Some time ago I heard this little story: An Italian, a French and a Norwegian are asked to study the elephant. The theme is free but it needs to be about the elephant. So the Italian decides to study the eating habits of the elephant. The French choses to study the lovelife of the elephant, and the Norwegian decides to study what the elephant thinks of Norwegians.
Everyone laughed, but when I heard this little Norwegian story I did not know why this was supposed to be funny. Then after some time I realised that although every national probably likes to hear about themselves, Norwegians are in a different league.
Because let’s face it, more than any other people Norwegians have a hunger for any kind of opinion others might have about their culture, their customs, their food, their history and so on. And the more positive the better.
Other people are the same you might think. Well…as a French, if someone tells me for the millionth time “I LOOOOOVVEEE Paris”; I smile, say thanks, politely ask what they’ve seen and what they’ve liked and I move on to another topic. Norwegians on the other hand never seem to have enough of listening to foreigners telling them about how much they love Norway, its fjords, its salmon, its great gender equal and peaceful society and so on. And if you don’t just talk about it but also adopt it, they will get out of their shell and become talkative and friendly: wear a Marius sweatshirt, learn a few words in some remote dialect, go around bars on a friday evening with your skiis on your shoulder etc. and just see the reaction around you. How many times have I seen Norwegians smile and nod in satisfaction when I tell them stories of that time I lived in a hytte with a Norwegian family and couldn’t understand how such a rich nation could willingly take a holiday in a wooden hut without hot water. As a friend truly said, Norwegians can’t brag too much about their great their culture and their fantastic country because of the limitations of Janteloven. But aren’t they glad when others do it for them!
But then again, it’s tricky, because Norwegians want others to love specific things about their culture: hyttelivet, friluftsliv, koselig. I wonder what people would think if I start saying “I looovvee Norway, especially this habit people have of tanning in salons. Because I just love being orange and feeling like everyone else does to” or answering that my favorite Norwegian food is not salmon aarrhhgg how horribly healthy. No my favorite Norwegian food is Grandiosa Pizza. Such a great Norwegian culinary invention. And that my favorite “newspaper” is Se og Hør because Aftenposten is SOoooo boring with all these complicated articles… What if foreigners start loving Norwegian culture’s trashy side more? Would Norwegians still be happy about that?
What about opinions about Norwegians being completely negative, such as Norwegians being cold, racist, selfish, arrogant etc.? Strangely enough Norwegians are also interested in hearing about this kind of opinion.
The Norwegian media grabs anything, positive or negative, written abroad about Norwegians to publish it. Whatever it is, whoever wrote it. Some Mexican teenager moving to Narvik (out of all places) says that Norwegians are as cold as ice, Aftenposten makes the headlines “My meeting with the cold Norwegians”. Some other American chick says that Norwegians are “superior and rude” and bad at small talk (breaking news) and that also makes the headlines of NRK and Bergens Tidende. A Swedish guy writes that Norwegians are racists, selfish and that nothing good ever came out of their country and instead of laughing at so much obvious provocation and call for attention, Norwegians start a huge debate about racism in Norway, how Swedes see Norwegians and so have you.
And this goes for any book, article, blogpost, where virtually anyone in this world having an opinion about Norwegian people and Norwegian culture is potentially interesting to hear.
Like any other people you might say. Well, not really. Again taking the example of people I know best, the French (sorry that’s the closest and most accurate model I have): there are numerous books and articles written about French people being the rudest people in the world, oh also the best lovers, the best at raising their kids, and of course the worst tourists in the world.
The difference is that French people don’t give a damn what others think of them. That the Britts think French food is crap, the Americans think Paris is a country and Australians think we are communists. May they be praising the French model, may they be spitting on it, French people hardly read any of this and when they do it doesn’t affect anyone, neither in the media nor even in any kind of debate in society.
All in all don’t know why French people don’t care, but one thing is for sure, Norwegians do care. But why? I see three potential reasons.
1) Are Norwegians arrogant and overly proud of their country?
Naaaa although Norwegians are usually pretty sure Norway is the best place on Earth to live and they are quite pleased you figured it out as well, they can’t be as arrogant as the French who actually ranked themselves as the most arrogant people in Europe (!! you must admit that takes some guts…or pure arrogance). Some might say what some see as Norwegian arrogance is just self-irony in hiding: trying to find anything, anyone, even abroad that reminds yourself of Norway to laugh about it. But then again, I’m not mastering Norwegian humour that well yet.
That said, Norwegians do tend to be very proud of their own country but not more than any other nation I would say. Except in the Winter OL, but that’s another story.
2) Norwegians are not confident enough that their country is big enough and their culture strong and influential enough on an international level for the world to be interested in it and having an opinion about Norway.
On this issue, I just think that I just think Norwegians love their country (then again who doesn’t) and what they love even more is to be reminded by others that their culture and country are worth having an opinion about. That their language, although spoken by the equivalent of one suburb in an Asia capital city, is worth learning (just watch their satisfaction when foreigners manage to make a few Norwegian sounds and create a sentence or two). That their country, one of the most beautiful in the world, is worth visiting despite prohibitive cost of life for tourism. Again, nothing dramatic about that.
3) Norwegians still remember when they were a nation of poor fishermen sometimes having to leave their homeland to survive. At that for centuries, Norway was not really an independent nation but just an annex of either Denmark or Sweden. Norwegians might try to remind themselves what makes them distinct from the other Scandinavian countries (weren’t they all Vikings at some point?).
If this is the reason, I wonder how many generations it will take for Norwegians to realize they are not the little brother of any other nation anymore.
When I talk to older generations I feel like the history of Norway pre-oil is still present in their veins but when I talk to younger generations I feel like that might have been washed away with all the wealth that came their way in the meantime. Young Norwegians seem to be a little less humble and a little less “Janteloven”-friendly than their elders. But then again, only my humble opinion, not saying it is an absolute thruth.
To conclude, I sometimes wonder what really defines Norwegian culture. I sometimes hear that Norway had to remember and sometimes even reshape its own culture after the independance. Just like they redefined Norwegian languages in opposition to Danish. Would this mean parts of “typical” Norwegian customs are actually recent or revived recently?
This is, however, a topic for a later post. Something along the lines of “What is Norwegian culture, egentlig?”. God dag to all of you!