Forget the stereotypical image of a cool Scandinavian: visitors to Norway can be assured of a warm and friendly welcome.
Some say that Norwegians can be cool almost to the point of rudeness when you first meet them. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, wants to set that stereotype straight.
“Norwegians have a general reputation for being slightly aloof and difficult to approach. While there may be some truth to this, due to late urbanization and the persistence of rural values, one cannot generalize.”
It’s equally true to say that once you’ve overcome that initial distance and a Norwegian has got to know you, their warmth and hospitality are unmistakable.
The Norwegian character is complex and sometimes contradictory. Norwegians may be slow in offering their opinions, but when they do their views are forthright. They pride themselves on their internationalism (rather than nationalism), yet can be incredibly inward-looking.
They have strong cultural and economic links with the rest of Europe but stubbornly insist on staying outside the European Union. And the enthusiasm of so many Norwegians to participate in commercial whaling often seems to have less to do with its value as an industry, and more to do with a hatred of being told what to do by the international community.
The rugged landscapes, which centuries ago created Norway’s geographical isolation, have taught Norwegians to be fiercely independent and self-reliant. This independence was reinforced by the discovery of oil in the 1960s. A strong stable economy and comprehensive social security system have created a comfortable standard of living and cohesive society, where people feel protected if things go wrong.
Norwegians have been known to grumble about bad roads and expensive gasoline, but they feel quite secure in their country, where democratic values are upheld and there is little, if any, corruption.
Historically, Norway is one of the oldest nations in Europe, if not the oldest. Its people can trace an unbroken line of descent from those who inhabited the area in prehistoric times. During the Viking era, Norway controlled an enormous territory from Russia to the British Isles, and the common European tongue was Old Norse. Yet today, Norway was reconstituted as late as 1905 when the union with Sweden was finally dissolved. The dominance of Old Norse may have gone, but today’s Norwegians have regained their pride.
Norwegian women have fought for equality for over a century – and appear to be winning. Women are particularly well represented in the political sphere, making up 40 percent of MPs and exactly half of the cabinet.
World War II, and the Nazi occupation, was a massive shock to the Norwegian psyche. There’s still a deep-felt anger against the supposedly neutral Swedes for permitting the transit of German troops into Norway.
After the war, the Norwegians realized with some reluctance that strategically they had no choice but to seek the protection of others. So they signed up to NATO, not least as protection against Russia, another unreliable neighbor in the north.
But they turned their backs on the European Union. The importance of fishing and farming and the security of the oil revenues meant that economically they preferred to go it alone.
It’s too easy, however, to equate this self-reliance with xenophobia. Norwegians don’t fear or dislike foreigners, although like their Scandic neighbors, they have experienced an influx of immigrants in recent years. Unfortunately this have given fuel to far-right politicians eager to exploit people’s fear of an invading “otherness”, but in spite of immigration concerns and far-right rhetoric, Norway is one of the most stable of European countries.
Even the 2008 economic crisis had minimal effect thanks to the country’s oil wealth, held for the benefit of the whole nation in a sovereign wealth fund (SWF). The DWF now exceed 3 trillion kroner, but the fall in oil prices has put a hold on new oil and gas exploration in the Arctic region, and Norway has now entered a phase of a changing workforce mindset.
Hospitality is second nature to a Norwegian, whether he or she lives in Oslo or on the remotest corner of Finnmark. If you’re planning to visit people at home, be prepared – there’s a lot of coffee to be drink and cake to be eaten. Schnapps is also something that gets poured generously. The food will be plentiful and wholesome; your host will expect nothing in return except some appreciative comments about the welcome and any traditional dishes being served.
Thanks to all that oil, and a very generous social security system, there is relatively little poverty in Norway. But nor are they at all ostentatious about their wealth and, especially in rural areas, life can still be very simple.
The more enigmatic aspects of the Norwegian character – including the Nordic gloom that can descend after a drink too many – have been famously scrutinized by Henrik Ibsen. He was brought up in small communities and, during a long exile, turned his critical eye on the experience. One of the themes running through Ibsen’s work is the double-edged nature of life in such a community: mutual support in adversity weighed against a suffocating lack of privacy at other times.
The lesser-known, Danish/Norwegian Aksel Sandemose wrote “Ten Commandments for Village Life” in a fictional novel about a town called Jante, the essence being humility bordering on self-abasement. They included: “You must not think that you are worth anything; you must not think that you are better than anyone else; you must not think yourself capable of anything worthwhile; and you must not think that you are in any way exceptional.” Scandinavians today are still guided by this fictional Jante Law (janteloven).
Land of many dialects
Norway’s rural nature has compounded one of its thorniest problems – language. The issue has split the country for over a century. Throwing off the Danish-dominated bokmål (book language) was crucial to the independence activists of the 19th century. Unfortunately there was no Norwegian alternative on offer, just a variety of often very divergent dialects.
Various attempts were made to bring these together into a truly national language knowns as nynorsk (new Norwegian), but these were never more than a partial success, and even now there are huge regional variations in the spoken tongue.
Most Norwegians speak English extremely well and are more than happy to do so. They realized it was taking national pride too far to deny the pre-eminence of English. Indeed, many an urbanite will claim it’s much easier to understand a foreigner speaking English than one of their compatriots speaking a regional dialect.
Norway’s geography and its sparse population (less than 5 million people) have entrenched cultural and economic fragmentation too. Rural lives depended on agriculture, and the land was roo poor to support more than a family or two in a single valley. Separated from their neighbors by mountains, which were easier to cross in winter on skis than in summer on foot, they effectively lived in worlds apart. Families managed on their own, a resourcefulness which still runs in the blood.
Whether it’s the outdoor life or all the fish in the diet, Norwegians enjoy amazing longevity. They manage to look remarkably healthy all their lives, and the octogenarian grandmother whizzing by on skis is not entirely a myth.
The Swedish king who reluctantly oversaw Norway’s independence predicted that bureaucratic incompetence would soon have Norwegians begging to return to the fold. That, of course, never happened, and modern Norway is a strong, successful socialist state.
In February 2008, the remote Spitsbergen Global Seed Bank officially opened. Built to be war- and disaster-proof, it acts as a living library of all known varieties of the world’s crops.
The Cool Norwegians, written by Tor Kjolberg