The Endless Norwegian Search for Perfection and Conformity

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

Original illustration by Tori Lind Kjellstad. All rights reserved, more at 

A few weeks ago, as the darkest of the winter was creeping in, I decided to start indoor group training in my gym (one of the ways to survive winter depression). I would rather run outside in the forest, where no silly music invades my personal space, alongside people looking at themselves in the mirror while tensing their muscles. Pytt, pytt.

I signed up for a basic “step” class. In my training gear from 5 years ago which I have not changed because the pants don’t have holes in them yet, I looked around. There were only girls, between 20 and 35 years old. They were all thin, perfectly dolled up with make up on their faces and new flashy sports gear with colours that give me a headache. I never really understood why one would wear make up to the gym.

I sweat for an hour in there, in front of another blond and perfectly manicured instructor with a happy tone to everything she says “The most important thing is to move and sweat, it does not matter if you cannot follow me”.

One hour of sweating and being late on every move all the other girls seem to have learned at birth, I go to the garderobe and meet the same girls, naked this time. Perfect body lines and shaved private parts. Perfect tan despite the dark November month. I don’t know what is more tiring: one hour of training, or having to look at these perfect girls, fighting myself not to conform to whichever norms of perfection they are trying to reach. Because I know that the time and energy I will have to use to reach it will not be worth the satisfaction of getting there. I’d rather use that time to read comic books and cook dinner for my friends.

Why does everyone want to be perfect in Norway?

Since I moved to Norway some mysteries about Norwegians have remained: why does everybody want to be perfect? And why is everyone’s definition of perfect the same? There are of course norms of perfection everywhere in the world, also in France. But they are just different than the Norwegian norms, and more diverse. France is a big country, and some communities have certain norms, clothing and expected attitudes, while others have other codes. If you are in Neuilly your choice of jewelery will be grey pearls and head band while in the Vercors in a hippy farmer community it might be dreadlocks and hand made clay necklace. In Norway there seems to be one norm only, promoted by television and media but also regular people through peer pressure.

It does not stop at bodies, the search for perfection and conformity is everywhere in Norway: in peoples’ homes, where Stockholm carpets, white walls, and the same vase and candle holders can usually be seen. I have heard many comments, mostly negative, from Norwegians entering my home: You do realise you’re going to have to sell this flat someday?

Facebook and Instagram threads, where everybody’s goal seems to be to find a partner, make babies, recover a flat stomach, enjoy one’s parental leave until the last day, buy a house and spend one’s holidays in some cabin or in Syden. Children need to be healthy (obviously) but also sporty, clever, humble, managing everything at once and being cool about it. Exactly what adults try to do in this country.

God forbid one paints a living room wall with pink and yellow stripes, takes a cycling holiday with one’s kids in Mongolia, does not want to have children at all, thinks that a few extra kilos can also be beautiful and sexy, or complains about one kids who are just a pain in the ass. Don’t even get me started on skiing in the winter, which is an activity one must be interested in in this country.

Call me cynical, I believe that if your life was so perfect you would not feel the need to scream it to the world.  I understood after many years in Norwegian society that many people don’t like skiing, don’t care if their kids are dirty or don’t become the best at everything. They just move to a neighbourhood where the bar for perfection is lower and don’t say what they really think too loud. Some people do not conform with the norm, and keep it to themselves.

But conforming to the norm of perfection is hard work. And what I find problematic is when social pressure makes those who work hard to conform to the norm of perfection look down on those who don’t care. Or don’t manage.

Janteloven: a bad excuse

“Yes but it is because of Janteloven, we all have to be the same” is what Norwegians repeat like a mantra. It is not true, that is not what Janteloven is, at least not how Sandemose described it in his book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. In this book, Janteloven is a tool for oppression, not a means to liberate people and ensure equality. This is quite obvious when he for example describes the story when his father’s boss gives his family 10 kroner of “gift card” in his shop. Sandemose’s mother buys for 8 kroners (a lot of money at that time) to show they are not greedy, and the boss eventually tells them “You now owe me this money, it will be taken from your salary every month”. The family has to almost starve themselves during months to pay the money back.

“Don’t think you are better than me” says the upper class to the lower class. “Don’t think you can become part of my world” is what the boss of the factory is saying. “Don’t believe you make the rules, I do”. Where is equality here? Somehow the Norwegian lower class was gullible enough not only to accept this without revolting themselves, but also to continue imposing this norm to each other long after worker rights were earned in Norwegian society.

With the discovery of the oil, the Norwegian society entirely got richer, and now the search for perfection and conformity has reached new highs of absurdity. Not only people in Norwegian society continues to oppress their peers in case they don’t do exactly as they are supposed to, but the threshold for “the norm” has also changed. Everybody needs to be rich and happy. You live in the richest and most equal country in the world, so achieve something! Those who don’t manage, either because they get stressed on the way (sometimes since childhood), or like me refuse to use the time to reach these goals, can be judged by others. “Who cares about what others think?” you may ask. In Norway what other people think is extremely important. They are afraid of being ostracised. For us foreigners it’s less of a problem, as we are outside society anyway. As a Swedish radio journalist (Yes, Madeleine, you!) once told me “I was ostracised for 5 years in the village where I lived in Toten without even noticing it”.

Many Norwegians are so proud that there is less class division in Norway than in other European countries such as Great Britain and France. But I think Norwegians traded class oppression for an other form of oppression : a collective norm for perfection that they pressure each other to reach. And considering the rise of depression and pressure-related mental disorders among youth in Norway, I think Norwegians should start thinking of breaking the pattern of what they call Janteloven. Imagine how free you could feel. All you have to lose is your chains (and that stripy vase on your kitchen table).

This article was featured in VG on the 11th of December 2016 under the title Lei av perfeksjonsjaget!

Also: This is the vase I am talking about (I would say half the houses in Norway have it in their home), alongside Stockholm carpets and Kähler candle houses



32 thoughts on “The Endless Norwegian Search for Perfection and Conformity

  1. What does it do to the ones who can’t or don’t measure up? Are they ostracized or ignored and how do immigrants assimilate? You touch on these things, but I need to know more. I like the Syden explanation.

  2. I’d say you describe the dominant culture pretty well, but I don’t agree with your implication that there is no counter-culture, like in other countries. Still, there’s prolly less in Norway than in others. I remember some recent study claiming that Only places like Japan and North Korea had more pressure to conform than Norway.

  3. I don’t remember where I read it (maybe it was on this blogg?!), but recent research found that Norway is among the countries with the least flexible social norms, along with India, Malaysia and South Korea, if I remember right.

  4. I have lived here for 5 years now, and I’m happy I read this article because it points out something I was probably lacking the distance to notice. I’m french as well, and every time I step foot in France I feel a relief: I feel like I’m going to be myself again for a few days. I realise now that I’ve constantly struggled to keep out of this normalising pressure, especially being in a relationship with a (Wonderful) Norwegian woman. And these days, with the winter creeping in, I also realise that I had enough of it. When it’s not fundamentally who you are or how you were raised, it provokes a constant fight back feeling, always there in the back of your head. What I find mostly outrageous is the double standard on being a green country, sorting trash and protecting nature (Which I admire dearly) together with the absolute overconsumption of electronic devices, clothing and other new cars and such. The amounts of money spent in a single month get my head dizzy sometimes. I think it’s the main difficulty for a foreigner here: Integrating without losing themselves in the process.

  5. I feel proud for not having the latest carpet or wase. I also inky bought some candlelights because it would be romantic for my French partner. But than again.. I’m not blond and can’t get a tan so I’m Basically an outcast already.

  6. Absurd generalisations. Norwegans are first and foremost amateurish and selfish, Ive been here for 10 years and have systematicly asked people from other countries who live and work here what they think of the Norwegans perfectionism is not the answer you get. Its quite the opposite. To me its an empirical fact. Selfabsorbed amateurs with certain Noveuax riche manners

    Law of the Jantes was imported from Denmark like me.

  7. Now (after almost 7 years) I feel like it’s a relief to be a foreigner — like you mentioned, “we are outside society anyway,” so I manage to shrug off all the norms I can’t possibly maintain. Still uncomfortable, though. You should see the looks I get if I mention that one of my kids is driving me crazy… 🙂

  8. I like Norway, the passion for outdoor life, pressing onto ones boarders, and the culture with a slight distance which allows you not to be suffocated by aquaintance’s intruding in the personal Space… But I doubt you can feel it all in Oslo – in the city alike to many other cities… This is what I find perfectly described by Frog and what I see in capital city.
    You have to move far North – where the air is filled with freedom – from strict social norms, from the pressure to have or buy, where you can choose the way of living, step aside the town and be lonely in the Mountains, and live with unlocked doors and open hearts 🙂
    Tromsø is the Place, but still it took several years to understand, be understood, and find several Friends – the ones always there helping to survive the small tragedies of life 🙂
    The Lithuanian

  9. I just say, “You can”t beat Zero.” I am 50% Norwegian ancestry, I remember my grandmother’s generation that left Norway 60yrs before oil was discovered. I visited their home villages with them in the 1970s… I’m American, mainly Norwegian- and English-American. But I love Janteloven. You can’t beat Zero.

  10. Aptly described, thank you for this post.

    Have lived in Norway for some years and noticed this pressure to conform to the same standards. Normally that standard tends to be sub-par, in my view, but when it comes to fitness and buying stuff, they are leading the pack.

    My feeling always was it’s a mix of lack of education and ideology imposed onto the people. Also, a lack of critical journalism is very clear from the really low-standard newspapers who further fuel the trend towards … don’t want to call it equality, rather ‘sameness’.

    And I agree with you: someone who honestly feels he is doing alright does not normally have to proof that via pictures from the gym, his healthy meals and his holiday home in Syden. That’s a sure fire sign of insecurity and selfdoubt. Fishing for ‘likes’.

    I also noticed that I got very frustrated by observing these patterns. The only way for me to deal with it turned out to be to ignore pretty much what is going on around me and focus on what makes me and my family happy.

    1. Sub par, generally lacking in education? Really? If you are living in Norway I suppose you came for work or love and have found living in Norway preferable to living in France seeing you are still here.

      My mother is from Bergen, I will use her as an example of boastfullness and arrogance not to offend the french. If her agony over living in the Oslo or Østlandet and not in Bergen “where everyone smiles and talks to strangers” was real she would have taken her family with her and moved back. Proof of the pudding is she continues to live here, and probably finds it more durable understading people are individuals everywhere.

      Only living abroad I have done is in England. To count all Englishmen as one personalitytype based on a year in the South of England would be absurd. I never had thought Britons are less than Norwegians, and I found many english friends.

  11. Hello Frog!

    Thanks for this once again awesome article! As a Belgian having lived in Oslo for 9 years I can sense this social pressure as well : it seems to be the norm in Norway (in Oslo at least) to have an appartement, a well-paid job, healthy body, healthy kids, go on fantastic holidays, love skiing,… there are of course positive consequences to all of this : I recommend buying an appartement instead of renting on my blog, being healthy is the most important there is in life, and we are in Norway so let’s enjoy the beautiful nature God has made here. However doing and following these unwritten rules just to conform is just plain silly, it is maybe easier to say as a foreigner living here. And easier for us not to conform just focusing on being ourselves and things that make us happy. Having lived in Paris one year and in Belgium, there are some peer pressure norms as well, but there are more varied so by doing your own thing you will not be ostracized so much. It is true that in Norway it just feels like there is one norm (one to rule them all,..#nerdalert)
    And guys jeg snakker norsk og har norske venner 🙂

  12. My thoughts exactly. At first when I discovered just how status- and fashion-conscious Norwegians are, it was a cultural shock of sorts. I was curious to discover such an unexpected difference to how my life in Poland and USA looked like. Now I’m just fed up. Pressure to conform in even most insignificant parts of life is sucking life out of me. Normally I wouldn’t care much, but this society has a rather effective weapon: social exclusion. Behave differently than what is expected of you and you’re pretty much cut off from the society. And it’s not like what is expected of you is some sort of high culture, spiritually evolved samurai code of conduct. Just watch SKAM…

    I speak the language and for years I have proactively sought out connection with the locals, but most of my friends here are American, Romanian, Lithuanian etc. And most creative and interesting individuals are leaving as soon as they see what they’ve gotten themselves into.

    Then there is racism/xenophobia. Some nationalities have it somewhat easier, it seems (Aussies, Canadians, Western Europeans…), but if you’re from Asia, Central/Eastern Europe, U.S., etc., you’ll see most of what you do or say judged (mostly negatively) through a ridiculously narrow cultural stereotype.

    And when I look at that the kids are up against, with all the mobbing, peer pressure… What a cruel thing it would be to raise children here.

    I’m ranting, but I started to look into job openings back home. I no longer care if get paid 3x less. Thank God I grew up where I was expected and encouraged to be happy and do my best and not worry about looking/sounding/behaving different than others.

    @Ieva Martinaityte: I actually live in Tromsø. Not sure if we’re breathing the same air. I don’t see “open hearts” and “freedom” here at all 🙂

    1. Wow, can’t imagine.
      I’m Canadian..Norway sounds abit false …egalitarian when there’s all this social pressure. Not healthy long term at all.

  13. If you moved out off the trash dump that is Oslo, you would quickly realize Norway is quite a bit better on a lot of the issues you bring up in your blogg.

    1. Why would it be a trash dump? It’s all relative by the way…

      I can’t imagine Norwegians enjoying Canada ie. Toronto..incredibly diverse, free to be yourself, dynamic….and yea, just abit messy in some parts. But it’s not a 3rd world country..

  14. Morgenbladet actually wrote an article this week, where the headline was “France is our closest neightbour” because our social norms are very similar. He argued that the egalitarian thinking is very strong in both countries, much more than in the US/UK.

    I don’t personally think all norwegians hold the same beauty ideal, but that might just be because I don’t hold the same ideals as the one you described (and neither does my family and closest friends).

  15. Actually this creeped me out while I lived in Norway. I like Norway and the Norwegians, but I am a very independent and non-conforming person and I could not live there longer than 5 years, or I would go crazy exactly because of this. Not only that people and the ‘system’ pressured me and my wife to conform, they did the same thing to our kids, too. And I would not accept having my kids being ruined this way, I could not forgive myself.

    1. Hi,
      I would really be interested in hearing more about your experiences in Norway and the pressure for you and your family to fit in. Our first child was born in Trondheim last year, he is going to barnehage now but we are planning to move to Australia next year. We just don’t manage to be happy here in Trondheim.
      I am a bit concerned about Norwegian barnehage and their strive for everyone to be the “same”. My son is very social and interested in people, something that I have never seen a Norwegian being like. It constantly happens to me that I get strange looks from Norwegians when my son is showing a genuine interest in the world around him. I find this very hurtful to watch for such a small kid to be met with disinterest and scepticism.
      Would be very interested to hear how it was for your kids in Norway and how they coped with it. Just to get an impression of what to expect…

  16. Interesting that a French person finds Norway as a very “conformist” country. As a British person who spent a few years in France, I found France a very conformist place compared to the UK.
    In France, there always seems a certain accepted way of doing things – how you should dress, what you should eat, when you should go on holiday, etc. and people seem to dress very much the same and all the restaurants seem to have the same food…
    Professionally France is very rigid too, everyone is in their little box, Cadre, worker, etc. and don’t get ideas above your station!
    I ended up longing for some counter-culture and creativity!

    1. Very interesting. I recently started learning French, thinking (mistakenly?) that French culture will be similar to nonconformist and individualistic cultures that I’m familiar with (several Eastern European countries and USA). Now I have my doubts on whether to continue 🙂 I’d be curious to know what is the situation in other countries. I keep hearing similar comments from expats in Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and even Canada, Australia and Argentina. I wonder where in the world, apart from USA, British Isles and parts of Eastern Europe, individualism, nonconformity and diversity of everyday life are accepted and encouraged?…

    1. Depends on who you compare them to and the man’s taste. For me, on average, they are significantly more visually attractive than, say, German or American women, but less than Eastern European women. Most of them work out, most are thin (although they may have rather large skeletal structure). Significant proportion probably has Slavic genes from Vikings age :), thus their faces are more rounded than the average of other Germanic nations. Emotionally/relationship-wise they are far less appealing than any of the above.

      P.S. I took the liberty to look at your FB pictures. I think you’ll do just fine.

  17. What most people miss, is that although Norway touts “equality” as its primary value word, they are in fact quite narcissistic & arrogant. As we all know, narcissists think they are more perfect and better than everyone else. Recent studies also confirm this – Norwegians REALLY think they and their culture are better than anyone else – much more than any other people. And of course they see themselves as HAPPIER than others, in surveys (which I find very hard to believe, it is hard to find a more surly and depressed people, unable to have fun). And also, one must not confuse equality with a oppressive culture that forces everyone to be the SAME, like small clones. I feel Norway is massively hypocritical (just like covert narcissists are) – really nice and admirable on the surface, and quietly oppressive, controlling and arrogant underneath.

  18. Hei,

    Très intéressant. Vivant en Norvège, mais ayant vécu 10 ans en Suède, je peux dire que c’est exactement pareil, et que la Jantelagen/Janteloven est la loi Scandinave la plus importante. Etre identique aux autres est l’ambition première de tout Scandinave, c’est très choquant quand on arrive de France où sortir du rang est vu comme quelque chose de positif.

  19. This was a nice read summing up some of my thoughts about Norway, I grew up here but moved to the UK 9 years ago, and I don’t think I’m ever moving back to Norway, especially since when trying to bring up some of these things with norwegians I am met with confusion or denial, Norway is perfect and who would dare say otherwise.

    People back home shake their heads and laugh at the norwegian who chose brexitland over perfect fjordtopia, but at least I am free from restrictive Norway, and a much better person for it

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