English etiquette: a no-no in Norway

With hands up, eyes cast down and cheeks blushing I need to apologise for being a bad blogger. I’ve been living in Oslo for three months now and have only posted twice but I pledge to you that from now on I’ll be blogging every Tuesday.

I’m kicking this pattern off with an ironic post: bad manners. Every country has its cultural stereotype and for Norway, it’s that the manners are as cold as the climate. For England it’s that we’re tea-drinking snobs or chavs, depending on if you live in the South or North, who never visit a dentist.

If you’re expecting me to say that these generalisations are completely wrong, then I’m sorry. Wow, it feels refreshing to say that. If I say it in Oslo, the average Norwegian will laugh and look/run away. Here’s the thing – stereotypes exist for a reason. They form and take shape when you come across a new culture and don’t take the time to understand the quirks that make it different.

I admit that when I first visited Norway I took offence at every corner. I scoffed when people didn’t hold the door open and I embarrassed every person I barely brushed with my elbow by apologising profusely. My tailored sense of what it means to be polite is buried in me; most of us act according to what’s socially acceptable in our surroundings and, given enough time, the behaviour become ingrained values. But the more I socialise here in Norway, the more I’m learning that what I find to be rude manners is generally a misunderstanding on my part. I’d like to share the top five lessons with you…

My best Grumpy Cat impersonation: how shopping in Norway makes me feel.

My best Grumpy Cat impersonation: how shopping in Norway makes me feel.

1) Save the apology for when it matters. Here’s a typical scene of when I hit the shops: I bump into someone, I apologise, their mouth drops open before they giggle and scuttle off in the opposite direction. It seems that the polite thing to do is to dip your head, pretend it didn’t happen and only say sorry (‘beklager’ in Norwegian) if you’ve sent them sprawling on the floor.

2) Don’t use fake flattery. If a British friend asks you “Does my bum look big in this?”, the answer is always a flat-out “No.” Always, without hesitation. Don’t expect the same reaction in Norway because they’ll tell you exactly how that dress looks on you, warts and all. Niceties can make a friend in my motherland but it takes more time and effort to forge a friendship here – something I both struggle with and appreciate.

3) Extend a helping hand only when it’s convenient. Whilst holding the door open for someone in England is the normal thing to do, in Norway you could be making that person feel like they have to rush so you’re not standing there waiting. It’s counterproductive. On this note, only offer to help when you mean it, which leads onto my next lesson learnt…

4) Say it how you mean it. Norwegians are blunt. I love it. They don’t invite you over for tea if they don’t actually want you to (yes, I’m talking about you, England), they don’t pretend to think you’re awesome just to make things smoother and they’ll definitely tell you if they don’t agree with you. Maybe I’ve been lucky but so far this has always been done in a civil way and it makes life a lot easier.

5) Don’t complain about the country. Sadly, my first experience of Norwegians was those at my University back in the Cornwall who would complain about how boring/ugly/insert-ungrateful-comment-here they found the place to be. Even sadder is that I hear people doing it on the bus in Oslo. Everyone understands English here, you idiot, and they’re all wondering why you’re bothering to stick around, so it would be a good idea to stop your whining and start appreciating all the wonderful new things you’re experiencing.

These are just five of the many little nuances I’m discovering every day when I’m not sat at home in my pyjamas. It’s natural to at first feel affronted when you experiencing a culture different to your own. But if you’re not challenging why you’re feeling like that then it’s about time you got off your high horse and realise that if you carry on taking offense to people’s manners, just because you’re not used to it, you’ll end up being the one who’s rude.

I still get a slight jolt when someone barges into me on the street and I do think Norway could benefit from learning how to queue, but my overall attitude towards what makes a person polite is going through a transformation. Friendships with people here are somewhat lukewarm at the beginning but so much more genuine than the “I love your dress, let’s be bestfriends” tactic from home. Although I miss the smiling, ever-so-friendly approach of strangers in England, it is refreshing to know where I stand with people here in Norway – and that if I don’t know, they’ll tell me.

I’m hoping to keep on learning about the quirks of Norwegian social culture and to balance my findings with the features I love of English socialising. I can only understand it all from an English perspective, however, and would love to hear from Norwegians what typical expat slip-ups I should avoid…please share your thoughts below!

8 comments

  1. eeeple says:

    I hope it would’ve been longer, but it was an entertaining read !
    I remember my first trip to Tromso visiting a friend. First hing I was told is to never apologize and never take offense. Hard to get used to, isn’t it ?!

    • tiffanynaylor says:

      Hi,

      Thanks for your comment! There’s probably an endless list of differences between Norwegian and English manners but I wanted to make this more of a crash course…maybe I’ll do a part two at some point!

      It is hard to get used to but also fun (and healthy) to challenge the views that I’ve grown up with. Tromsø is somewhere I really hope to visit next year, I’ve heard it’s a beautiful city!

  2. David W says:

    Great read! I’m thinking of going to Trondheim for business school from Canada. How quick are you picking up the norwegian language?

    • tiffanynaylor says:

      Thanks!

      I have a couple of friends studying in Trondheim and they seem to love the place – another one on the ‘to visit’ list! I’ve heard moustaches are required…

      I’ve gone from being only able to say ‘hello, my name is Tiffany’ to a conversational level since July. Have you learnt some norwegian? It’s pretty easy to get by with just english here, and very tempting, but I recommend pushing yourself to say something new every day and you’ll find you’ll pick it up quickly – and the norwegians will be very happy that you try!

      • David W says:

        Yes actually i’ve been learning for a few months now and can understand alot of what i read and hear in norwegian, but listening to different dialects makes it a bit tricky

  3. Tor says:

    “Don’t complain about the country”
    Is there anywhere where this isn’t true?
    I’ve never been anywhere where people want to hear about “Where I come from we do X and Y so much better!”. Typically the response to such a thing is “So why don’t you go back?”
    I think there is a big difference between how complaining about the country is received, depending on whether it’s a native or a foreigner, everywhere.

  4. Your experiences, reactions and interpretations of Norwegian culture and ettiquette seem pretty spot on. I’ve been trying hard to explain how we’re not actually trying to be rude to foreigners – abroad or not, but it’s been quite a challenge :)

    Nice read, it’s interesting hearing a foreigner talk about our behavior.

    Hope you enjoy your stay here, have a nice evening.

    Martin

  5. Carl says:

    Oslo is also the bumhole of Norway. I’ve also had issues with etiquette out in the east; however, the west (Bergen – where I come from) is much more polite, and up north where I attend school (folkehøgskole) people are amazingly kind and well-mannered.

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