Busting Norwegian Myth #1: Norwegians are cold

There are many myths about Norwegian culture, society and country, and many of them are constructed, rumours or even plainly wrong. I am starting a series on breaking Norwegian myths. The first up is a classic: I haven’t made any Norwegian friends because NORWEGIAN PEOPLE ARE COLD.

Are they, though?

Sure, compared to your village in Brasil where everyone kisses you on both cheeks when they meet you (it’s called family), Norwegians can seem cold. Then again, are you that warm with perfect strangers? Probably not. That said, I won’t lie. I find it rough too when Norwegians I have met many times and feel close to or at least somewhat going down the friendship lane almost ignore me (read How to Make Norwegian Friends?). Or smile and “hils” at best. I have some theories about Norwegians being seen as cold. And the first one is the weather.

Warmer with the weather

Once I was in a packed bus in Bygdøy (peninsular in the Oslo fjord) on a sunny Thursday afternoon, in the middle of the summer. It was one of those summers when it had been warm for days if not weeks. The water of the fjord was as warm as the Mediterranean sea, people were lying on sandy beaches, drinking Solo and buying ice creams. The bus to bring us back to the city arrived late, and we all entered, packed in this bus. Some young teenagers had something that made loud music, and I thought for one minute that being in Norway, people would either ignore them or someone would tell them to shut it down. Nei!

To my great surprise everyone started dancing and singing. Even the old ladies, the small kids, the parents. Everyone was so happy, and if this scene had been in a bus in my home town I would not have been surprised. But in Norway!! The moral of this story is that given the right temperature, the right amount of sun, sea and summer, Norwegians are as warm as any of us Southerners.

Subtle Norwegian codes

My second theory is that foreigners believe Norwegians are cold because they are unable to read the signs. In other words they don’t understand the subtleties of Norwegian culture. It’s not because people don’t kiss you on both cheeks to say hi (even when they’ve never met you before), or that they seem distant that they are cold.

Some people in this country (no generalisations here, I have met very Mediterranean Norwegians too) just show their emotions in a 5 minute window and with very subtle signs instead of in a 24 hour window with big hugs. It is about reading them. I thought for many years that I had no friends in this country, but that was not true. I was just bad at reading the signs of them becoming my friend. If someone gives you a klem (Norwegian hug) then you are on the good path.

If someone tells you how wonderful you are while they are drunk, also very good. If someone obviously avoids you in the street pretending not to recognise you it’s a bad sign. You figured that one out without me. The conclusion of this story is that things take time. And signs are not always obvious to you, but they probably are to them. They obviously showed you how much they liked you by inviting you to their birthday. Or by telling you how nice your dress looked. (See here The Norwegian “Art” of Seduction). Or by remembering what your dog’s name is. So the conclusion is: Norwegians are not cold, they are just another type of warmth. If you are not convinced by this, then I can maybe explain, based on my own subjective opinion, why Norwegians don’t appear as warm as in the (from a Norwegian standing point) overpopulated and very warm south of Europe:

The religious background

Those who are now Norwegians once believed in different religions (pre-monotheism). They were then Christianised first by Catholics (hence the Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim) and later became Protestant. But not just any branch of Protestantism.

Ever wondered how come there is a Catholic cathedral in Trondheim, but Norwegian are more than 90% Protestant?
Ever wondered how come there is a Catholic cathedral in Trondheim, but Norwegian are more than 90% Protestant?

An especially a vigorous pietistic movement came along with its values of frugality, enterprise and personal diligence that still influence Norwegian society. When I have brought this up, I have been met with counter-arguments such as “It cannot be possible, because Norwegians are not that religious.” Sure, the churches might be empty in many areas of Norway, but it does not prevent these religious values to have been so strong and mainstreamed that they became social values in the Norwegian society. It seems like protestant values and especially pietism put a moral value on emotions, encouraging the feeling of shame does not help Norwegians to be exuberant and unapologetic.

History has also taken a toll on Norwegians. Harsh weather, no roads, faraway neighbours and little to eat made meeting others a rare event. Wouldn’t you be a bit reserved too?

So if you think of Norwegians as cold, just remind yourself of their protestant background coupled with the hard life their ancestors, up to the 19th century, had to endure. And you’ll get a hint of why they aren’t the chatty, tap on the back, come over to my place kind of people on the first day. That said, if you go up North people aren’t as “cold” as you might find the southerners. But that was also the region where that very pietist Protestant Christianisation was least effective. Maybe a link there?

Last tip, if you still get annoyed at Norwegians being still too cold for you even after reading this, try akevitt. I promise you they will all be as warm as in your hometown, even without knowing you from before. But I cannot promise you they will recognise you the next day. Nobody is perfect.

Want to read more about Norwegians?

Buy my book A Frog in the Fjord-One Year in Norway online on BookDepository or Amazon.com. Also available on Barnes and Nobles, AdLibris and more. Read the first chapters for free here.

5 thoughts on “Busting Norwegian Myth #1: Norwegians are cold

  1. Spot on! One more thing though. Try asking for help on just about anything. Norwegians will almost fight each other in order to help you. Presuming it’s something realistic, not financial or work for free. Good thing about it, they don’t seem to expect a favor in return.

    I’ve been working in a rehab hospital for 7yr. now. Meeting people in very demaning situations. Some of them lost arm, leg, whole body functions. I can’t really remember seeing one of them or family members shedding a tear over it. It’s not about what they feel, it’s about how they express what they feel. And they feel just as much as anyone.

  2. Not sure how you expect to demystify that Norwegian are not cold by actually acknowledging that they are cold people throughout your post. Besides, if you really want to expose your hypothesis on why Norwegians are cold, you should at least try not contradicting yourself. You cannot claim that low temperatures might explain, to some degree, the cold behavior of many Norwegians and later on state “if you go up North people aren’t as “cold” as you might find the southerners”…

    I’m suprised that after so many years writing about Norway, you still seem very ignorant about its people and culture. What happened to your French perspicacity? Seems like you are turning into a true Norwegian after all, living in total delusion, constantly needing to search for silly excuses to compensate the nonacceptance of anything that can be perceived as negative in the Norwegian mind.

    You should probably try meeting some nomadic people living in Siberia or Mongolia. In fact, you could simply go to Canada or the North of Scotland to realise your non sense. All these people live in similar or much harsher weather conditions than any Norwegian. Yet, they will likely be much more open and more friendly than any Norwegian one can possibly meet.

    Generally speaking, Norwegian are cold people and as far as I know, I don’t see why it should be different. Certainly not to please foreigners that complain about it. That being said, the cold behavior of Norwegian has nothing to do with the weather or religion but is essentially related to the root of their culture and education system. No need to look any further.

    And please, have the decency not to pretend that those who say Norwegians are cold are not insightful or are as bad as you at reading the signs.

  3. I happen to know that the mountain in the photo is Rainier, near Seattle. Sorry — nice photo, but not Norway!!

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