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’s 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. 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 a few more shots, you may actually find you enjoy the stuff like 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 last man or last woman standing type 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 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. 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 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.