I made a serious gaffe in one of my early visits to Norway. I had asked a colleague to assemble a dinner with influential players in my industry. My goal was nothing more than a casual setting to get to know each other and for me to explain the new work I was doing in the region. Even though I specifically said ahead of time the dinner would “be my treat”, panic ensued when the bill came I swiftly swiped my credit card covering the entire bill. Once finished I turned around to see a look of shock and uncomfortableness upon their faces. I had made a huge mistake and there was no going back now. A wonderful night of getting to know my new business contacts quickly turned into an awkward moment for everyone.
Before I could swipe my card with the speed of fine dining ninja there was some polite protesting and insistence on covering their own meals. However, I waved those off, assuming it was a general courtesy that one often does. You offer to pay once or twice and eventually relent, letting the other person pick up the tab. All the while I was not truly understanding the uncomfortable position I had put my dinner guests in.
You see, in Norway, there really is no such thing as a free meal. And that’s too bad, as you’ll soon find out that food in Norway is incredibly expensive! To buy someone a meal, even in a business setting, is often construed as you trying to win favor. You can imagine how this might complicate dating life in Norway for a foreigner! This is a culture that does not want debts or the feeling that something is owed to anyone. They value their independence and have fought hard (and fought off several invasions) to keep it. So, you have to be mindful of your wining and dining as you do business in Norway.
Additionally, there are even further tax repercussions in these scenarios. In a country where they love their taxes, there is little affordance for gifting, free meals or other questionable business expenses. One could easily get in trouble for accepting too many gifts and meals. And you, as the giver, are also limited to what is considered an appropriate business expense. For example, buying a colleague a glass of wine is probably OK, but an expensive dinner and several bottles of wine is probably not. This is contrary to many other Western and European business expense rules. In those markets, one might be more prone to going slightly overboard knowing that both the company is paying and probably writing it off as a business expense. In American business culture, it’s even a bit of a joke one might make while covering a huge bill. Proclaiming “tax write off!” as they eagerly swipe the corporate credit card. In Norway it’s not really a joking matter. And in the name of transparency, which this country loves, you may have to record who attended a business dinner and even what was discussed. Which makes me hope none of my bad or inappropriate dinner jokes made the official records.
When it comes to buying dinners or other business-related perks, I’ve come to learn that Norwegians have a very broad definition of corruption. This is for several reasons but primarily comes down to Norwegians not wanting to feel indebted to anyone. When they do, they’ll be eager to pay off any debts quickly, as having this debt hanging over them will create great stress and anxiety. One has to be super careful about not offering too much at first when building a new business or personal relationship in Norway, as you can literally lose them through your generosity, even if your intentions are not to win influence.
So, in Norway don’t feel an overwhelming pressure to buy business contacts dinners as you might feel in other business cultures around the world. As the waiter comes to your table they will typically first ask if they should split the bill. Instead of using this moment to show off your credit card prowess, take a moment to read the vibe from your dinner companion(s). If they insist on splitting, it’s better to offer little protest and avoid being overly insistent on covering the bill.