but I would love to hear about different experiences. Because I have other observations that support my feeling.

As a student I worked in a bakery in a quite area for richer people, with very stable population (mostly families and retirees). There was this old lady with crunches and a sad face that would come to my shop every day. Twice a day, actually. In the morning she would by two pastries to take away. In the afternoon she would come for a piece of cake, walnut marzipan, and a cup of coffee, with milk and two lumps of sugar. I knew her orders by heart, and I would always run to open the door for her (she was having trouble doing it holding the crunches), and make sure to bring her the order (it is a norm in cafes here that you pick up your order at the till). And if I had no customers waiting, I would chat with her. Just a bit. And bit by bit, we got to know each other. I got to know, that she had a husband, and her daughter lived in Haugesund, and her son also lived somewhere. And one day before Christmas she brought me a present, a pot, handmade by her, and I find it such a sweet gesture. But it was so sad to see her alone every day, on her crunches, walking on the icy street. And she was not the only loyal customer of that place. There was another old lady, coming pretty often, to drink her coffee and read her paper, at the same time. But as Norwegian tradition goes, she would never sit close to my lady (Norwegians will never sit next to you on the bus, if there are 4 free places in some other corner, and they will never sit next to you in the café, unless the place is really full). And is there a chance that these ladies will start talking one day? I don’t know which event can make them do so. And ok, I was not playing Amelie there, getting the customers together (sorry).

About the same time I went to Italy to visit my friend who lived close to Venice. And as I was roaming the streets of Venice aimlessly, on a damp and chilly day in February, listening to Katie Melua on my iPod, I came across a little piazza. The kids were playing football, the mothers chatted together, the teens were hanging around, all people together, but what got my attention was a group of older men. They were sitting and standing around a corner café, one guy was in a wheelchair, another came along and grabbed his chair for fun, and all of them were joking and laughing. On a gray winter afternoon, cold after their standards, but together. And I imagine how being old in Venice is not fun. The tourists, the damp air, the stairs and bridges, and if you need to go anywhere you have to take a boat or a water bus (and how does ambulance look like? A boat, too?). For sure, Norway has a better standard of life, you have that good pension, and infrastructure, and the medical service has a good reputation. But when I see those two pictures: a lady with crunches on an icy street, drinking her coffee alone every day, and that group of older men laughing, you can guess my choice for the old me.

I happen to live with a Spanish boyfriend, and we often visit his mom in Barcelona. Two years ago she moved to a new flat, and already she knows the neighbors, and on her birthday one of them rang on her door to wish her happy birthday. Her daughter lives in the same neighborhood, and she, or her husband and kids, or altogether, visit the mother on a daily basis (like every day, it seems to me). Another daughter lives in the town outside, but they make sure to meet or to call each other regularly. In Oslo I have never known who my neighbors are. And not only me who is used to live in the blocks where many apartments are rented and people don’t care that much. Norwegians from other places throw arms into the air and exclaim: “What is the thing with Oslo folk? You never know your neighbors”.

There are some statistics out there saying that around 40% of households in Oslo are single person households. Norwegians coming from other towns think that Oslo people are cold and avoiding contact. But I hear of many families who see their grandparents only once a year, for Christmas. Like my old lady from bakery, who didn’t seem to meet her children often. And what is the thing with the busyness of people? Everyone is so busy these days, you have to book months ahead to meet someone. While in Spain it seems they have all the time to drop by without calling. And when you meet someone on the street, you stop and chat (or roll your eyes, like me, not understanding Catalan :)). When you meet people you know in Oslo, you know, what happens? They look the other way like they don’t know you. Yeah, if it is not the people you know well (or foreigners), it happens, and a lot. I thought, it was a Blindern code. Blindern is the campus of the university of Oslo where I studied. And we agreed with my friend that there was a code there: when you take a subject with someone, and you sit together in a little group and discuss, or write an assignment together, and you know each other’s names and some life facts – next semester, when you meet them randomly, they see you, don’t say hi and look away. Like they don’t know you. And it looks like Blindern code works in the city as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Norwegians! I had had my prejudices before, about cold and reserved Vikings, but I met many nice people, open and funny, chatty and supportive. But what is with the culture that makes so difficult to talk to each other when you don’t know each other? There is a documentary that I really want to watch, “The Swedish theory of love”, talking about similar issues. About how the state in Sweden had the goal of making an individual independent of the family, and how it resulted in the state replacing the family, and in the culture which is considered to be maybe the most individualistic in Europe. I feel that it can shed some light on Norwegian situation too. But more than an explanation, I would love to share a culture where people talk to each other!

This is just my perception, and it is not objective. Throw in your arguments, either you agree or not. Did I forget something? Did I paint a picture that is way too biased and so negative? Let me know in the comments!

 

8 thoughts on “Is Norwegian culture lonely?

  1. lack of sun (and vitamin D) comes in my head first of all. being a real introvert, I can say that I like people (in general), but I’m getting tired too fast if I’m trying to hold an active communication with them. It is really feels like “Oh, I’m drained! my energy just dissapears when I talk to someone”. Another thing – Norway is huge if we compare it to number of its people. And people are used to live in small communities or almost alone and they just don’t need this option – talk to another person, they are comfortable like they are – drinking coffee all alone.
    Third, it is easy to be light and happy, have no…Sorgen (forgot the english variant!) when you live under almost every-day-present sun. In Venezuela people had no Sorgen untill the food went to zero. And even now, with all their problems, I’m sure, they can find something to eat, because every month, every week, some fruit is getting ripe, or the fish is present in the rivers (and there is no frost to cover the water), etc. They need no furs against frost, no solid houses, nothing. And yes, it is easy to say “manana” and be relaxed and chatty. Tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after again it wiil be the same.
    well, I don’t know if it was some clever answer, but my life experience says me this)

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    • It was a very good and profound answer! Thank you! You have a great experience of cultures. Yes, it is often said about Norway: the distances between households. And looks like Oslo people don’t learn though they live close to each other))) I understand intorverts, i considered myself to be it (but everyone doubts it, so I guess, i have a different thing). but not the whole country is introverts, it’s more like culture is introverted. I find it sad. Humans need others to survive.
      and in Venezuala, and Spain, the things are not easy at all. Can it be all sun that saves the humor? If we compare, Norwegians should be happier than Spanish, with all their security. Spain was hit by the crisis badly. And again, the happiest nation in Europe is not sunny Spain, but Denmark! I mean, really? It is still Scandinavia with all its gloomy climate, so what makes it different from Norway?

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  2. Denmark is very ancien….if I’ve understood the history correctly, vikings and anglo-saks (who arrived to Britain before Normanns in 1066) came from land that is now named Denmark…..so….I can not express my thought tonight, but I suppose it plays big role now…..roots are too deep and they influence somehow on modern citizens…..

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    • Maybe. Though I don’t see the connection to the happiness at the first glance, but…)) And vikings were not very lovely friendly strangers, which Norway had too (but they went to Greenland and the North America). Norway is pretty old too, but my history knowledge stops here))

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  3. Norway wasn’t independent state, as far as I remember the explanation of my 1st family in Haugesund, they were part of Denmark until 18 or 19 century, then for short time it was ruled by Sweden (Denmark gave N. to S. for some reason) and …hmmm….1905 Oslo became the capital and got its name “Oslo” (Kristian…something…stad? it was before)……..Anyway Denmark has better ..hm..how to express….geografic position, maybe not so good climat, but they are/were more involved in european life……N. is almost edge of the world….

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    • That is true, Norway has been a part of Denmark for a long time, and then Denmark gave it Sweden because it supported Napoleon in the war of 1812 which he lost. Kristiania was the name of the old Oslo :). and you are right, Norway was like on the edge of civilized world, while Denmark was more central, continental, royal, with influence from the central Europe. You feel it until now)))

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  4. I would say that I can see a lot of those same patterns you are seeing in Oslo here in Australia (in the big cities, at least). My Mum lives in a small country town and when I visit her there, I can definitely see the difference. Everyone says hi as you walk down the street or into a store, and at Christmas time everyone on her street gets together. Here in Brisbane, people aren’t so open to talking with strangers and definitely wouldn’t sit next to one on public transport either if they didn’t have to. I am torn on the issue. I love living in a big city that offers me so many cultural opportunities, and the reality is that employment prospects are a lot better here, too. At the same time, though, it’s as if everyone here is living in their own little bubble. My partner and I would like to meet couples who share similar values to us so we could socialise with them, but we are finding it hard to meet people. So it seems like a complete contradiction – a society that values independence and privacy can be liberating but suffocating in equal measure. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Marina! It’s super interesting 🙂

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    • Thank you for your comment! What an insight! You know, here we explain everything by the coldness of the Northern culture. Who could know that one can have the same experience in Australia (Norwegians just love Au because of the climate and openness of the people, ironically)))? I can relate to the difference between the cultures of small place vs. big city, which is kind of international thing. It is normal to get into your own bubble in the city bc there are so many stimulations, and the flow of people and information is huge. And it is sad that it can result in isolation. I thought, we struggle here bc of our immigrant status – but looks like you have the same struggle in your own country. And I recognize myself in this love for the big city, I am an urban animal too (but one day I will live in a small town and tend my garden, who knows ;))

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