The Insider’s Guide to Norwegian Culture

Norwegian culture is equal parts fun and intimidating. I am guessing you clicked on this because you will be spending time in Norway soon.

Great, remember to share your experiences when you get back. But first, let’s prepare you for what is awaiting (I sound overdramatic and I know it).

That Peaceful Nordic Mindset

Scandinavians are notorious for being friendly and a bit too accommodating of strangers. Norway has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, their law enforcement system is remarkably forgiving, and their prisons are probably nicer than your first flat.

It is estimated that 34% of people in Norwegian prisons are foreigners. The British police claim that groups of thieves from the UK ’emigrate’ to Norway where the people are better off and the prisons are comfortable so getting caught is no biggie.

But did that make Norwegians hate foreigners?

Not at all.

Acceptance is a major trait in most Norwegian people. It is honest, too, not just some politically correct stuff. Sometimes you will find people almost feel guilty for their privileges.

You will notice being more polite to you if you are visibly a different race or religion from them, which is a huge contrast to other places in Europe. So far, so good, but…

People Might Have A Hard Time Trusting You

Norwegian culture is all about tolerance and generally minding your own business. People would hate to be seen as nosy so they keep themselves at a safe distance. That, in turn, can make it hard to establish a genuine connection.

Accepting as Norwegian people might be, there is still some hidden xenophobia, emphasis on the ‘phobia’ part.

In many cases, they do acknowledge you and will treat you really nice, but once again a genuine connection gets hard.

What people thought and still think, though, is an entirely different matter.

Norwegians are trusting but not like they used to be. As a brown or a black man, you will be met with some distrust. It doesn’t get to the point of people being rude or violent but you will notice it, so I might as well prepare you.

Gender Equality

This is something Norwegians are very proud of. Women in Norway hold a lot of managerial positions, they don’t stay at home to raise the children, and they expect you to be an actual partner to them. This is the upside. The downside is women have almost passed from being second-hand citizens to privileged citizen.

It is one of the annoying sides of Norwegian culture how careful you have to be not to offend.

For some reason (even though they live in one of the nicest countries in terms of equality), Norwegians get offended really easy. I would usually say ‘be a decent human being and you are good to go’ but in this case, your definition of ‘decent human being’ might differ from theirs. Which is why it is in your best interest to avoid topics like:

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Money
  • Social issues – like gender inequality, the refugee crisis, even poverty
  • Animal rights – there are a lot of militant vegans in Norway

This is the dark side of the ‘happy hippies’ Norwegians come across at first. By the way, you might not expect it at first but national military service is required, with community service for conscientious objectors.

Most people are not conscientious objectors, though, and they do go through the service. Norway spends 3 percent of it’s (admittedly pretty large) GPA on the military. Happy hippies, huh?

Norwegian Culture

The Language Of Norway

Moving on from tough topics, let’s talk the language people speak. There are actually two official languages in Norway and both are Germanic.

Bokmål literally means “book language,” and it’s origins begin from the Danish-influenced Norwegian used in the East of Norway.

Nynorsk, or “New Norwegian” was formulated by self-taught linguist Ivar Aasen. It is the product of the Romantic movement in Norway where people were rediscovering their Norse origins.

Although Nynorsk was created in the 19th century it is consciously constructed to resemble Old Norse. The rest of the ‘inspiration’ behind it were peasant dialects of the period.

The goal was for written language to reflect how people actually spoke. At the same time, the relationship to Old Norse is because of the Romantic ideas and the Rennaisance of the national identity of the 19th century.

It was a way for Norwegians to acknowledge their roots while still having language that wasn’t all rules and nothing like the way they actually spoke.

Food (Because We All Know It Is Key To Any Culture)

Let’s take it meal by meal.

Breakfast (frokost) always has to include coffee. Scandinavians are notorious for their love of caffeine. Norwegian culture is very much a coffee culture. Nobody starts their day without a nice cup of Joe.  

As for the actual breakfast foods, it is either toast or porridge. The bread Norwegians prefer is either flatbread or crisp bread. They top it with fish – pickled or smoked, cold cuts, and different cheeses. Eggs in all forms (but usually just boiled) are also a must on the breakfast table.

As for pastries, these are a welcome addition but people almost see them as dessert. Having a cinnamon roll is not considered good breakfast even if it is quite rich, calorie-wise.

For lunch (lunsj) Norwegians love their open-faced sandwiches. Once again, it is crispbread with cheese, paté, or cold cuts. If you want something more substantial, a traditional middag (late afternoon but a lot of people blend it with lunch) meal consists of meat and boiled potatoes topped with buttery gravy.

Don’t expect a glass of wine with it, though. Norwegians love their drinks but only after dark. Beer, on the other hand, is enjoyed throughout the day.

A fun, if not very pleasant fact is that whale hunting still happens along the coast of Norway. Whale steak is the speciality at many Norwegian restaurants. I have not personally tried it so I can’t say if it’s any good.

To be honest, though, eating a whale is a bit too much for me. Maybe look at other typically Norwegian foods like their selection of cheeses.

Norwegian Culture

Norwegian Culture And The Arts

Norway does not have a huge population and one of their Nobel Laureates was pretty tight with the Nazis. Still, they have a lot to offer in the arts. If you are into crazy, artsy movies, check out some of Norway’s cinematic classics.

As for Literature, Knut Hamsun (that same guy who really liked Nazis and described Hitler as “a warrior for mankind” and “a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations.” ) is definitely worth reading.

His depictions of life in Norway, how tightly knit people and nature were and still are, give you a lot of insight into the national character.

As for the visual arts, Edvard Munch’s symbolist paintings have been internationally acclaimed. There is a great deal of excellent Romantic art to be seen in Norwegian galleries, even if the artists are not world-famous.

Why Does the Norwegian Economy Do So Well?

It is a little-known fact that Norwegians were living in poverty up until fairly recently. What happened? They discovered oil.

That is right, following the discovery of North Sea oil right off their shores, Norway has been getting progressively richer. Even today, when green energy and being eco-friendly is all the rage in Norwegian culture, their main export is oil and natural gas.

They do export hydroelectricity, too, but at the end of the day, they have the oil to thank for escaping poverty.

How Do You Learn More About Norwegian Culture?

Well, you go and live there. I am serious, if you are planning on becoming an expat a mere article will not be enough.

A couple of years from now, the things I said might not even hold true for you, considering your personal experience.

That is why, well, just jump right in! Norwegians are a bit cold, a bit reserved, a bit too politically correct but they are also wonderfully accepting.

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