Inconvenience of Being Norwegian

My post about the perks of being Norwegian has got great support among my Facebook friends and I got many compliments for it a day later at a friend’s party. There was a note of surprise in their tone which was suspicious – am I usually not as positive? 🙂 So I had to reassure them: “Don’t worry, the negative post is just around the corner. It is already half-baked in the oven. First you catch the attention by the positive one – and then swoosh, comes the negative one. This is what I call strategic blogging, hehe”.

This was not far away from the truth, since I had written a draft a month earlier – about what I like and dislike about a typical Norwegian. The post was half-baked indeed. But now, on the positive wave of the new year and positive confirmation – should I go back to complaining again? I have learnt my lesson: complaining doesn’t work (it took me a long time, but at last I learnt it *grin*). And it is much better to keep the focus on the things I like instead of going through what I don’t like. But on the other side, I feel that I am hiding. I have my ideas and I am just afraid to air them. Because they are less pleasant for Norwegians, and so I am also afraid to touch that.

I don’t want to offend anyone – and then I end up tiptoeing way too much. I also want to be more positive than negative. But still there are things I want to say – and why should I suppress my voice which is still so weak? When suddenly I got the idea of talking about myself, instead of a typical Norwegian. What about Norwegian culture that I adopted myself and don’t like?

Conformism. Scandinavian culture in general tends to be more conformist. As a Swedish friend in “Eat pray love” notes: “The word for Stockholm would be conform”. The word for Oslo would be just the same. Norwegians are so careful about their choices. They are never too loud if not drunk, and their behavior and clothes reflect that. I come from a country where everybody tried to show off as much as possible. In Norway that would be ridiculous. Norwegians still want to signal their taste and money, but they do it in a very subtle manner. Norwegian style is simple, with lots of neutrals, but here and there you integrate that Ganni coat or that Gucci belt, and those who know, will understand. Their appearance doesn’t shout “look at me look at me, I am so cool, I am so rich”.

I like that you can be very relaxed and wear jeans and snickers all the time. But sometimes I feel limited by this total simpleness which is almost imperative. I picked up on conformism and don’t want to stick out. No big and shiny jewelry, but small delicate pieces. Bright colors? Now less and less, but thanks God for trendy red. High red boots? Uuh, only for special occasions (very special occasions), otherwise they would think I am Eastern European whore. Generally, that angst to appear Eastern European has followed me for a long time. On the one side, I like wearing bright colors and loud jewelry, on the other, I always have been conscious of not appearing too Ukrainian *ironic smile*. People like to repeat: “I don’t care about what others think”. Well, good for them – but I care. And I think, it is normal to care, after all we are all social creatures and we adapt our behaviors and choices in new environments. And again, maybe, I am just a little conformist who has found her perfect country 🙂

Coldness and reserved Nordic character. Norwegians are often described as cold and reserved people. At times it may also feel boring. And you know what, I find myself becoming as reserved as they are. When I am travelling outside of Norway and make new connections I sometimes find it difficult to lead a small talk. My friends would laugh into my face, if I acknowledge this, because I am chatting all the time. But in new situations I find myself without knowing what to say, and what I say tends to be simple, rational and boring. Just as Norwegians may seem boring to me – so I find myself sometimes! We don’t do a lot of small talk in Norway, and so I lost that skill. I have learnt to be reserved with the people I don’t know, and now even if they are open for contact, I am wondering at what is ok to tell them. I find this insight very exciting: you can observe inside yourself how the Scandinavian character is developing. It is like growing flowers or crystallizing a crystal 🙂

that book, found in a cafe

About that notorious Norwegian coldness. Recently I’ve read the best explanation so far. The author of a local hit “A Social Guidebook to Norway”, Julien S. Bourrelle, explains more in the book “Norwegians. Friends and Love”. His points are humorous and illustrated by pictures, which makes it a mix of fun and revelation. So, his idea is that Norwegians value independence above everything and that’s why they don’t do favors – so that the person would not feel like he owes them something. Amazing! That explains a lot. For how long we’ve been saying: “Norwegians are greedy. When they lend you 10 kroner, they expect them back”, “They split the bill on the date even if it is just two cups of coffee”, “They don’t pick up their friend at the airport”. While I was studying in Oslo, my friends were Polish, Cuban, Mexican and Iraqi. We all agreed on the fact that Norwegians act strange. We would lend little sums of money without expecting it back, we would invite a friend for coffee and paying for him, we would go far for our friends. But we come from the cultures where such favors are paid back later and maybe in another form.

But in Norway the exchange culture is more direct and immediate in time: you paid my share of dinner, I transfer money to you by the app here and now. And then they don’t want favors, so they can be independent. They will not do you a favor – so that you can stay independent. It is not rudeness, it is not greediness, it is not bad intention. They just have different values. In my culture we create a net of inter-dependence, and that works for us. In this society they value independence of individuals from each other. That’s why the family and friendship doesn’t play the role that it plays in other places. In Ukraine you can loan a big sum of money from your friends, and care and help are provided in greater degree through relations. In Norway there is a welfare state that provides care and help, and small (and big) loans are made in the bank.

I have learnt to be independent and to rely on myself in the everyday basis. There is this unwritten rule that you don’t cross the borders of others. You don’t start chatting with them on the plane or in the line, like all Ukrainians do. You respect the privacy and don’t ask personal questions. You take for granted that the person doesn’t want your intrusion – so you don’t intrude. And even with friends you can tolerate a distance that before would seem almost unpolite. Funny enough, but I am sure that now I would seem cold and reserved for the newcomer Ukrainians.

To be honest, I appreciate this value of independence. And it works for me in this country. But sometimes I wonder if I didn’t get way too cold or distant, forgetting to ask a friend who is sick if she needs some help. Also, I imagine that not all of my life will be spent in Norway – and how then will I act in a new country? My Catalan family definitely thinks that I am very Nordic in my ways, and maybe, my Polish family thinks that too (my brother is married to a Polish girl and lives in Poland). How can I communicate my love and care for them, after I’ve been feeling here like a lonesome fighter lost in a snow storm? I’ve spent many years making my way stubbornly through the snow and loneliness, I have learnt to be independent and self-sufficient – but I don’t want to be a hard and cold Viking without empathy (and I feel like that sometimes).

I haven’t noticed how I have changed. I don’t even notice so much now – unless I am abroad. That would be fun to go back to Ukraine and live there for some months. I wonder if the locals would recognize me as one of their own tribe. I look like them, but I don’t talk like them, don’t think like them and don’t act like them. I’ve been defining myself as a Ukrainian living in Norway. But no, no way. How much of Ukrainian do I have in me now? It is time to redefine myself. I have become Norwegian-Ukrainian. Does it make sense? Is it possible? Well, at least, this is something I am now, so it must be possible.

Do you have experience of becoming a part of this and a part of that? How do you feel about it?

28 thoughts on “Inconvenience of Being Norwegian

  1. This was an interesting read! This is my first introduction to Norwegian culture from another foreigner. As an American, we are rarely exposed to Norwegian culture. I’m currently living in Spain and a lot of the time my Spanish boyfriend and our friends will talk about the ‘coldness and reserved nature’ of other European countries and I’m beginning to understand what you mean.
    This really hit home with me because I totally know what you mean about being a little bit of this and a little bit of that..when you leave home to live somewhere else and once you are soooo immersed in that culture it’s easy for the lines to get fuzzy. It’s like you’re one of them..but you’re not?? I feel the same way living in Spain!

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    • Thank you for stopping by and reading my post 😊 And I am so curious to hear your perspective. My man is Catalan, and living in Spain is discussed as an option. So I really wonder how I would survive there – with my now Nordic character 😂😂 Which part of Spain do you live in?
      Oh yes, we, the people a bit from here and from there, have difficulty of fitting ourselves into one identity. You, Americans, though seem to be more open and less cold 😉 and do you still notice a change in yourself too? After that Spanish life?

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      • Hey there! Ahh yes I was wondering why you didn’t move to Spain, since your man IS from here after all!? Haha!! The Spanish are overly warm and touchy so imagine! My American friends always express shock at how you’re genuinely expected to give a kiss on each cheek to EVERYONE as a greeting, even if you are meeting for the first time!
        I live in the region of Murcia. About 6 hours south of Barcelona 😉
        Don’t be deceived by bubbly Americans on TV, they tend to be on the colder side. I have slowly noticed a change..you start slipping a word or two from the local dialect, but I’ve only been here a year. I’m more interested in your point of view after having traveled and slipped into many countries and their personas. Which place has been your favorite? Any future plans to move, or are you there to stay for good?

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      • I wondered that too 😆 well, he has lived for 20 years here and me 10. We belong more here than to our home countries now. But yes, we discuss moving. It’s been a while here and I am very ready for the new experience. Though it was easier slipping in in my 20s, now I am so adult and settled 😆 but I hope for the best.
        I judge about Americans by my old missionary friends and all those I meet while traveling. They are always open and chat. But there are so many of you, so it’s not smart to set all in one box 🤔
        So far I have lived only in Germany, Austria and now Norway. My favorite year was in Austria, I was blessed to have a warm family, great church friends and the country is lovely. As au-pair, my perception was always colored by the family I stayed with. So Austrians made my stay memorable. If I had a different family I would see it differently for sure.
        And you? What is your favorite part so far?
        And yes, I would love living in Spain. I have loved everything Spanish since childhood. So ironic I am together with the Catalan 😆 they are kinda different.

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  2. Yes, I don’t think you would be a typical Ukrainian anymore if you went back after so many years away. Because you aren’t. You’ve evolved with all that you’ve experienced.
    As for the cultural observations, I read them with interest because they are so similar over here and my feelings are in many ways so similar to yours. But I recognize myself in the “lets pay half and half” as you said: if someone pays my share I feel like I owe them and have to remember to pay them back next time (or sooner). So I’d rather just pay my own. I added that book to my goodreads list 🙂
    As for your not wanting to complain, I struggle with that all the time! My blog is my happy place and when I’m forced to be positive, it actually genuinely gets me on a better mood. But sometimes this eternal winter is just too much. I finally did a snow rant a couple of posts ago… but it was long overdue, I’ve been thinking of it ever since I started blogging so I’m happy I lasted this long!!! 😀
    Great post, Marina!

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    • Thank you so much! Tusen takk! Your sincere words warm my heart.
      You know what, about negativity? Yes, it is good to keep blog as a positive thing – but if the negative keeps building up, isn’t it better to get it out there and out of the system? As long as I don’t get it out of balance. Besides, I want to be authentic, and so it is not possible to be pink and happy all the time 😆
      You know what, I am totally like that. I like to pay for my things. And god, if a friend pays for my pepsi, I remember that and search for the moment to pay it back. And she was: “whaaat? No!” But I got so Norwegian in this matter, don’t want a favor and don’t want to keep a count of things.
      And you’re totally right, I evolved and would not match a Ukrainian who has been evolving in Ukraine. It feels so strange. This illusion of coming from a place where you belong… I am not sure, I belong there any more. Still not here, but already not there 🙂 How many such “Ukrainians” are spread around the world. Ah, the times we live in 😆

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  3. Done, we discussed your article in my class and evaluated some of the cultural traits with Hofstede’s dimensions of culture. Thank you for providing the material. 🙂 We accurately picked up on high levels of compliance and uncertainty avoidance in your comments and affirmed our observations with Hofstede’s research.. Some also detected collectivism, but after looking at Norway on Hofstede’s charts, who gives a strong number for individualism for Norwegian national culture, we decided that maybe we picked up on collectivism because Norwegian culture may be more collectivistic than US American culture; however, according to Hofstede, Norwegian culture is pretty individualistic. Thanks, again, for sharing. I wanted you to know your work was being read by US college students. 🙂

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    • So interesting! I feel like waving to your students 😊 you are welcome for the material, my pleasure.
      Norway is one of the most individualistic nations, I’d say. However, it has some traits of village mentality since it has always been a small country with many farmers and few cities. So I guess, its individualism is of different kind than that of the USA which is huge, cosmopolitan and multicultural. Or what is your opinion?

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      • That makes a lot of sense. I’ve spent a total of 36 hours in Oslo; so I don’t have a lot of experience. I loved it but my wallet couldn’t wait to leave! What we discussed as a class was that the combination of high individualism, low on assertiveness, and high on uncertainty avoidance offers a recipe for a lot of polite surface level conversations with low commitment. Does that make sense?
        BTW- We have two Norwegian students at Harding, and they are some of my favorite people here!

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      • Haha, I imagine your impatient wallet! He is not alone here. Even my wallet wants to turn back when he lands in Gardemoen after Spain and wants to buy a sandwich 🙂
        I don’t know how that cocktail works together, but it is true that Norwegians are “conflict-shy” and are famous for escaping conflicts. Low commitment describes the culture of communication very well 🙂
        Norwegians are nice, no wonder you like your students 🙂 Have you thought what exactly about them makes them some of your favorites? 🙂

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      • Oh really? Hello, Eastern Europe! Though Hungary is a mystery to me, the language is not Slavic and the culture I still have to explore more. I usually feel close to the any European Slavs, but spent only 6 hours in Budapest, so no idea)) Definitely, Ukraine has a lot in common with that part of the world 🙂

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      • Yeah, there’s a big cultural gap. The language is unique for Europe. Only Finland and Estonia are related but not too close. The people we know who have lived in former Communist Europe share a lot of similar circumstantial experiences with us.

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      • That language makes me feel being in another planet. Usually I pick up easier on the foreign words and figure out the meaning – but no chance in Hungary 😆 but the Communist past brings us all together)))

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  4. Hmmm. Interesting. How do Norwegians deal with racial diversity in their society? Other cultures do have a coolness/non-huggy thing that’s probably even more formal than Norwegian culture, but in other respects there can be more dynamic self-expression. Geez, I’m try to envision Norwegian in a crowded Chinese restaurant full of primarily Chinese patrons in North America…noisy, less reserved, etc. People nearly shouting in their self-expression…

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    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment! The racial diversity is still a new concept to this country. The history of immigration is about 50 years old, and there is a tendency of segregation with “whiter” neighborhoods and those with 90% of foreigners.
      Norwegians like their peace and would not choose those restaurants maybe, if not for being exotic 😆 And here in Norway newcomers assimilate and learn to talk in quiet voice and keep a distance. I notice that if there are loud voices that must be either kids, teens or foreigners 😆😆 But foreigners adapt too.

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      • I see.

        Then it is actually “freer” for non-white immigrants in North America in terms of self-expression at least. Well, there are other problems in certain situations in North America. But at least, global cuisine it’s no longer a big deal in most North American cities. For instance, as a child in 1960’s, other kids found it exotic when I used chopsticks. Now, you go into any Asian restaurant in North America and white children are manipulating their chopsticks to enjoy food. To me, that’s a very simple measure of accepting different cuisine and practices. Neighbourhood segregation does occur in pockets, but more easily shifts. Frankly some people in North America, especially in big cities, actively choose to live in diverse neighbourhoods because they want the variety or they themselves are biracial/multi-ethnic.

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      • In my opinion, North America is a country of immigrants, so it is easier to blend in as everyone is from somewhere. Norway has its long traditions and they stick to them. So foreigners do better if then assimilate. Integration is a new concept and still not clear. Sure, in 100 years the face of Norway will be different and the immigrants will find new freedom. So far North America gives more room to self-expression. And Norway is a tiny country, only 5 million people afraid to lose their identity. It cannot be really compared to the US like a country, totally different scales 😆😆
        A bit funny, that thing with chopsticks)) our societies become more global, but in some places they are even more global 😆
        As an immigrant I would choose diverse neighborhood bc it reflects who I am. But if I were a true born local, I don’t know)) I already don’t want to live in the neighborhood with too heavy non-western population bc it doesn’t reflect me neither (to be honest).

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