Tuesday, 26 April 2011

₪ The Demystification of the Norwegian Stereotypes, and the Pleasure of Cursing.

Many would say that there are always similarities between neighbouring countries -and this is true, at least most of it- but when it comes to Norway and its people, then we can really tell that it is a genuinely unique country in every aspect. One of the things that I find most interesting is that Norwegians are amazingly similar to each other when it comes to character, culture, and etiquette; like if they were genetically programmed during pregnancy. Starting a conversation with a Norwegian is definitely going to trigger three questions from their behalf. 
First, they shall ask you with a friendly curiosity and with a tone that indicates actual interest: "How long have you been in Norway?". 
Then, their whole body language and facial expression changes into a combination of scepticism and a small hint of self-deprecation, they'll pierce your soul with the most solid eye contact you have ever experienced, and shoot: "Why did you came to Norway?". 
Finally, with a conclusive stance, they'll ask: "Well, how (good) do you do here?".  
Be extremely careful with the above dialogue, for it shall happen to you for sure, and yes; it's a trap. This is the point that you will make a friend or an enemy forever. 

It's been almost a decade since I first moved to Norway, and that would be about a fourth of my life thus far; yet, I really struggle to understand how to interact with them adequately, and fully fit in their society. And I am not the only one; very few outlanders have actually made it there. 

For most northwestern Europeans the challenge is a big one, and as a Greek, the struggle is even greater; our cultures are so different, that a person with difficulties in adapting to a new environment has literally zero chances in a successful cultural amalgamation. The first time that I noticed that cultural gap, was many years ago when some lads invited me to a garden party. Hellenic hospitality had taught me never to go somewhere with empty hands, and in the same spirit I did the calculus; a case of cold beers and three frozen Cuervos should do fine for fifteen people, and when I arrived everyone was looking at me like if I was an alien. Awkwardness was in the air and eventually someone asked me straight out if I was an alcoholic. Soon I understood that when invited in Norway, you bring the food and drinks that you will be having during the party.

Social interaction in Norway is so weird for a foreigner that for the first months you'll be asking yourself what did you do wrong. In Greece for example, when some companies of friends or acquaintances go out to have some drinks, they will eventually merge with neighbouring companies from other tables. They will all meet, talk, drink and dance with each other. In Norway, on the other hand; if a couple of friends go out for a coffee and happens one of them to fall upon a good friend of his in another company, they shall just say the basics and sit separately.
For Norwegians, it is perfectly normal to go out, sit in a big company and after the typical introductions, to completely ignore everyone they just met and keep chatting with the one person they knew when they came. In addition to that, they seem to have a kind of unspoken rule about alcohol and anything that happened during its effect. In a matter of fact; nothing happened. That's right. If Ole Petter took off his pants and underwear during the Christmass party and jumped into the pool while screaming "fuck you all", is not to be mentioned next Monday. Likewise, did a night-game amongst friends ended up with enough material for the best porn production of the year? It never happened. The weekend in Norway is a parallel dimension of your other self; from Monday to Friday, Norwegians follow a socially strict persona. Work, family, and other aspects of Norwegian life are exemplary on how to be a dedicated parent or employee, and when the weekend comes, the same person is his eighteen years old self that was drinking mazut in Ibiza.
Seriously; drinking twenty beers and ten shots of Jägermeister at Saturday night is totally fine, but a glass of wine with your food during workweek makes you an alcoholic.

The weirdest social feature of all is casual greetings. If for any reason a Norwegian runs into a friend or colleague, they will do anything withing their power to pretend they never saw each other. Never, ever, ever, make eye contact with a fellow in the supermarket, and for the love of God; don't even think to address them. A question like "how are you" in Norway is not a I just saw you, so I am being polite by smiling to you and this is how I say hi. Such a question will be taken seriously and you'll put both of you in the very awkward situation of having to listen to Ole Petter explaining that he is going through a divorce, that his father has cancer, and that just he lost his job.

Moving to the well-known stereotype about their politeness and rudeness, Norwegians are treated unfairly on the matter. Yes, they very seldomly say "excuse me", "I am sorry", "please" and "thank you", and they don't hold on doors indeed, neither do they apply moral politeness like giving their turn in the line or their seat to an elder person. They shan't remove their hats when in a restaurant, nor they shall stand up to greet someone properly either, and from this point of view, all this is very impolite indeed. Personally, I've seen worse. My hometown in Greece could undoubtedly be used as a grand theme park for Neandertals; it's a miracle that Arcadians can actually stand in two and pronounce sounds from their mouth's cavity.

The reason Norwegians are misunderstood and considered rude is, in my opinion, a combination of a higher sense of sensibility and awkwardness. Only some hours ago, a thirty-something years old woman walked straight to my bar, while holding an empty glass. When she arrived, she held the glass pretty close to my face, and said: "(I) must have water", took the new glass and left. Of course, I got very bothered; surely she could have said something better than that, but here is that sense of sensibility that I mentioned before, that takes place.
The common Norwegian doesn't think "how should I act within a society and politely ask for water", but their logic is very simple and reasonable: "I am here, in a restaurant, therefore; you (the bartender) should assume the obvious, I am here to eat or drink or both. The fact that I leave my table to come to your bar means I want something, and I hold an empty water glass, ergo; I want more water". Here the awkwardness comes into the game as well; Norwegians are awkward on their individual routines and interactions; one shall have a working persona within which he behaves in a standard way, most characteristically the one at his work. Then there is another persona within his family circle, and another in social micro-interactions like shopping in the food store etc. But if someone stops a Norwegian while he walks and asks him something, it becomes apparent they get unsettled and stressed, and this is very clear on the way they'll speak; the way he'll talk as a personality, is nothing to any of the personalities that this person applies with his circles, and this awkwardness is the catalyst factor for not saying a word more than the necessary on their interactions, thus getting framed as rude.

Norwegians are far from rude. Not being what the mainstream world defines as polite, does not mean that they are impolite. They are a people with tremendous respect to any other's religious beliefs, political ideas, and opinions; they pay great attention not to do or say anything that offends or insults another person and always mind not to intrude the personal space of others. They have an amazing sense of tact and truly care what happens to humans around the globe. If anything happens to someone and that person needs help, they will rally altogether, and take action to help. They are peaceful and know no harm. They always keep calm, handle situations with composure, they don't shout, they are not violent, they don't break the law in any way, and how they treat the environment should be taught to all schools all around the world.

They don't necessarily need material luxuries to have a good time; a Norwegian is more than happy to go to his cabin, take his skies and go all the way up to the mountain and sit there to have a cocoa from his thermos is his backpack while he enjoys the view in silence. They are happy when they come home from work, and lit five trillion candles just to have a cozy atmosphere where they just sit and read a book or even knit. And in all this, everyone is welcome; they shall share their home, food and drink with you.
Norwegians are genuinely happy as human beings just by becoming one with their nature, and a person with this level and sense of freedom, kindness, and minimal materialism can not be impolite, rather the opposite and an illustrious example of how life should be taken, and how to treat fellow humans within a society.