Loosely translates to “open-air living” is a big part of Norwegian culture and country heritage. It means a commitment to celebrate the outdoors and spending time outdoors. Even if the weather is not so great.
The famous Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen coined the term in 1859 but even today friluftsliv is still very much a part of Norwegian culture. In Norwegian society, it is encouraged to spend some of your free time outdoors. To enjoy nature is to be Norwegian.
And there might be something to this way of thinking. Many experts believe that spending time in nature boosts well-being and happiness. Perhaps this is why Norway is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries.
So if you’re wondering why Norwegians have a borderline fetish over nature now you know why. It’s because of friluftsliv.
There was a new song released today by Daniel Kvammen titled ‘Janteloven’. It covers one of the more interesting sides of Norwegian culture and how society works in Norway, that being Janteloven or The Law of Jante.
Even in this modern age and after creating such a successful and prosperous society, Norwegians still struggle with both individual success and what happens after success. In a very egalitarian society, it can be considered inappropriate for any one person to have too much of anything.
If you have Spotify you can hit play below to have a listen for background music on the rest of this post.
The song is inspired by one of the loudest Norwegians to be firmly anti-Janteloven. The one and only Petter Northug. As a former gold medal ski champion Petter never really had to worry about being held back by Janteloven. That’s because in Norway sports and athleticism are some of the few areas where it’s allowed to be very successful. It’s allowed to be better than others. Unlike in business where it’s better to be more modest about your achievements.
When the song was penned some 6 months ago life was a bit different for Northug. He was enjoying the afterglow of his skiing career while also enjoying the strobe light glow of various night clubs around Norway. That’s where the song’s author found him, still seeking the attention of yesterday. The very next morning he wrote this song.
Since then a new debate has emerged about the anti-Janeloven king Northug. After a recent run-in with the police while driving under the influence of drugs the spotlight was once again on the former gold medalist. Although unlike in other societies where a celebrity in trouble might expect a public crucifixion, things work differently in Norway.
Most of the public debate centered more around how to help Northug. And why didn’t society help him sooner? That’s Norway and even Janteloven for ya! When a member of society is down, society should come together to bring them back up.
As you start to work in Norway, you’ll notice things are a bit different with regard to names. First of all, there aren’t that many unique names in Norway. This reminds me of the time when a colleague was trying to remember a business contact whose name started with “J.” I responded, “I know 10 people named Johan, 6 people named Jonas, and 5 more guys named Jonah”, which didn’t help us remember. So, while working with Norwegians, you won’t have to remember too many distinctly unique names. You will, however, have enough challenges keeping them all straight and matched to the right people.
In Norway, titles are also not used very often as most business environments are causal in nature. Additionally, to use flashy titles as a means of impressing colleagues is discouraged, lest anyone individual try to assert themselves as more important in the organization. Yes, I’m talking to you Brad Braderson, Senior Vice President of Regional Sales and New Product Development Asset Manager. In Norway, you’re just Brad and that’s perfectly all right. Save the long titles for the business card. Although, many Norwegians go as far as to even exclude their titles on their business cards, at least the Norwegian version of it. This can even apply to using distinguished titles such as Doctor, depending on the social setting. Much of this is because Norway is a very egalitarian society that never had an aristocracy. Those fancy people lived in Stockholm or Copenhagen. The last lordship in Norway (The Count of Jarlsberg) lost his title in 1829 and that was the end of that. For a quick tip, it’s best to simply listen to how Norwegians introduce themselves to figure out how they wish to be identified.
Both in business and in personal interactions it is best to avoid using “Mr.”, “Mrs.” and “Miss” courtesy titles. This is considered too formal in almost every type of setting. Also, in Norway, one’s personal relationship status is not really the business of others. Thanks to a strong and equal social welfare system, many couples are together for many years without formally marrying. It’s best to avoid potentially “miss”-identifying a colleague’s or business partners’ marital status and risking the embarrassment.
One exception where titles are required is when referring to the members of the royal family of Norway. Even in an extremely egalitarian culture, and with the Law of Jante, it’s good to be king! They are always referred to as “King”, “Queen”, “Crown Prince” and “Crown Princess”. If you’re lucky enough to speak directly to the royal family, you would address the King and Queen as “Your Majesty” and “His or Her Royal Highness” in the case of the Crown Prince and Crown Princess respectively. They also require more formal introductions for example, “His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon…” I was actually lucky enough to meet the Crown Prince for an intimate breakfast at his home, the Skaugum Estate, and I was incredibly nervous about the event. We Americans don’t have much experience with nobility. You could even say we’ve spent the last 200+ years moving away from the concept altogether. Still, such a title demands a serious amount of respect that I was ill-prepared for. Do I bow? Do I kiss the ring? Does he greet me by touching a sword to both shoulders? I was unsure. However, the experience proved to be surprisingly casual. Despite their high stature and exclusive use of titles, even the royal family in Norway is incredibly approachable and treated similarly to the population at large.
This wasn’t always the case in Norway; as recently as the 1970s, titles were used throughout the country. This included in business, noble families and included the professional titles like Doctor. Although as the society enjoyed its new financial prosperity during the time, the focus quickly shifted towards the more egalitarian approach we see today throughout Scandinavia. Personally, I don’t think their usage has been missed and even my big American ego has learned to accept it. Although, I still keep my title on my business cards. In bold. Maybe in a slightly larger font. Some old habits are hard to change, after all.
Here’s a few words you might hear as your work with Norwegians.
Pull one out to impress a colleague sometime!
BIRKEBEINERRENNET – A famous ski race in Norway that business executives often participate in. Companies have their own teams and your achievement in the tracks has become as important as your resume.
DET GRØNNE SKIFTET – ‘The Green Shift’. Creating a sustainable society based on green jobs and reduce the country’s dependency on oil and gas production.
FELLESFERIE – The summer holiday shutdown. You won’t be getting much work done this time as your colleagues will no doubt be out on holiday.
FJORD – One Norwegian word that has become truly international. Fjord in its basic meaning ‘where one fares through’ has the same origin as the word “fare” (travel) and the noun “ferry”. The narrow canyons with steep sides called fjords are formed by giant glacier slowly moving across the land and carving these paths.
GÅ PÅ TUR – ‘Take a hike!’ Literally. Not everybody actually does it, but everybody likes to give the impression they do it, and everybody at the very least talks about it. Norwegians love exercise!
HV-ØVELSER – Similar to the American National Guard, this is a mandatory military training exercise some of your colleagues might be part of. It’s the one time when it’s OK to make jokes about shooting guns with a Norwegian.
HYTTE – A small winter or summer cabin that Norwegian workers like to retreat to as much as possible. In Norwegian business culture it’s not considered extravagant to have a cabin.
KVIKK LUNSJ – The Norwegian version of a Kitt-Katt bar. You eat these with your Norwegian colleagues after a good cross country ski. Norwegians just love milk chocolate!
LANGRENN – Cross country skiing is a long and tiring physical activity your Norwegian colleagues will try talk you into. A Norwegian will tell you that cross-country skiing involves the highest endurance levels of all sports, as its motions makes use of every major muscle group, and that it burns the most calories. So in other words it’s pure torture.
LAW OF JANTE – A description of Norwegian group behavior that criticizes individual achievement as unworthy.
OPPSØKENDE SALG – Perhaps the one thing Norwegians hate to do the most! Cold calling customers and doing sales.
In many other business cultures you tantalize and amaze your business contacts with veritable cornucopia of treats. From pastries, to sandwiches, to sushi, and of course the American doughnut. I once continued meeting with a Silicon Valley startup not for the business opportunities, but simply because they always had the best flakey French croissants at their meetings. Norwegians however share and appreciate food differently, especially in business.
This is driven much by Norway’s history with food. Prior to the oil boom Norway was historically a rather poor country so having food was not about enjoyment but more about plain survival. While times have certainly changed economically these humble food traditions have remained. The waffles in the Telenor conference are a perfect example of this and they can even be considered a luxury for Norwegians. Beyond the flour and milk a simple item like this is considered to be ‘made with love’ and the waffles carry that love throughout their delicious crevices. So what I perceived as a low budget snack was actually a symbolic gesture of my importance as their guest. They appreciated me, it was just easier for them to show it through waffles than to have to say it verbally. It was very Norwegian, actually.
The Norwegian business lunch is a fairly unremarkable with little fanfare. Since the typical Norwegian office is more about efficiency lunches are meant to be quick (usually just 30 minutes). They also typically start at 11:30am, slightly earlier than most other business cultures. So by noon you’re already done and back to work. Lunch is also not meant to be enjoyable but instead you just need it to survive. The polar opposite of this would be the French business lunch which can run two hours and might even include some wine. Drinking during a Norwegian business lunch is not typical and would likely be considered inappropriate. Norwegians in general like to save their drinking for the evening, times they need to be social, and of course when they are trying to get laid.
For lunch cold sandwiches are often on the menu and warm lunch is not always available, which is strange in a country so cold you think you would find more items to warm one’s tummy. Once again, it comes down to food as more of a means for survival. It’s also about being practical and fast so that you can get back work. All that being said, lunches are in most cases very healthy. You might lose some weight in Norway and be more healthy. I know I shed a few kilos simply by avoiding the sugary foods often found in the American lunch. No wonder everyone in Norway is in such good shape. You typically don’t go out for lunch in the Norwegian workplace. That might be considered an inefficient use of time, plus food is so damn expensive. Employees sometimes bring in their own lunch wrapped in wax paper (matpapir). They bring mostly sandwiches of the open face variety. Many companies also offer a cafeteria (or kantine as it’s called in Norway.) Here you should be expected to bus your own tray and clean your plate. Everyone in the corporate cafeteria is an equal and it’s common to see the CEO dining here right alongside the rank-and-file employees. He or she will also bus their own plate just like everyone else. That famous Norwegian equity even comes down to doing the dishes.
The scene: 3am at a McDonald’s in Oslo. I had just attended a business event and survived the Norwegian drinking culture. Now it was time to do something us Americans do best: eat a big greasy cheeseburger.
With me were several new Norwegian business contacts I had been in discussions with over the last few months. In their well lubricated state the shyness was gone and thus they eagerly asked:
“So have you ever been cross-country skiing?!”
As I day dreamt about the burger on its way, I thought well I’ve been ‘normal’ skiing many times but I have no idea what cross-country skiing actually is. It sounds like a lot of work to be honest.
“No…” I replied simply.
“Oh then you must join us! It’s amazing! We’ll trek for hours in the freezing snow, take a break to eat a candy bar, and then return!” They explained with much excitement in their eyes.
To me this sounded like an awful way to further get to know each other. How could we work on our business partnership while skiing in a straight line, in the middle of the woods, in total silence? I was not incredibly eager to accept and follow up on their invitation. This was a big mistake on my part, and as a result the business relationship did not go much further.
What I had missed was that for Norwegians an activity like cross country skiing is how business relationships are strengthened. We do a physical activity together and that usually includes some element of suffering or hard work and then after that, we can begin to build trust together. You have to first put in the work to build a solid foundation for your working relationship.
As I spend more time in Norway it becomes easier to spot my fellow Americans here. Sometimes I laugh to myself and remember when I was the same way. I remember how it took some time adjusting.
I feel like I should say something to them.
I don’t of course.
I’m already Norwegian enough to know one never talks to strangers here. So since I can’t do that I have composed a few rules for how to not appear too American here in Norway. I hope you enjoy these Pro Tips (a Norwegian would just call them tips) and that they perhaps save you a bit of embarrassment.
DO NOT BE LOUD
The number #1 tell-tale sign of an American is the sheer volume that comes out of their mouth. It doesn’t matter if they are home alone, on a crowded subway or in a restaurant – they are loud. Although to be fair, many other cultures are as loud. In Norway, however, it’s more important to both respect and maintain the peace so use your inside voice. Or, better yet just keep your thoughts inside your head as many Norwegians do.
ACCEPT AND ENJOY THE SILENCE IN A CONVERSATION
Americans are master conversationalists. We can paint a colorful canvas of words and stories about even the most mundane of topics. Americans are also prone to always try to fill any conversation gaps with more and more words. In Norway you have to learn that sometimes silence in a conversation is OK! In fact, you’ll know when you have a good friend in Norway when there is silence in a conversation (even long stretches of it) and no awkwardness. There’s also a wonderful Norwegian saying that goes: ‘Og så ble ingenting mer sagt den vinteren’ which translates to ‘And then nothing was said that winter until spring.’ It comes from Norwegian farmlands where often something is agreed upon between two farmers before winter sets in and they only take up the conversion again once spring breaks. That’s a long time for neighbors to not speak but that’s also perfectly normal in Norway.
DO NOT ATTRACT ATTENTION TO YOURSELF AND DO NOT BRAG
This is a tough one for Americans. We love to both shoot our mouths in addition to our beloved guns. Attracting attention to yourself is a national pastime which is why we have created so much bad reality television and just about every major social media application. In Norway, one does not often brag about themselves. It’s much better if others do it for you based on their own experiences. When others brag about you that’s OK but you shouldn’t be doing it yourself.
DO NOT NAME DROP
The standard American business greeting consists of ‘Hello’, following by a series of personal brags and name drops. This is especially true in my former home of Los Angeles. There, name-dropping is almost used like currency. This isn’t really the case in Norway. In a small country everyone pretty much already knows everyone, so name-dropping is less impressive here.
DO NOT SHOW WEALTH
Norway is not a flashy country despite the wealth found here. You would think you would see more sports cars and furs! However those are only found in a small part of the west side of Oslo, in the Frogner neighborhood. I sold my expensive German sports car before settling down in Norway and take public transportation like everyone else. Citizens show off their wealth in more subtle ways like wearing expensive ski outfits and luxury wool.
DO NOT PAY FOR OTHERS
My former very American, very New Yorker boss once told me “You always pick up the dinner bill, even if you can’t afford it. People remember that and it’s the secret to success in business”. Since then, I’ve spent a small fortune on doing just that with few regrets. However, this is not something you do in Norway. Norwegians don’t like to feel they owe someone anything or that you’re trying to win favor with such an act. This includes even smaller gestures like picking up a cup of coffee for a colleague.
DO NOT BE TOO ENTHUSIASTIC
In American business industries, we usually see being too enthusiastic as a good thing. You’re passionate about your work and likely to work very hard for your goals. However, in Norway being too enthusiastic will cause Norwegians to doubt your abilities or assume you’re overcompensating. Worse, they might feel you’re being fake.
DO NOT COME TO A MEETING IN A BLACK MERCEDES
As one of my meetings in Oslo was concluding I called up a black Mercedes from my Uber application. As I said goodbye to the business contact outside their office the car arrived, flying down the street at great speed and screeching the tires as it rolled up. My business contact wore a shocked look on his face. It wasn’t the loud tires screeching that worried him – it was my own extravagance that offended him. That’s because in Norway only royalty or the Prime Minister arrives and leaves in such a fashion. Everyone else takes public transportation.
Thanks to a robust education system and lots of bad American television and movies, the majority of Norwegians speak perfectly good English! It’s not hard to communicate both in public and business settings. In most cases they’re happy to switch to English in your presence and sometimes enjoy being able to speak English with you.
That being said learning Norwegian, even in small amounts, can help you build camaraderie with your colleagues. If you plan to stay in Norway for a while there is some expectation in society that you’ll learn the language. Foreigners that stay here for 5+ years can be looked down upon if they have yet to grasp the language so it’s recommended to make some effort in this area. It’s typically always best to show both some admiration and desire to learn the language to your colleagues.
Your pronunciation will likely be dreadful at first and if Norwegians see you struggle they’ll be eager to switch to English for your comfort and theirs. However, if you let them know you’re really trying to learn and appreciate their support it’ll go a long way. It’s important to understand that Norwegians are typically too polite to correct your bad Norwegian. You’ll have to repeatedly ask them to do so, much to their discomfort. In the workplace, you can subtly signal your interest in the language through meetings and everyday interactions. For example, when handing a colleague a coffee or paper say “vær så god” pronounced like vah-sha-go to a native English speaker. You would typically say this after they “takk” (thanks) for giving them something as it loosely means “Here you go.” This is by far the most common opportunity to get started speaking a little Norwegian. You’ll earn a little bump in admiration from your colleagues and they’ll likely be keen to help you learn additional words.
Much like Ascension Day, Pinse is another Christian based public holiday in Norway. It is also known as Whit Monday.
This holiday takes place 10 days after Ascension Day and falls on a Sunday and Monday. It’s considered a public holiday and long weekend in Norway.
How do Norwegians celebrate Pinse?
As it’s a religious holiday most Norwegians don’t do much in terms of observance. This is a society that would much rather spend their Sundays on a hike than sitting in a church.
Still, Norwegians enjoy taking all faith-based public holidays because they have faith in something also considered a divine experience here. That being a rare sunny day in Norway. You see the majority of these religious holidays fall in May and June, right when Spring is starting and the sun makes its first real showing since lasts summer. So Norwegians celebrate the day the best way they know-how.
At their summer cabin and with close access to nature.
It seems that life is slowly returning back to normal here in Norway. Albeit in a slightly modified form.
The schools and some businesses are opening their doors once again. Soon the many quiet and modern offices of Norway will start to fill up. Although this being Norway they’ll still be very quiet even when full of workers. No one likes a loud office talker in this country of course.
But what does work-life after COVID-19 look like with regard to working with Norwegians? What adjustments do both foreign and local cultures need to make?
Let us take a look!
Lockdown is different for everyone
Remember your colleague’s lockdown experience might be very different than yours. Especially as it relates to colleagues with kids and those without kids.
If you don’t have kids you likely did all kinds of fun things like catching up on your reading, learned a new skill, baked some sourdough, and day drinking. So much day drinking.
However, those with kids and no barnehage (kindergarten) to drop them at probably had a much different experience. It’s a bit tough to upskill and work on your novel when the kids are driving you freaking nuts and you’ve still got video meetings to attend for work. There are only so many iPad apps to play and trampolines to jump on to pass the time.
So be careful not to brag about all your free time. Other colleagues might not have been so lucky.
We still need to keep some social distance
Even though Norway has done well to slow the spread the battle is far from over. We all still need to keep some social distance for the foreseeable future. This probably won’t be so difficult here as Norwegians were already keeping their distance from colleagues, both physically and emotionally! When many Norwegians heard they are supposed to stay 2 meters away from each other they simply asked: “Why are they making us stand closer than before?”. Take for example Norwegians at a bus stop.
However, don’t take offense if you’re sensing your colleagues are taking yet even more personal space. Give everyone some time to adjust and respect their boundaries. Even when sometimes in Norway those social boundaries are as wide as the fjord is long.
About that tracking app
Your coworkers might bring up the new COVID-19 tracking app that was recently released. It’s called Smittestopp (Infection Stop) and there has been much debate about its use along with some privacy concerns. At the same time, over 1.7 million Norwegians downloaded the app when it was released. Not too bad for a country with only 5.5 million people.
That’s because it’s important to remember that most Norwegians have very high trust for their government. Even when it comes to an app that tracks all your movements. Most see this as a good thing and something that can help the entire population. Let’s also not forget that in Norway it’s not about what’s good for the individual but what is best for the entire society.
If you’re a foreigner and an American like myself you probably have very little trust for your home government, especially when it comes to privacy and tracking. This is ironic given how we turn over basically all the same information to companies like Facebook and Google every single day.
Still, you may have colleagues who feel it’s important everyone downloads this tracking app and does their part. If you don’t feel the same it’s best to just fake it and tell them “Oh yes, I’ll download it later today!”. Even if you only plan to play Candy Crush that evening.
It’s a great time to shame the Swedes
Everyone around the world and here in Norway has been following the news about Sweden and their approach to Corona. Time will tell if they were correct in not locking down and allowing a herd immunity to build. Oh, and don’t worry if they were correct we’ll hear all about it. They’ll be bragging about it for the next few decades no doubt.
Still, until then it is an easy thing to joke about with colleagues. Even if some of them are Swedish! For example:
Swedish Coworker: “Hey so any big plans this weekend?”
American Coworker: “No, I’m going to do absolutely nothing. Just like you Swedes did about COVID!”
Worst case if you’re not comfortable dragging down the Swedes over COVID-19 there’s one country that’s even easier to Corona shame. That, of course, being America. Don’t worry we can take it. It gives us energy when you make fun of us. Energy we use to clean our guns.
Summer vibes at last
If there’s one thing COVID-19 doesn’t stand a chance against that’s the sun coming out in Scandinavia. And I’m not talking about the reports that warmer weather may slow the spread of the virus. As soon as consistent sunny days are here expect all rules to be off and life to rush back to normal. Nothing, not even a global pandemic, can stop Norwegians from getting some previous sun.
Although of course there’s no summer vacay in Spain this year for many Norwegians. So for us foreigners it’s best we show a little compassion there when discussing summer plans. Most Norwegians will be ‘suffering’ by having to spend time at their other summer destination, the summer hytte (cabin) instead.
Welcome back to work! Just 2 more months until summer break so don’t get too comfortable.