Summer in southern norway/ j russell mikkelsen

What’s Weird About Norway

A touchy-feely guy’s view of a touchless, feel-less nation

Norwegians are weird. I say this out of affection. I’m half Norwegian. I’ve lived in Norway for years at a time, and I’ve visited many, many times before. My most recent visit was brief. It was June. It was cold. It was expensive. And I didn’t get any major stories out of it. But it did remind me of all the bizarre habits and peculiarities of the Norwegian people.

Being Norwegian Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

I speak fluent Norwegian. You can learn a lot about a people just by learning their language. For example, in Norwegian:

  • “Hey you” is a common and acceptable way to refer to anyone at any time. A stranger, friend, lover—maybe not your boss. Even then, if you said it in the right tone, you could get away with it.
  • There is no word for sorry. There’s “excuse me” and “I feel bad for you.” No sorry. Nothing you can say in Norwegian that implies both guilt and regret simultaneously. Consequently, Norwegians rarely feel either one.
  • Note: After earlier versions of this post first appeared, some readers argued that the Norwegian word “Beklager” is a significant display of remorse. But this is the word for apology. I don’t care if it’s used to mean “I’m sorry,” it’s used rarely and I refuse to accept that hanging your head and saying “Apology” is a sign of actual remorse.
  • There are only two terms of endearment in Norwegian, and one of them is “dear.” The other is “my friend,” which is even worse, because you don’t even use it for friends. You use “my friend” with your kids. Call your own child “my friend” in Norway and you’ve just expressed over-the-top affection for them. Call an actual friend “my friend,” and they’ll think you’ve got a brain tumor.
  • Saying good-bye on the phone is not like saying good-bye in any other situation. I experienced countless awkward phone good-byes before I figured this out. Since I wasn’t saying the proper good-bye, they would think I had more to say. This sort of thing happened a lot:

THEM: Yeah, bye. Bye.

ME: K, bye.

THEM: Yeah?

ME: What?

THEM: Yes?

ME: Wha—? Okay.

THEM: K, bye then. Bye.

ME: Yeah, see ya.

THEM: Yeah?

ME: Yeah. … Yeah, good-bye.

THEM: Right. Bye.

ME: [listening for them to hang up, wondering if this conversation is over]

THEM: [probably doing the same, until they gave up on me and—in their minds—hung up on me mid-conversation]

See what I did wrong? No? Welcome to Norway, where we make shit for sense. What I did was fail to say good-bye in the correct tone. That’s right. There is a specific tone for how you say bye on the phone in Norway. And it signals the end of the conversation. Until you hear that tone, you can say bye fifty billion times in fifty billion ways, but everyone knows you have more you need to say. It sounds like this: Good-byyyyyyyyyye, where the “good” is short and swallowed and the byyyyyyye is as drawled-out a sound as you can make while still saying the word “bye.” In actual Norwegian: hadeeeeeeet. The closer you can get to sounding as if you are the victim of a major head injury, the more assured your talking partner will be that the conversation is over.

Stick with the Fish Balls and “Shit Cakes”

  • Norwegian food’s bad. You’d think a fifteen-hundred-year old culture would have learned how to make decent meal. They haven’t.
  • They have learned how to charge a hundred bucks for it though.
  • Notable exceptions to the food-sucking rule: fish balls and meat cakes. Apparently, if a food is going to taste good in Norway, it better have a name that convinces you that under no circumstances should you put this thing in your mouth. Note that the Norwegian word for meat cakes is pronounced shit-kawker. Kawker means cakes, so naturally “shit cakes” are delicious. Eat ‘em up. Everything else is crap.

Holding Hands and Other Drastic Displays of Affection

Knowing all this about the language and the food, can you guess what Norwegian people are like?

  • If you bump into a stranger accidentally, the polite thing to do is ignore the other person and carry on with your life.
  • If you get bumped into, the polite thing to do is pretend it didn’t happen and get on with your life.
  • There is no such thing as personal space, if it is the same space someone else needs to get past you for any reason.
  • Occupying someone else’s personal space, on the other hand, is a mortal sin. In all places. At all times. Including on public transport, or a rock concert.
  • When at any concert, from hard rock to classical:

Physical contact with other humans should be avoided at all costs.

Dancing is strictly prohibited if it cannot adhere to the no contact rule. Nodding your head a little is okay.

Raucous applause is acceptable for the first three seconds after a song. After three seconds have passed, the audience must either fall silent or clap and chant “hey” in unison until a new song begins or everyone goes home.

When you leave, you and your friends must all agree that this was the best concert you’ve ever been to.

  • Showing emotion is against social norms. This is true no matter what sex you are.
  • When meeting someone for the first time, state your name and then ignore them for a few days. Showing interest upon meeting someone new is looked down upon and makes you seem untrustworthy.
  • My American friend once commented how sad it was to see a Norwegian friend of ours with her new Norwegian husband. She thought he seemed cold and indifferent to her. “Wish she could be with someone who loves her,” my friend said. My reaction was the opposite: “Are you kidding? At one point, he took and held her hand right in front of us!” I had been taken aback by his brazen display of affection.

We Call It Sports, They Call It Life

  • Insult a Norwegian and they’ll brush it off. Insult a drunk Norwegian and they’ll throw their arm around your shoulder and sing you songs until sunrise. Insult a Norwegian’s soccer team and may God have mercy on your soul.
  • Norwegians consider themselves to be the greatest in the world at any sport they participate in. There is always an enormous letdown whenever they fail to qualify for global sporting events, which is frequently. Yet there are insane amounts of unmitigated celebration whenever they win anything, because they know how uncommon it is. And the celebrations always include a lot of “See? I told you we were the best! Didn’t I say that? I knew it all along.”

J Russell Mikkelsen is editor/curator of Estimated Time of Arrival and created the traveling podcost and storytelling show Yeah, Let’s Go There:

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