On my first trip from Paris to Oslo, I was struggling to put my luggage in the overhead compartment. I looked around, and all Norwegians around me, especially men, were around 30 cm taller than me. But they were just looking at me struggle without offering any help. Smiling. Who does that, really? Smile and look at someone struggling? I thought then that Norwegian men were rude. In France and most other countries in the world, we learn from an early age that we should assist those struggling around them. We stand up for the elderly and pregnant ladies on buses and trains, and of course not to mention that women expect help from men around them without asking for it.
Now, after 12 years in Norway, I carry my own bag, and if someone takes my baggage without asking me, I think “Do you think I can’t carry my own baggage?”
Oh no. Help! I have become polite like a Norwegian. I now live in a world where the most important thing is to be independent.
The reason those Norwegians on the plane did not help me that day is because they did not want to be rude. It is rude in Norway to help someone who has not asked for help. You are then invading their private space by helping out. “Who are you to assume what others need?” is a normal way of thinking for a Norwegian. So they sit there and leave you alone. For us foreigners their politeness can be seen as rudeness.
In the newest Scandinavian scandal started on Reddit and called #Swedengate, the world found out that in Sweden it is common to leave guests alone in a room while the family eats dinner. The reason? Swedes don’t want to mess with the kid’s family dinner plans. And they planned their dinner thoroughly with the right portions. We aren’t going to screw that up just because we have a guest, are we?
Go to India, France or Peru, and it is unthinkable to eat dinner while a guest is excluded and in a room alone. If I did that my parents would look at me and say “Who raised you?”. It is unthinkable.
Although I have never experienced anything like this in Norway, there are some elements that I recognize from Norwegian courtesy. Norwegians often do weird things to avoid disturbing others’ plans or lives. You see a person crying? Don’t talk to them, they probably want to cry undisturbed and not feel the shame of others acknowledging what they are seeing. Best to pretend nothing is happening. Norwegians can easily ignore you if they think you are busy (or because they are busy), forget to say hello at work or pass by you without blinking in a train station.
What is now called #Swedengate, which has spread rapidly, means that Swedish culture has quickly gone from being cool and modern, to appearing blunt and cold.
Don’t touch a Norwegian
I often do workshops in companies and universities to teach foreigners about Norwegian work-life culture, but also about social norms, such as the boundaries between politeness and rudeness. There I have many interesting questions, which many Norwegians would probably be too embarrassed to answer.
Why don’t my colleagues greet me with a “hello” every day when I see them at work? Why do Norwegians say “hello” when it’s in the mountain, but not when I meet them on the street? Why do Norwegians sit far from me on the bus on the way to work, and talk to me freely and openly after a few hours on a Friday out of town? How many Norwegians can be in an elevator for me to come in and still be polite? Norwegians do hate overcrowded elevators.
“Don’t get too physically close to the Norwegian. Especially on the first meeting. A handshake is the absolute maximum physical contact culturally accepted by a Norwegian you don’t know”.
Leave Norwegians their space
I then stretch out my arms in front of me: this is how close you can com to a Norwegian person in order not to enter their private space. If you do they can freak out, or think YOU are the rude one.
Yes, Norwegian politeness is complicated. In many cultures, it is OK to touch a person’s arm or leg while speaking to them. Or kiss the person on the cheeks the first time you meet, as in France.
Norwegians are often socially anxious about being in a room with many strangers, or getting into a situation where they have to speak in front of many people without being prepared. Therefore, it is polite in Norway to “give people their space”. Literally. A space for reflection, a space for calm, giving them the opportunity to avoid unwanted social interaction. But wanting to be alone and silent is considered strange if not rude in many other cultures.
It doesn’t help when Norwegians keep telling us foreigners “Oh we Norwegians are so direct, isn’t it hard for you to get used to?”. No, Norwegians are not direct. They have 2000 unwritten social rules that nobody talks about and that foreigners are expected to know and follow. That’s not what I call being direct. Ok maybe when you guys are drunk. But that is temporary.
No word for “please”
In France and many other countries, it is very important to raise children to be polite. French children learn from an early age to eat whatever food they are served, to sit quietly in a restaurant and not interrupt adults. In the United Kingdom and the United States, children learn to say “please” in most sentences in social contexts.
How much politeness (on international standards) can be expected from Norwegians, who have at least three words for rain and almost no words for “please”? Some say “Vær så snill” (be so kind) is a version of a Norwegian “please”, but how often does any given Norwegian adult or child uses that every day? Very seldom in my experience. It does not apply to many contexts. How do you ask for a beer in a bar in Norwegian? “Kan jeg få en øl?” or even “En øl” (one beer), whereas in other languages you’d slip in a “May I have a beer please”. It is almost as if Norwegian teachers have come up with “Oh yes this is how to say please in Norwegian” for all their students, forgetting to mention it is not used as the word “please” at all.
Look at their body language then, but that too is seldom very enthusiastic and welcoming. It is important in Norwegian culture especially in the East and South not to show too much emotion. They even have “the Norwegian arm”, when stretching their arm across your face to get something in order not to disturb you by just asking politely.
My theory is that Norwegian people have historically been so scattered in the country that distance between communities and families has affected how they behave in crowds. Norwegians are not used to meeting a lot of other people. They like to have a fjord between every village and a mountain between every house. These are conditions unknown to most people in the world, from Germany to India.
After 12 years here I have to admit I have become a little Norwegian myself. I live my life, spend most of my time with my closest family members. I take the train in silence and like to be in nature. In silence.
But there is a downside to all of this. The fear of disturbing others means that many are left alone with their feelings. Mental health is not at its best in Norway, especially among the youth. Many struggle with depression, alcoholism and even suicidal thoughts. In a culture where it is strange to offer help, how can we do that anyway? Other times, when one does need help, they feel too ashamed to ask. Why bother others with my problems?
Norwegians can certainly learn from other cultures and be less ‘polite Norwegian’ and more ‘foreign polite’ in order to open up.
I am just sitting there waiting for #NorwayGate to happen!
Original illustration by Raphaëlle Taschet.
This is an edited version of the Opinion article published on the Norwegian newspaper VG on the 4th of June 2022 Det er ensomt å være høflig som er nordmann.
19 thoughts on “Are Norwegians rude? What to expect from a people with no word for “please”.”
You’re quite right about a lot of things, but Norwegians have a phrase for ‘please’; vær så snill. I learned from early age on to add that whenever I asked for something 😉
So interesting! I think social norms are fascinating. I especially like how you connect this extreme independence with alcoholism, depression, and even suicide. Thanks for a great post.
Politeness is a strange animal, and definitely one’s own pet. Indeed, Norwegians will not interfere with others’ life but, when asked, will be among the most helpful to be found.
When my wife passed away, all the neighbours we knew came uninvited to comfort me. During her illness, some came now and then with a book, a cake, a flower, something to cheer her up. They were neighbours not close friends.
You corrected your title No word for “please” by writing later almost no words for “please”.
“Vær så snill” does exist, although it corresponds better to “Would you mind?”. And “Yes please” is rendered by “Ja takk”.
We must not forget that Norwegians are world champions (on par with Asians) to say thank you, the other side of the “please” politeness: thank you for the food, for now, for today, for your help,…you name it.
The Norwegians are direct in the sense that a cat is a cat, not a four-leg animal of the feline family. So answers and comments may be received as blunt by foreigners. At the same time, there is a bit of the American way to deal with others; you are not supposed to hurt people’s feelings. “What good work this was” even if you mean it was not that well done.
Norwegians have evolved over the years, at least since the early seventies when I arrived.
– No one before would hold the door open to the following person. That happens now. But basically, the Norwegians were saved by the automatic doors at the shops.
– Four of us ordered our meals in a restaurant. The plates arrived in such an un-synchronized fashion that I had to tell the waitress “We were supposed to eat together, you know”. That has improved immensely. Especially now that Norwegians have taken an interest in food, partly thanks to successes of their chefs abroad.
– In the main post office hall, my landlord got my attention by shouting a loud “Du!”. Everybody in the hall kind of froze, looking at who was “Du”, and immediately went back to their activities without any comment. Nobody would do that now, unless drunk. Which reminds us that “du” brings an automatic familiarity not practiced in France.
In 75, while in Bergen for work, I met a young student lady at the café at Bryggen. She talked French which was a bit unusual, so we discussed about her studies, my work, a bit of our lives. She then said she was going to a dinner party late afternoon and asked if I cared to join. I did, took the bus to Fantoft where Iris, as she was named, lived. She handed over to me a scarf to put around my neck in the open collar in order to look a bit more smart in my daily working clothes. There was no romance between us I must add. We went straight away to a neighbor student flat where I was welcomed by a group of 10 students or so who never questioned why I was there. But they fed me with pleasure. That’s caring for others without fuss, and our Latin expectation of returned gesture.
All in all, the Norwegian politeness is more peaceful than our French one. Of course, if it is difficult for you to ask for help, you may be at a loss.
I used once the Norwegian politeness abroad, at the Vienna airport. We asked the young lady at the desk to change our tickets for an earlier flight leaving barely one hour later. She did that swiftly without comments. When she handed-over the new tickets, I thanked her with a “Thank you for you help”. The bright smile which illuminated her face was worth all the words.
The Norwegian rules of rudeness are alive and well where immigrants settled on the American prairie. I recently used my “Norwegian arm” at dinner at a Norwegian American gala event – and no one raised an eyebrow! 😂
Interesting read. I did not recognize my fellow Norwegians in your text, but it was interesting to read how we may appear to foreigners. I disagree with you that, since we have no word for please, we are a rude people. Linguistic differences only shows that the language is different. We do have “vær så snill”, and it has the same use as please. The word “kan” are our word for “may”. It has a similar meaning in sentences when used to ask for something. The fact that “kan”also means”can” in other sentences, is only a sign that our words have multiple uses, and is context dependent.
The private space bit I think you are right about. I do not like people touching me. I can only see three neighbouring houses, but still I feel uncomfortably close. It is very handy though, it makes for less metoo mistakes. The guy grabbing your thigh can not joke it away as just a friendly gesture. Everybody knows that grabbing a boob, a buttcheek or a thigh is beyond polite. And covid has taught us that cheek kissing is not the best way of greeting someone.
It just seems you have fixated on a few things, and not really seen further than your nose. Our “please” is “takk” (thanks). “En øl takk”, and people say thank you for every small thing (almost too much).
All your other points are just really poor and narrow points of a few experiences. Most people help others when they are actually struggling, and never known anyone who didn`t get food while being at someones place.
But yeah, good luck with booksales: “my narrow point of view based on a really small amount of experiences”
You have successfully proved the authoress points.
During the Covid pandemic, Norwegian government officials encouraged people to call others, just to chat. It was okay to do that, despite having no specific reason for phoning.
According to Gallup, Norway ranks 150th in the world in the category “Helped a stranger” for 2021. See Legatum Institute Norway’s country profile.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I lived in Norway for 10 years (American) and have been married to one for 32 years. We raised our children in Norway and we spend a lot of time there now. I think the difference might be wrt “casual politeness” more than general politeness, and the same goes for casual relationships. While I noticed that it’s not customary (or necessary) to greet people on the street or intervene in the affairs of a stranger (unless asked), I also noticed that if you engage someone, or ask for something you will get a kind and generous (authentic) response. In my country, I feel we have a weird propensity for casual inauthentic encounters and relationships (I like to say “fast food relationships”). I have had several people in the US feel they can tell me their deepest secrets while I am waiting to check out at the grocery store. So I kinda appreciate that I can buy a loaf of bread in Norway without having to feign interest in a stranger’s life. Conversely, meet a Norwegian with real common interests (e.g. out in the forest, from your hometown, or on a fishing trip), somewhere out in public and you will certainly be detained long enough to make a real friend. JM2C 🙂
Well written and very interesting. I did not know this about people from Norway.
And if a dictionary or translation engine tells you that the Norwegian word for “please” is “vennligst”: NOOOOOOOOOO!
Nature or nurture ? Only one holiday in Norway – life hasn’t been very holiday friendly since then – but I didn’t register any supposed rudeness My husband ( 190.5) never seems to notice that I’m 156.20, assumes I can do almost anything without help. He’s from the UK’s Little Norway -in Cumbria’ still, after more than a thousand years,, very Norwegian in DNA. He and siblings are at least two thirds Norwegian. Mostly very rural area, – and I ‘m happy with their low contact culture – no elaborate southern English hugs and kisses…
Where do you live? In a city or countryside? Like in France – people are more social and friendly when you get out of the city. We don’t kiss when we meet. But there is something weird if you colleagues don’t greet you at work, where I work we always do that.
People are people everywhere there isn’t so much difference when you to the bottom of it. Just a few cultural things. Its not that easy in France either for a foreigner. I dislike Paris, but I love Ruffec.
This To me proves why Norwegian society is the absolute worst society in the world.
Full of rude people who don’t care about one another.
I absolutely hate this society more than anything
So… you «absolutely hate» an entire society and all its inhabitants, just because you don’t understand the social codes? Is this something one does in whatever society you origin from? In that case, that must be an extremely narrowminded society, sorry to say. I come from Norway, and most people I know are kind, warm and conciderate, and – most important of all – open-minded towards people who are different from them selves. I am not saying that all Norwegians are like that, but there are just as many different individuals in the Norwegian society as in any other. It is true; we don’t walk around hugging and kissing strangers on the street, and people who does so would immideately get punched (or at least frowned upon), but the fact that a person value personal space, and respect others, does not automatically make him or her (or it?) a cold person.
There is certainly a word for “please”. The fact that it consists of more syllables (“vær så snill”) does not justify your untruthful statement. You hear it all the time. If you had bothered to listen.
I have a comment, when you stop the car in a narrow road and allow a Norwegian motorist to pass and they blatantly ignore you without so much as a nod as they pass within a foot or so at low speed, I consider that as rudeness and I have experienced it a lot and it infuriates me I don’t buy into this ‘we don’t want to intrude on you’ attitude that seems to be used as an excuse for a complete lack of basic decency. I am teaching my dual national Norwegian/British daughter basic good international mannners that I have experience in all the countries I have lived. Both decency towards others and common sense are both sadly lacking in Norway from what I have experienced.
I see a lot of truth in what she writtes. But i think that you only see the culture depending on the experiences you had before you came to Norway, and you see it according to the experiences and people you meet here aswell.
You will definetly not have a positive view of the country if your experiences here are more negative than positive.
Im from Brazil and have been living here for 13 years now. I lived in Italy, England and Spain before. So for me it was a hard and long process to learn and understand this culture. Specially when i went to University here. Norwegians would talk and make assignements togheter at Library for hours, and then meet me and my african friend at the supermarket in town and pretend not to know us. Not even say hi. It was really strange for me.
I always sat alone when my african friend was not in class. I think that the norwegians were just as affraid of me, as i was of them, at that time.
But not everybody were like that of course. I met wonderfull norwegians, wich i happen to meet sometimes at the Hospital where i work. Im a Social Worker( Sosionom). I think that most of the norwegians are affraid or not interested in foreigners or other cultures.
Maybe bcose Norway is a rich country, and they believe that their perfect society does not need to learn with others? I don’t know…What i know is that is cultural, is not something you can change.
And of course not everybody is like that in here. In Oslo for example, norwegians talk a lot, they are more social and more interested in life outside Norway, wich after so many years now living in a small town, i think is strange when strangers talk to me 😅