I’ve now lived in Norway for just shy of two months and I’m finally getting to grips with Norwegian etiquette. I hope this mini-guide helps visitors to Norway understand these weird and wonderful people a little better and makes their interaction with them that little bit less discomfiting.
The first thing to know is that all Scandinavians, not just Norwegians, hold humility as a central virtue. “Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us” forms the basis of their compulsively egalitarian, socialist thinking, in which the collective is emphasised in preference of the individual.
1. Don't think you're anything special.
2. Don't think you're as good as us.
3. Don't think you're smarter than us.
4. Don't convince yourself that you're better than us.
5. Don't think you know more than us.
6. Don't think you are more important than us.
7. Don't think you are good at anything.
8. Don't laugh at us.
9. Don't think anyone cares about you.
10. Don't think you can teach us anything.
In short: any kind of behaviour that is seen as showy will get you nowhere.
Once you’ve grasped this basic virtue, you’re ready to move onto day-to-day interactions with Norwegians, where differences in etiquette and culture can lead to tuts, annoyed glances or more often than not, looks of sheer bewilderment. Here is my light-hearted top 10 list of what I’ve learnt so far:
1 - Time-keeping
There is one key rule, in addition to Janteloven: punctuality is everything. I’m not talking about time-keeping being important in the traditional well-understood sense that it’s always polite to be on time, but something bordering on the pathological. Although they’ll never really let you know it, being late is one of the worst things you can do to a Norwegian.
For example, if the bus is more than two minutes late on more than two occasions, write a letter of complaint. It is your right and duty to do so. I’ve nearly been knocked off my feet by all the huffing and puffing at bus stops once the bus is more than a minute past the scheduled time.
2 - Pleases and Thank you's
Although there is a Norwegian word for ‘please’ (vær så snill), no one uses it, and neither are you expected to say it with such frequency as the British are wont to do. The same goes with ‘thanks’ (takk), really. I’m accustomed to thanking people three times over, for example in the supermarket, but here it’s once, if at all.
3 - Pass on the right
Always pass people on the right-hand side of pavements and stairs. Especially if you want to avoid a two-minute Mexican stand-offs with a well-meaning but slightly scary OAPs on your way out of a supermarket.
4 - Queuing
Norwegians are unable to queue without the aid of a numbered ticketing system, which as a Brit pains me no end at bus stops and in supermarkets every day. Turn your back for a second and you’re swamped. If, like me, you politely let those who look more anxious or hurried to go ahead of you, you will quickly find yourself at the back of queue, which usually means ending up without a seat.
5 - Planes
For some inexplicable reason, Norwegians on planes spring like jack-in-the-boxes out of their seats the second the fasten seatbelt signs are turned off. (I originally wrote ‘before the light goes off’, but my wife corrected me: “that’s not true, we would NEVER break rules. We get up the second the light goes off but not before”). If, like me, you prefer to remain seated, rather than stand for fifteen minutes developing a crick in the neck, prepare to get some dismayed looks from people standing, going nowhere, fast. (Incidentally, some Norwegians seem to be fans of breaking into applause after landing, even after an uneventful flight. (I really don’t get it.)
6 - Holding doors open
Do not expect a Norwegian to hold a door open for you, even if you’re struggling up a flight of stairs with two 23 kg suitcases, and do not hold doors open for Norwegians either. I still hold doors open all the time and each time I do I’m met with a bewildered look that also says ‘what, you think I’m not capable of opening a door myself?’.
7 - Giving up your seat
On a related note, do not give up your seat on the bus to anyone other than someone who is very old and obviously physically infirm or someone who is very pregnant (and even then, that last one is risky). Norwegian old folk are a healthy and spritely bunch and it’s a serious affront if you offer them your seat; it’s an especially dangerous game to play with late middle-aged women.
8 - Being aware that Norwegians get really agitated when they're in the window seat and want to get off at the next bus stop
If you find yourself sitting in the aisle seat of a bus with someone looking to get off at the next stop, they will start emitting agitated signals of their intention to vacate the bus about five minutes in advance of the stop, in order to save themselves from resorting to saying ‘excuse me’. Such signals may include putting on mittens or other accessories, glancing longingly at the aisle, or pushing the stop button when it’s already activated. Do them and yourself a favour by just finding another vacant seat as soon as possible.
9 - Casual greetings
If you’re out jogging or skiing, do not under any circumstances greet anyone that you meet, as this will most likely result in a worried or disapproving look. By the time I understood this, I had become known as that chirpy guy terrorising the neighbourhood.
10 - Parties
Norwegians approach hosting dinner parties with a seriousness that merits a whole etiquette blog post to itself, but here are two things that have stuck out in my time here so far:
Whilst it’s customary in Britain to take a bottle of wine to a party, the form here is to take only what you think you will drink (right down to a single can of beer if you’re being good that evening) and not expect the host to supply much of the booze. Whilst understandable, because it’s rooted in the fact that booze, as is well-known, is ridiculously expensive in Norway, as someone who loves being the host with the most, I do find it a little amusing.
Learning to love tacos, and Old El Paso Mexican kits in general, is a matter of utmost etiquette importance, because you will be eating them at eight out of ten (admittedly delicious) dinner parties. I discussed this with a friend recently, and this bizarre fixation stems from the fact that unless most things in Norway, which are imported and therefore highly taxed, these kits are made in Norway and, as such, are relatively cheap.
Some of these customs are just part and parcel of adapting to a new culture and they are all meant in jest, but as someone who reflexively gives their seat up on the bus, opens doors and over-uses ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, as any Brit would, I think I’m going to have to put up with the strange looks for a little while yet.