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…
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!