The Dark Side of Hygge

I have wanted to write under this title for months already. Today I have walked into the bookstore, opened randomly that famous book about hygge (by Meik Wiking) and there it was: my title! Though the idea was different. But still. Thank you, Meik! Now, since the title is out there (apparently a bit before I coined it myself), I can continue the discussion.

Meik writes that spending time in a hyggeligt way with family and close friends can have its dark, less pleasant side: the newcomers find it difficult to get into a circle. The Danes seem to be so preoccupied with their own circles which makes them not so open and inclusive folks. “But once you’ve gotten in, you are in”, he says.

after sunset, in Oslo

He says this about Danes, though Danes are considered to be the most open and talkative of all the Scandinavians. So imagine Norway after that. My Ukrainian friend who moved here after doing some work in Denmark, got depressed. She thought Norwegians are just like Danes. Looks like she liked the Danes. Then another Ukrainian friend of mine, who lives in Finland, considers Norwegians still more nicer than Finns. I just don’t want to start imagining Finns. But I can speak for Norway, this place I know oh so well.

Once you’ve gotten it, you are in, – this is what they say here too. It is not easy to get a Norwegian as your friend, but once you’ve got him, you really have him forever. Just a little question: how exactly do you get a Norwegian friend? To me it seems sometimes not just difficult – but nearly impossible.

Ok, I can speak only for myself apparently. And for a couple of my international friends who seem to be in the same situation. What I observe here is that foreigners tend to hang out with foreigners, and Norwegians – with Norwegians. Is it like this in every country where you live as an expat or migrant?

I remember living as au-pair in Austria. In a year there I made more friends with locals than in Norway for all of my lifehere. To be honest, the number of my close friends who are Norwegian – after eleven years –  is zero. And I see the similar trend for other foreigners around me. The Spanish blend together with the Spanish, Latinos and foreigners who speak Spanish, the Russians and Ukrainians make friends with all those from ex-Soviet. When I was moving to Norway, I was firmly dedicated not to become a typical Russian immigrant who hangs out only with Russians and misses the food like borsch, herrings salad and kefir. No, I was going to make friends with locals and hang out with them. Eleven years later I still find it mystical to make friends with locals.

after rain, October in Oslo

The puzzling thing is that they are not hostile. They are nice, sometimes really nice. In the workplace, in university they smile to you, ask about your weekend, they would talk to you with humor. But making friends with them? Mysterious. Maybe, they don’t want new friends because the old friends from their school and kindergarten are enough? But no, I have seen new friendships being created in my workplace. They make new ones – but also Norwegian ones.

An exception are Norwegians who have lived abroad and experienced the life as a foreigner. Also the children of immigrants are different. Though born and brought up in Norway, they carry values and manners of other culture – in addition to their Norwegian culture. My two-three local friends (not close, but friends) are like that.

They say that living abroad is always difficult when it comes to making social connections. You think that the Spanish people are open, but when you come to live there you will find it different, a Norwegian told me (who has lived some years in Spain). But then there is this theory (which I read in my course of sociology) that goes like this. In the Southern Europe people used to live in villages and towns for centuries and they were used to meeting their neighbors on the streets and markets, hang out with them and meet new people too. The climate would also allow such activity. Thus they got the habit for communicating a lot, even though sometimes superficially. In Norway, centuries ago, people often lived in alone standing houses, where the family runs the farm, and the next neighbor would be kilometers away. When you work side by side with your family, you don’t feel for chatting with them even more in the evening. And meeting strangers was not something that happened very often. Thus Norwegian culture got the value placed on authenticity, not on superficial small talk.

Fast forward it to now. The living patterns have changed, but the cultures are still bearing those traits. The Spanish can talk and talk, and ask you questions even if your language mastery is minimal. Norwegians will answer your questions politely but they will not make an effort to start a random conversation, for example, on a plane. Then there are few arenas where it is ok talking to strangers in Norway. You don’t start a random chat on public transportation, not in cafes, not in the shops. You can talk to strangers in the bars, but there are few interested in friendship, more in a hook-up. That’s why, maybe, Norwegians love organizations – they are the legal arena for meeting new people. If you want to make friends, join the choir, or dancing course, or any other organization where you will meet the same crowd on the regular basis.

after sunset, in Stavanger

Maybe, this is only my problem. Maybe, I didn’t work hard enough. Recently I read on the Facebook page of Expats in Oslo this question: “Have you read “The Social Guidebook to Norway”? Did it help you to find friends?” The book is written by a Canadian Julien Bourrelle, where he explains in drawings and humoristic manner how Norwegians function. It is not really a self-help book, more of entertainment, though the points ring with truth. And the first answer to this question was: “I did. And no, it didn’t”. It is sad to read it. And when I wrote about loneliness in Norwegian culture in this post, people reacted to it with confirmation. I still hope that there are many more foreigners who will prove me wrong. I’d prefer to be in a minority than in the pattern.

When writing this, I am very aware of unease I feel. I really don’t want to offend my Norwegian readers (especially my colleagues, they were fantastic people to work with). I appreciate this nation, it has so many good values and traits. But I just have to admit that my experience tells me that opening up for newcomers and including strangers is not its strongest side. And this unintentionally created exclusion hurts. It really hurts, according to recent research. It says that exclusion triggers the same brain areas as pain. Having spent many years in loneliness and social confusion, I can confirm that it does.

While the infomercial in the subway asks: “Which sun factor protects against loneliness?” The answer is: no sun factor protects against loneliness. I wish I had seen this question years ago. I wish I had gotten better information on what loneliness can lead to, and about ways to prevent it. No country for old men, my friend says about Norway. While I am young and can go out dancing salsa, it is one story. But when I become old, I prefer to see myself sitting on the sunny terrace of some Mediterranean town, sipping coffee (I hope, till then they make better coffee) or cheap read wine, in the place where I know the name of every waiter and every neighbor, chatting with them about life, telling them my stories. I prefer this to spending long dark winters with hygge, expensive candles and hot tea under the fluffy rug, where friends prefer to travel away for Easter and Christmas – and if you stay in town, you are stuck with empty streets and closed everything, where it is not normal to strike a chat with a stranger and carry on for a while. Where even I forget how to do a small talk – so that when I see a somehow familiar face, sometimes I turn away because I don’t know what to talk about here on the street. I prefer to be old some other place. And maybe, some years before that too.

If you have your experiences of Nordic culture, share them with me here in comments!

29 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Hygge

  1. I have been told even Norway born Norwegians have a hard time getting into friend circles and that is a serious issue. They get lonely too. I know with my family that friends seems to befriend the ENTIRE family of brothers and not just one which is interesting.

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    • Loneliness is an issue here, for sure. Like that informercial on subway, it was not directed to foreigners obviously (just imagine this sign in Spain or Italy. Makes no sense))). And if it is hard for Norwegians, it makes it even worse for the newcomers. That is a sad story, and it is ironic to hear when Norway is proclaimed the best country to live in and the happiest country too.

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      • OMG I was thinking that too! How is Norway the happiest country? I do believe the best to live in part however. My diabetic supplies cost thousands of dollars in the US compared to Norway costing about three hundred dollars max. There are definitely some ups and downs to living in Norway for sure.

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      • It can be counted “best to live”, depending on what is “best”. I understand the criteria they used: the life expectance, level of higher education, medical service, transparency. This makes Norway a very good place to live. If they counted social connection, level of loneliness, life quality (not life standard), the results would be different. As any country, Norway has its ups and downs.
        But the happiest country – this is really ironical to me. But ok. Well well 🙂

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    • They seem very reserved, yes. When you start learning them better, like in a work setting, or other place where you are involved over a period of time, you discover many different personalities. But I have still to travel far to find a more reserved people than them 🙂

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  2. you have confirmed my theory…that people in hot/humid countries are more warm than people in cold countries. My theory is that in warm countries people tend to mingle and have their entire social structure built around community and get together. So people in Asia, Southern Europe and even in Latin America are friendly than say Russians, Finns even Germany to some extent.

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    • Of course, climate has a lot to say in this case. In the warm climate you can spend all your day on the street where mingling is unavoidable. In the cold climate you spend too much time inside, and you are not used to mingle and meet new people all the time, if this is not your work. Even at work there is a limit on how much can happen in a little place like Norway.
      Let me disagree on Russians. My friend from Netherlands said that exception to this rule are Estonians, in his experience. I said that those open Estonians maybe originally Russians, a lot of them of live in Estonia. And he agreed. But to my it is hard to judge, since Russian is my language and my culture, and of course, these people are more open to me than to other foreigners, for sure.

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      • May be we might disagree on this because of our observation. In any case, Russia is a big country spanning across various time zone and continents so variations do exists. But generally, even in other parts of the world Russians have a different image which can be false! 🙂

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      • True true. There are many different Russians one can meet. Though there is some coherent culture too, and even some evidence to stereotypes 🙂 And for me who is neighbor and sharing the culture, it is always difficult to see them objectively 😉 some things are better seen from the distance.

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  3. I think I have been lucky in finding friends in Finland because I first arrived as an exchange student and was taken in immediately by the circle of my host-sister’s friends. I am still close friends with them now and a few have stayed with us in Australia.

    Marrying/being in a relationship with a local also really helps to break into stiff social circles. Also knowing the language or at least being very interested in their country/language helps.

    I sometimes wonder if my experience would be diferent if I wasn’t ‘white’ and didn’t easily pass as a Finn…

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    • Thank you for sharing your perspective! Good to hear that you had such a welcoming experience.
      It definitely helps when you are involved with the family, that opens up many circles. And if you have a gate-opener like your host-sister helps a lot too.
      Good point with the appearance. I think, we all are colored by our perception. My Spanish man would not mind look and sound Spanish, since he got into a Norwegian family where everyone liked him, and he is good at making friends with anyone. While my friends from Russia and Ukraine look more Norwegian than him, and still find it difficult, especially those who came as au-pair, students or for work. Because the appearance is only for the first minute, then you have your accent, your culture that is so different, and few points to intercede. Well well. Very interesting subject. I will keep on interviewing my friends about that 🙂

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      • It definitely depends on the personality – I find that many Finns respond to a warm or outgoing personality, maybe because it can help to break the ice if the other person is more willing to make the first moves.

        It’s sad to hear about the experience of your Russian and Ukrainian friends… I don’t know about Norway but unfortunately in Finland there is a prejudice against people from Russia or eastern Europe.

        The Nordic countries are definitely not the easiest place to be a foreigner! But definitely worth it if you can break through the ice and experience the loyalty and dependability of the local people 🙂

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      • I was told by Norwegians that they like when people are outgoing and you need to be a bit southern here. Unfortunately, I reflect people I talk to, and become more Finnish that Italian 😆😆
        Norwegians also have prejudices against Russians as they share the border. I know a story of Ukrainian girl keeping a cafe and not willing to speak her mother tongue there. Her Australian employee could not understand that. Then she (aussie) pretended to be Polish for a week or two. And then she said to my Ukrainian friend: “I don’t want to be Polish anymore, that sucks” 😆😆
        Of course, there is a gradation of foreigners. Americans and Western europeans come first, then Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans in the end. This is a sad reality, even if there are variations to it, and all is covered by political correctness.

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      • Haha I definitely adapt and become like the people I talk to as well! And I’m especially shy when speaking Finnish. But I guess overall I’m still more talkative than the average Finn 😉

        Unfortunately you speak a sad truth about those prejudices…

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      • You see! But it’s normal, we are social beings and adjust to each other. And I know 2 versions of me: chatty in Spain and reserved in Norway. And to be honest, I like the first one better. Even though I am still talk more than an average Norwegian 😆😆 just like you.

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  4. I truly believe that it does not happen only in Norway or northern countries. I have a lot of friends all over the world living as foreigners and many of them are having troubles becoming good friends with locals. Me myself I lived in Spain for one year and nope, I don´t have Spanish friends. Now in Germany I don’t have close German friends either… And for sure if I were a foreigner in Russia, I would have hard times hanging out with locals as well. I agree, beeing in a northern country makes things even more difficult, but even in Spain or Italy it is not easy to integrate at this level and to have true local friends.
    I guess that is just how it is… people like to stick to their tribe and it is in our nature to lean to people who are close to us. “Close” is a very relative thing though… In Asia all Europeans are suddenly close and you will see how easy it is to make friends with let’s say Germans. In Germany it will be somehow easier to make friends with Poles, cause you are both slavic and foreigners. But if you as a Russian would live in Poland, then suddenly this nation will be hard to get along with!

    It is very confusing and I honestly don’t know how to overcome this 😦 It would be nice to have local friends, but in the end just having (any) friends is what matters. And who they are – is not so important as long as they are good. Don’t look at the fact of not having local friends as an “integration failure”. It is not. Yes, we all came to the new country with that perfect image in our head how we would fit in 100% and find our new home, friends and family. But it happens only to some very few lucky people! Don’t be too hard on yourself trying to conform to that “ideal immigrant” illusion ) It’s not a big deal that you don’t have norwegians friends. Maybe they will come in the future, who knows, but for now I would let it go (and I did just that in my situation).

    As for the retirement – I am definitely going to Spain! That’s decided! Hahaha )

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    • Thank you, Uliana, for sharing your story and your analysis. I agree on the point that it is not easy getting local friends in any place. And I would sign up under this: if I lived as a foreigner in Ukraine, I would have troubles making friends too (though we are curious about Americans and Westerners. But not about Africans, for ex.).
      I just had such a great experience in Austria that it blinded me for a while. I felt totally integrated into the social life there, but one year is not representative, I understand))
      And I love being in Spain where it’s acceptable to chat any place with anyone while in Norway I get so frozen. That even when people chat up with me here, I feel weird and don’t know what to say 😆😆
      I really would love to live in south before retirement ( I need a break from Northern climate and culture). And hopefully, we will meet with you then on Mediterranean coast for a glass of something 😉

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    • And I just love your words about being kind to myself and not press myself into that perfect immigrant image of me. Thank you for reminding! This is so true. We press ourselves into so much 😝

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