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.

13 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.

    1. Hi, can you please elaborate on what the educational system in your view has to do with this “being cold” issue?

      I also wonder: What is it to be “cold”?
      Regards from a native

    2. The comment is harsh but fair. This is full of nonsense. Same to say Parisians are not stressed out because once in the Metro a bunch of people were smiling… Norwegians are cold that is a fact everyone who meet them acknowledge and that does not mean there are bad people. You should write on that… Really disappointing content.

    3. As far as I can see this absolutely rings true and there’s no acknowledgement of norwegians being cold as much as explaining why we appear cold to many others (which we in turn might think of as extremely rude, hot headed or unreasonable).
      I also cannot see that the claim that low temperatures make people interact less can’t be married with the fact that people of the north appear more warm than the southerners. As a northern norwegian I can most definitely confirm that the low temperatures over a long time affects our moods and interactions. During winter we tend to keep more of a distance and during summer we find more together and are much more chilled out. This is something I’ve seen both in myself as well as friends and family. It’s also clearly indicated in the blog that there are cultural differences between the south and the north, which will of course play into the equation of everything. In general harsher climates tend to make for warmer and more welcoming people, but this doesn’t mean that the climate doesn’t affect us at all. That would be pretty ridculous!

      In regards to the religious aspect I also tend to agree with her. Religion and culture has been heavily intertwined for the longest of times. Why would it not have affected us down the path? Of course it’s a mixture of climate, culture, religion, heritage, educational system, geography etc. etc. and cannot simply be isolated down to only two elements. Your brashness there seems to indicate the ridiculousness of an American online bully rather than the reason of a free thinker.

      While I see merit to some of your statements you seem burnt by great expectations and of lesser experiences. If so then I am sorry for that, but maybe this blog is not the right place for you.

    4. I’m curious re your point “the cold behavior of Norwegian… is essentially related to the root of their culture and education system.” I’m interested in your insight(s). Do you care to expand on this idea? Thank You!

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

  4. I’ve heard us Norwegians described as pretty cold on the outside, and hard to get to know, but really warm on the inside, once you get to know us. I think that’s pretty accurate.

  5. @Arne
    “What is it to be “cold”?”
    A cold personality is usually defined as someone not showing much emotion and affection, being distant and avoiding physical or close contact with others (e.g. saying “hi” from a distance instead of shaking hands/kissing/hugging even between friends, not sitting next to a stranger in a bus, etc.). As a result, cold people seem unfriendly, unwelcoming and not very open or enthusiastic about meeting new people.

    “can you please elaborate on what the educational system in your view has to do with this “being cold” issue?”
    Now that I’m reading my comment again, I realise it’s quite poorly written. I don’t mean that the Norwegian education system is a driver of cold personalities but that it somewhat exacerbates it. The education system here tends to keep young people in a very protective bubble or comfort zone, away from any disturbances (no or little exposure to others, to negative comments, critics, conflicts or failures). As a result, the Norwegian education system helps strengthen people’s personal space in which Norwegians feel safe and isolated from the outer, inhospitable environment. Most Norwegians didn’t learn how to exteriorise their feelings beyond that space and any intrusions in their bubble is perceived as potentially hostile.

    @Thomas S.
    “this doesn’t mean that the climate doesn’t affect us at all” / “Why would it not have affected us down the path?”
    When exactly did I claim that the climate and religion don’t affect people?

    “during summer we find more together”
    You’re confusing everything, cold personality is not synonym of being solitary…

    For an explanation to be good, it has to be generalisable. If your explanation only works in specific cases, then it’s not a good explanation.

    There’re many countries where protestantism is well settled and where people are usually not perceived as cold (the US, Canada, Brazil and Namibia to name a few). There’re many countries or regions with a harsh climate where people are usually much more welcoming and friendly (e.g. Scotland, Canada, Mongolia, Hokkaido, …).

  6. Thank you for your blog and this post, it has helped me to be more compassionate and understanding of this cultural clash. It can be difficult to adapt and after some times at my lowest days I tend to feel hopeless. Especially about trying to read better the signs has been helping me to see things differently. Thank you!!

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