Norwegian Culture Working With Norwegians

Norwegian Drinking Culture

In most business cultures there’s some element of drinking-related activities. 

“Work hard, play hard”, as we like to say back in America. However, in Norway drinking culture may come as a bit of a surprise to foreigners. That surprise may also consist of waking up in a hung-over daze, partially dressed and for some still unexplained reason covered in glitter and what appeared to be kebab sauce.

To say Norwegians don’t party hard would be like saying the tax is only a little high in Norway. It would be quite the understatement. No, in fact, Norwegians enjoy a drink or two or fifteen and those drunken adventures often cross over into business life as well. 

With the cost of alcohol in Norway so high, there’s a local expression that covers Norwegians’ approach to drinking quite well and that is “being half drunk is a waste of money”. So in Norway they don’t go halfway when it comes to drinking, more like all the way and then some.

One of my first experiences with Norwegian drinking culture was after attending a business conference in Oslo. With the work day done and sights set on enjoying the evening, we set out not to a bar, but to a local resident’s house. Thus began the Norwegian pre-party, or as it’s known in Norway, the ‘forspiel’.

This is a critical launching off point for an evening of festivities. Again because of the high cost of alcohol in Norway it’s a common practice. One must try to get as loaded as possible at home first to avoid racking up a sky-high bill at the bar. Over time I also realized that when it comes to most things social, Norwegians usually needed a few drinks to get started. It allows them to loosen up a bit and be open to doing really crazy things, like talk to a stranger, or buy a bunch of bitcoin. To get to this point that means a pre-party can actually go on fairly long, without venturing out until well past midnight.

Bars and nightlife in Norway are typical to what you might find in other European cities, just significantly more expensive. Due to this high cost, there is no expectation for you to buy drinks for your colleagues, although you’ll usually be able to pick up one round for the group without too much protest. Otherwise, everyone is expected to be self-sufficient when it comes to lubricating oneself. For the reasons above, it’s also uncommon to find an ‘open bar’ at either work or social events. Tipping the bartender is also not required or expected in Norway, as service workers make a living wage even without your tips.

As we ventured from bar to bar and from club to club that evening, I started to make some new friends within our group. This is a side effect of a well-oiled-up Norwegian. They actually want to talk and get to know you! Here’s your chance to dramatically reduce the time it takes to build a closer relationship with your colleagues and Norwegian business partners. The hard exterior that most Norwegians wear cracks at this moment and new bonds and trust can be established. Many of the limiting factors of Norwegian social culture such as janteloven are put aside as well.

I made another new friend that night, who goes by the name Aquavit, the local Norwegian liquor that is similar to schnapps. As a foreigner you’ll most certainly be encouraged to try it even though most Norwegians seem to hate it. And for good reason: it tastes a bit like old shoe combined with spicy cough medicine, so the first shot is likely to be brutal. It will, however, earn you respect among your Norwegian colleagues with every gulp. After indulging in a few more shots, you may actually find you enjoy the stuff as I did.

That night and far too many shots later, the evening started to creep into the next morning. But the fun is not over yet in Norway: as I squinted my eyes hoping to find a taxi and my escape, a new friend put their arm around me and excitedly asked:

“Have you ever been to a real Norwegian nachspiel? I hadn’t but I had a feeling I was about to find out. 

Not knowing what I was agreeing to, we were now on to the final journey of a common Norwegian night of drinking. The ‘nachspeil’, or the after party. At this point it’s getting late, or early the following day, depending on how you look at it. It’s too late to buy alcohol anywhere so you head back to someone’s apartment to raid whatever is left there. This is the point of the night where things are best described as “getting sloppy” or borderline absurd. Everyone has had far too much to drink and it’s a bit of a last man or last woman standing type of affair. If you’re a foreigner that probably won’t be you, as Norwegians have great stamina in the arena of marathon drinking. In Norway drinking tends to start at a pretty young age and is a large part of college life. Generally, this is accepted by society and in some cases even encouraged. 

Norwegians young and old also tend to use drinking games as means of socialization. This gives them an easy framework for interacting with each other. That really helps as one waits for the drinks to kick in and more fluid social engagements can emerge. It’s also one of those rare moments when you can engage in some friendly competition with your colleagues or maybe even flirt with a Norwegian. Excelling at trivia, for example, can earn you extra prestige with Norwegians.

As you attend or host parties in Norway you may also notice things work a bit differently here with regard to sharing of booze. In many other cultures, it would be common to bring a bottle of wine for the host and everyone to share. However, due to the cost of alcohol in Norway, most gatherings follow a strict BYOB or Bring Your Own Booze policy. So as a foreigner, you should not expect to have a drink served to you upon arrival as you find in many other cultures. Norwegians may also remember you did not bring your own alcohol and probably feel unhappy about it. 

Perhaps the most important to know in Norwegian drinking culture is how to toast your colleagues and all the new intoxicated friends you’ll be making. Grab your favorite drink, raise it up high and at any time proclaim “skål!” (pronounced “skol”) loudly. The word comes from the Norwegian word for the skull and hails back to Viking times when it was customary to drink from the skull of your enemy. It is also considered good manners to stare into the eyes of your companions while you toast in Norway. It may be one of the few chances to do such a thing with a shy Norwegian, so enjoy it. Thankfully they all tend to have very pretty eyes.

Janteloven Working With Norwegians

What is Janteloven (The Law of Jante)?

One of my most jarring experiences doing business in Norway was when I first encountered the Law of Jante, or Janteloven. While discussing why a Norwegian business was not excelling, a colleague of mine simply shrugged their shoulders and proclaimed “Well, you know, Law of Jante”. Jante?

What is Janteloven? The Law of Jante in Norway - Working With Norwegians

What was Janteloven?

He sat me down for an hour and laid out a cultural anomaly that colored how almost every Norwegian (and more broadly Scandinavians) operate, both in business and in life. The Law of Jante is a social concept created by Danish / Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. You may be familiar with a similar concept used in other parts of the world called “Tall Poppy Syndrome”.

In Janteloven, individual success is discouraged and, in many cases, considered inappropriate. Instead, society encourages the good of the collective over any one individual. This has shaped Scandinavian culture over many years and helped to create the peaceful, modest, and homogenous society of today.

The Law of Jante

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
The Rules and Laws of Janteloven

About Janteloven

Janteloven is a social concept that originated in Denmark and was popularized in Norway. It is a set of unwritten social rules that emphasize the importance of modesty, equality, and avoiding standing out or showing off. The term Janteloven translates to “the law of Jante” and is named after a fictional town called Jante in a novel by Danish author Aksel Sandemose.

The concept of Janteloven has both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it promotes a sense of community and discourages arrogance or excessive self-promotion. It emphasizes the importance of treating others with respect and avoiding the kind of self-centered behavior that can damage social relationships. This can be seen as a positive force for social cohesion and harmony.

However, the downside of Janteloven is that it can also discourage ambition, innovation, and individuality. In its strictest interpretation, Janteloven can lead to a culture of conformity and discourage people from pursuing their goals or expressing their unique qualities. This can limit creativity and stifle progress, as people may be hesitant to take risks or challenge the status quo.

Janteloven can also create a sense of insecurity and a fear of being judged or criticized by others. It can be difficult for individuals to stand out or pursue their own path without feeling like they are violating the social norms of Janteloven. This can lead to a lack of confidence and a sense of self-doubt, which can be detrimental to personal growth and development.

Despite its limitations, Janteloven continues to play a role in Scandinavian culture and society. It is often seen as a reflection of the values of social democracy, emphasizing the importance of collective welfare and social equality. It is also a reminder that success should not come at the expense of others and that everyone deserves respect and dignity, regardless of their achievements or status.

In recent years, there has been some pushback against the strict interpretation of Janteloven, with some arguing that it can be too limiting and discouraging for individuals. This has led to a more nuanced approach, where the positive aspects of Janteloven are emphasized while still allowing for individuality and ambition.

In conclusion, Janteloven is a complex and multifaceted social concept that has both positive and negative aspects. While it can promote social cohesion and discourage arrogance, it can also limit creativity and discourage individuality. It is important to find a balance between the positive and negative aspects of Janteloven and to encourage both collective welfare and personal growth and development.

Janteloven Book

One of the most famous books that explores Janteloven is “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” by Aksel Sandemose. Sandemose was a Danish-Norwegian writer who explored the theme of Janteloven in many of his works. “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells the story of Espen Arnakke, a young man who leaves his small town to seek his fortune in the big city.

Throughout the novel, Espen struggles to reconcile his desire for success and recognition with the cultural norms of Janteloven. He finds that his ambition and individualism are not always welcome in the small town where he grew up, and he struggles to fit in with the collective mindset of his community.

The novel explores many themes related to Janteloven, including the tension between individualism and community, the role of humility in social relationships, and the importance of conformity in Scandinavian culture. The characters in the novel are portrayed as complex and multi-dimensional, with their own struggles and desires that are often at odds with the expectations of their community.

Criticism and Contemporary Interpretations

The Law of Jante has its fair share of critics who argue that it stifles individualism, creativity, and personal ambition. Some believe that Janteloven can lead to a culture of mediocrity by discouraging people from striving for excellence or standing out from the crowd. Critics contend that the principles of Jante can hinder economic growth and innovation by suppressing individual talents and aspirations.

However, proponents of Janteloven argue that it fosters a sense of community, shared responsibility, and humility. The focus on equality and social welfare has contributed to Scandinavian countries consistently ranking among the world’s happiest nations. The Law of Jante can be seen as a counterbalance to the individualism and materialism that pervade other cultures.

Janteloven in Modern Day Norway

Despite its criticisms, Janteloven continues to be present in modern-day Norway. In some ways, the phenomenon has evolved with the times. While the principles of humility and egalitarianism are still highly valued, there is a greater acceptance of individualism and ambition in modern Norway. Many Norwegians are now proud of their country’s achievements and their own personal successes, which would have been discouraged under the strict interpretation of Janteloven.

In fact, some Norwegians have taken Janteloven and turned it into a positive force for change. For example, the “Ja til Mer!” (“Yes to More!”) movement has emerged as a way to challenge the restrictive aspects of Janteloven and encourage Norwegians to pursue their dreams and ambitions. The movement has gained a following among young people, who are eager to challenge the status quo and create a more open and dynamic society.

At the same time, Janteloven remains deeply ingrained in Norwegian culture, particularly in more traditional and rural areas. The phenomenon can still be seen in everyday interactions, where people tend to be modest and reserved about their achievements. For example, it is considered impolite to boast or show off, and people often downplay their own accomplishments.

Overall, Janteloven continues to be a complex and evolving cultural phenomenon in modern-day Norway. While its principles of humility and egalitarianism are still highly valued, there is a greater acceptance of individualism and ambition. At the same time, the phenomenon remains deeply ingrained in Norwegian culture, particularly in more traditional and rural areas. As Norway continues to evolve and change, it will be interesting to see how Janteloven adapts to the times and how it will continue to shape Norwegian society in the years to come.

Janteloven in Scandinavian Society

The Law of Jante has shaped the social fabric and values of Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The concept’s influence can be observed in various aspects of Scandinavian society, such as work culture, education, and politics.

Work Culture: The Law of Jante promotes a sense of equality and cooperation in the workplace. Scandinavian work culture is characterized by a flat hierarchy, where managers and employees work closely together and contribute to decision-making processes. The emphasis on teamwork and collaboration is a reflection of the Jante values, which discourage individual competition and self-promotion.

Education: The educational system in Scandinavian countries embodies the principles of Janteloven by emphasizing equality and inclusiveness. Schools focus on fostering a sense of community and teamwork among students, rather than highlighting individual achievements. This approach nurtures a strong sense of social responsibility and empathy among children, preparing them to be conscientious citizens.

Politics: The political landscape in Scandinavia reflects Janteloven values as well. Policies such as universal healthcare, free education, and robust social welfare systems are designed to promote equality and a high standard of living for all citizens, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Janteloven Pronunciation

The pronunciation of Janteloven is relatively straightforward for English speakers, with the emphasis on the second syllable and the final “n” pronounced as a “v.” It is important to note, however, that Janteloven is more than just a word; it represents a cultural and societal value system that can take time to fully understand and integrate into one’s behavior.

How does Janteloven affect business competitiveness?

The Law of Jante also adds a unique angle when it comes to being competitive in business in Norway. You’re likely to find there’s actually not much competition in just about every industry. Consumers usually have some choice, but not an overwhelming degree as is often found in other markets. For example, there are typically about two real options for any product. Often those limited options are even owned by the same company, so it’s more of an artificial choice. You’ll find a lot of monopolies in Norway.

In fact, Norwegians really don’t mind monopolies at all. Even their state-run wine store is called the Vinmonopolet, or the Wine Monopoly. They literally have so little shame about it being a monopoly they put it right in the name! You see, often Norwegians don’t understand that this is counter to how the majority of other business markets work. Monopolies are usually considered bad for business. To the Norwegians it’s just more efficient to have a single provider who does a good enough job. They prefer this to many competing producers who have to constantly one-up each other. The Law of Jante strikes again.

Dig a little deeper and you see even more of the Janteloven in advertising. This makes it especially tough to advertise and sell your product. How will a consumer know your offering is better if you can’t directly tell them so? Many of the tried-and-true advertising techniques found in Western markets simply don’t work in Norway. Those play on the emotions of envy, greed, and even fear. In Norway, you’ll need to focus on other attributes in your advertising instead. You have to talk about the quality of your product and point out that those who use it are content but not exuberantly happy. You cannot say that your product is better than others nor that buying your product will make your consumers better people. Instead tell them or show them that the consumer will be made content. Your product is good, but never exceptionally better than others. If a Norwegian describes your business or product as “nice” it means it’s probably going to be a massive success.

Janteloven in Advertising

Bad-mouthing competitors, be it in advertising or even private meetings, is also highly discouraged.

To truly respect the Janteloven in your business advertising you need to do one very specific thing: have other people say why you’re the best or your product is superior. CEOs shouldn’t stand up and claim superiority but instead they should focus on getting all of Norway to say that the product is acceptably good. Word-of-mouth marketing is everything in Norway. For example, the typical Norwegian will be highly skeptical of you and working with you until their friends or family have first validated your offering. Once that happens, Norwegians begin to build trust and are open to engage with something new. Otherwise, there is little risk tolerance in Norway and that is especially true if that product or a person claims to be better. However, if just a handful of Norwegians speak highly of something, news tends to spread very fast. That’s one of the advantages of working in a small country.

How does Jante Law impact setting expectations in Norway?

When it comes to Norwegian business culture and the Law of Jante, I have found one thing to be universally true: Norwegians will always set expectations fairly low. They will almost always exceed those expectations, but it’s important not to over-promise anything or promise things you know you will not manage to do. Remember: you are good at what you do, but you are not to be exceedingly better than others. In Norwegian business it’s actually significantly more important that you follow through on what you say you’ll do versus boldly promising amazing results. In other words: don’t be too American and you’ll be just fine.

Norwegian Culture Working With Norwegians

Are Norwegians Lazy?

For many Norwegians work-life balance is incredibly important.

With a heavier emphasis on the life balance part.

The ideal Norwegian maintains a delicate balance in his or her life, optimizing both for efficiency but also optimal relaxation time. This is best described as working to live, and not living to work. So greater joy is taken in say getting to the ski slopes, or just enjoying a quiet evening at homes with some candles lit than say working extra hours to advance in the workplace. 

This sometimes causes Norwegians to be perceived as lazy, which is not entirely accurate. You don’t often meet many lazy cultures who enjoy 4-hour mountain hikes and many other types of physical punishment such as cross country skiing.

In truth, the modern Norwegian is actually highly efficient in the workplace. That makes it easier for them to put the work aside at the end of the day and get back to enjoying life. They also take great pride in their work so even if it takes longer to accomplish that perfectly alright.