I am approaching the one-month mark since I moved to Norway, and several things have already surfaced to me as strange, amusing, and, in some cases, downright awkward cultural differences between my home and Ben’s home. Some of these points might actually be accurate representations of Norwegian culture, whereas some might be total stereotypes, and some might be weird quirks that only I have experienced or recognized as unusual to me. Whatever they are, for posterity I thought I’d share.
1. The Norwegian Hug: This was my first encounter with Norwegian culture, and, at the time, I was totally unaware. The first time Ben gave me a hug was right after he asked me to be his girlfriend and I remember thinking “WOW, THAT WAS A WEIRD HUG.” Months later I discovered that in Norway, the appropriate way to hug is completely different than a good ol’ American squeeze, which, understandably, creates a bit of confusion, which can be especially uncomfortable during moments like “meeting the aunts and uncles” or “introductions at church.” It’s not a front-to-front, and definitely not a side hug. It’s something I like to call the “cheek press.” Both hugging parties stand facing at arms-length from one another, then wrap only the right arm around and pat the other’s left shoulder, while pressing their faces together at the cheek. No kissing, just pressing, but only at the cheek, no body hugging whatsoever. It’s strangely intimate and extremely confusing when you’re expecting a full hug. No one explained this to me before coming here, and I still get surprised by it every time. Now I have quite the track record of awkward introductions because of it. Will check back in when I learn how to master this cultural greeting.
2. First-Name Basis: Titles do not exist in Norway. Everyone is considered equal and speech reflects that equality. The King of Norway goes by “Harald.” Kids speak to their teachers on a first-name basis. This is very strange for me as a Tennesseean. I come from the birthplace of “sir” and “ma’am” and when I turned 18, my friends parents politely told me that seriously, I was allowed to stop calling them “Mr. and Mrs. So and So.” Now, Ben’s four-year old class at the preschool calls him “Benjamin.” This is very strange for me.
3. Smågodt: On Saturdays, the shops sell bulk candy (called smågodt) at a significant discount, which means that generally everyone buys candy only on Saturdays. If you go to the shop on a Saturday, you can expect to see kids and adults alike, joyfully and/or frantically filling up paper bags with scoops of chocolate hearts and sour peaches and gummy frogs and whatever else. Supposedly this is a Norwegian thing that has been going on for ages, and it’s equally bizarre and hilarious and awesome. They even sell little candy bowls that say “finally it’s Saturday again” on the inside. I don’t know if it’s supposed to encourage a moderated sugar intake or whatever, but I can definitely get with this tradition.
4. Black Coffee: The coffee here is like nothing I have ever experienced. It is thick and syrupy, black, incredibly strong, and consumed (without milk) at almost every time of day. Norwegian coffee, though delicious, gives me shockingly intense caffeine rushes… but it is consumed in such a bizarrely casual way that it leads me to believe that all Norwegians, with their viking nerves of steel, are incredibly immune! Coffee is always served, along with a tantalizing selection of homemade cakes and chocolates, when there are guests to entertain. Many times I have had a tiny little innocent-looking teacup of this powerful substance, and purposely declined many refill offers (Norwegian hospitality is off the chain), thinking I could prevent the effects of the caffeine by limiting my intake. But alas, there is something different about how people make coffee here! It is so strong that a 4oz drink will leave me with my heart beating unusually fast and my hands shaking from the jitters. I’m still not sure what to do about this.
5. Table Manners, or The Norwegian Arm: Norwegian culture is extremely considerate and everyone generally places a high value on not inconveniencing anyone else. That means at the table, it’s rude to ask people to pass things to you because you could be interrupting them mid-bite, disrupting their experience. Instead, it’s completely acceptable to just reach and grab whatever you need, even if it’s far away. The American child inside of me is always hesitant to do this, because in Tennessee, this is the utmost pinnacle of rude table manners. In Norway, however, no need to say “Can you please pass the gravy?” Just grab and pour. Speaking of gravy…
6. Gravy: This is just my personal observation, but Norwegians seem to have an obsession with gravy. Every meal has at least one accompanying sauce. Now, by itself, the concept of gravy is not too unusual for me. But before moving to Norway, I had gravy maybe two or three times a year: namely Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. And in my mind, the gravy is intended to be poured modestly on the meat and the potatoes in moderation, to complement the flavors, not drown them out. Not so in Norway. Here, the appropriate way is to completely douse your food in gravy until everything on your plate is swimming in it. If you don’t get enough, everyone will generously be offering you more and more gravy throughout the meal, to make sure you’re getting the right experience. As a generally shy gravy consumer, I am still growing comfortable with this phenomenon.
7. One Thousand Thanks: Norwegian is by far the most overtly thankful language I have ever encountered. This is especially remarkable coming from my last host culture, where I was repeatedly reprimanded for saying xie xie too much. My Chinese friends always got offended when I thanked them. In contrast, Norwegians say ‘tusen takk,’ for everything. Tusen takk literally translates to “one thousand thanks” which sounds a little excessive but it’s really just an indication of just how thankful Norwegians are. At the end of a meal, you always say “Takk for mat” (Thanks for the food). When you see a friend you haven’t seen in a while, you say “Takk for sist” (Thanks for last time). When you work with someone and you finish for the day, you say “Takk for i dag” (Thanks for the day). When you leave someone’s house, you say “Takk for oss” (Thanks for us, which sounds egotistical but it’s better translated as thanks for having us). When you die, they finish things off for you by writing “Takk for alt” (Thanks for everything) on your tombstone, so as a good Norwegian, you can be thankful forevermore.
These are my observations for now.. Suffice it to say, I really love Norway and its cultural quirks, and I am finding that there are quite a few differences to living in a culture as a spouse of a local, in contrast to living as an expat/student/outsider. Many more posts to come.