Are Norwegians impolite? / Columns / The Foreigner

Are Norwegians impolite?. A few years ago, a 16 year old Norwegian-American stirred a debate in the Norwegian public and social media. Under the heading “arrogant Norwegians”, she wrote in a regional newspaper that: I consider myself a fairly ordinary person. I say hei (‘hi’) to everyone I meet – the one sitting next to me on the bus, my friends’ friends, teachers, shop assistants – anyone. […]  If there is something I have noticed in Norway, it is the fact that Norwegians are not friendly. They normally just care about themselves and their own.

manners, politeness, rudeness, customs, culture, social, behaviour



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Are Norwegians impolite?

Published on Friday, 17th March, 2017 at 07:10 under the columns category, by Kristin Rygg.

A few years ago, a 16 year old Norwegian-American stirred a debate in the Norwegian public and social media.

'Always be polite'
'Always be polite'
Photo: Roberlan Borges/Flickr


Under the heading “arrogant Norwegians”, she wrote in a regional newspaper that:

I consider myself a fairly ordinary person. I say hei (‘hi’) to everyone I meet – the one sitting next to me on the bus, my friends’ friends, teachers, shop assistants – anyone. […]  If there is something I have noticed in Norway, it is the fact that Norwegians are not friendly. They normally just care about themselves and their own.

“What happened to normal politeness”, she wondered.

As a Norwegian linguist, especially occupied with the vast field of ‘politeness theory’, this feature story and the following debate made me curious. Do Norwegians know they are impolite? Are they, really?

Scholars within the field of politeness theory have spent the last forty years discussing whether there is such a thing as ‘normal politeness’. So far, every attempt to find universal standards of politeness has been refuted by counter-examples from other cultures. Of course, people have the same common wish to be considerate, friendly and respectful. But it seems that the way it is translated into behavior and communication is far from universal.

When Norwegians stretch across the table to reach for the salt, foreigners laughingly call it “the Norwegian arm”, and wonder if Norwegians are just ignorant or indifferent when politeness is concerned. When Norwegians do not engage in small talk with strangers, they may similarly be evaluated as arrogant and impolite.

If this was done with the intent to be impolite, I think fellow Norwegians would also be upset. But, my claim is that it is not meant to be impolite. Instead, it is guided by a politeness norm that is more important to many Norwegians than small talk; not to disturb others more than highly necessary.

Just imagine: if you ask someone to pass the salt, that person has to put down their knife and fork to assist you with something that, to be fair, you could have managed on your own with a slight stretch. A stranger on the bus stop might not like to be disturbed by small talk and, in turn, is just as happy with silence.

It is with this type of logic that Norwegians relate to each other, and foreigners in Norway can sometimes, understandably, feel forgotten and ignored.

When you enter a shop in Norway, it can seem that the shop assistant does not notice you. The fact that she is probably acting out of a rationale that a customer, who has not asked for help, and does not want to be disturbed, may not be the first thought that springs to mind. However, the only thing that is certain in this situation is not the shop assistant’s lack of politeness. It is the fact that the customer is upset because his or her own subjective expectations, based on upbringing and experiences, have not been met.

Let me take a counter-example from a Norwegian exchange student in Texas who writes in the readers’ comment section to the feature story that I have mentioned above that:

People here, who have never met me before, say hi to me in the shops and on the street. It can be a bit much. As a Norwegian, I am used to be able to do my groceries without having to chat with people I will never see again.

Does this mean that Americans are impolite?

On the contrary. Showing friendliness through small talk is an essential way of being polite in many cultures. Small talk, especially about the unstable weather, serves an important social function among Norwegians who know each other well too. So does thanking: takk for maten (after a meal), takk for sist (for the last time we met), takk for turen (after a walk). Furthermore, it seems that there is less fear of disturbing strangers when people have something to share information about. That is, Norwegians engage in more small talk when they are hiking in the mountains, sailing in their leisure boats, enjoying holidays abroad, or when walking their dogs.

The Norwegian exchange student in Texas continues by saying:

“In the school corridor many say “sup” to me and it took me some time to realize that I did not have to stop and answer every time.”

Someone should have told him that ‘how are you?’ or the more informal ‘what’s up’ is not equivalent to the Norwegian translation of hvordan har du det. In Norwegian, this type of question is only used towards acquaintances in order to ask about their actual well-being. However, if the student had interpreted the American greeting as the equivalent of a Norwegian nod, a smile or hei ‘hi’, he would not have felt the need to give a prolonged answer.

Norwegian politeness has seldom been verbalized in research up to now. By trying to do so, I hope that both Norwegians and foreigners in Norway can gain a better understanding of why Norwegians behave in the way that they do, and how it might affect newcomers to the country. Knowing that no such thing as ‘normal politeness’ exists, will hopefully make people more tolerant towards each other. After all, most people wish to be considerate, friendly, respectful, and polite – in Norway too.

Kristin Rygg is an Associate Professor at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), Department of Professional and Intercultural Communication. Her area of research is Nordic and East Asian culture and (business) communication.

The original academic article discussing American vs. Norwegian politeness can be downloaded from: http://immi.se/intercultural/nr40/rygg.html




Published on Friday, 17th March, 2017 at 07:10 under the columns category, by Kristin Rygg.

This post has the following tags: manners, politeness, rudeness, customs, culture, social, behaviour.





  
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