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Social Life in Norway

Greetings

As a well-educated country, most Norwegians speak at least a little English and if they spot you as a foreigner (no matter your country of origin), they will likely approach you in English. They don't expect foreigners to learn Norwegian and take pride in knowing a few greetings in English. Despite this, you are in their country so try to approach everyone with a few Norwegian words if possible.

The Norwegians will often greet you based on the time of the day, for example with the words god morgon (good morning) or god kveld (good evening). If entering a hotel or other public place you may hear velkomen, which means "welcome." If all of this seems too complicated or hard to remember, it's tough to forget the word for "hi," which is hei. If greeted in Norwegian, try to respond with one of the above Norwegian greetings followed with the words "snakkar du engelsk?" which simply translates to: "do you speak English?"

No matter the language, in which you approach a Norwegian and no matter the language they approach you in, greetings are commonly accompanied with a firm, but brief, handshake. With first time introductions you should also introduce yourself with your first and last name as your Norwegian counterpart will likely do the same. In business you may be offered titles with names and be sure to use these titles until asked to do otherwise.

When leaving a conversation, end as you began, with a departure greeting, preferably in Norwegian. Ha det bra means goodbye and if your host also served you food, be sure to thank them for that with the words takk for maten.

Behavior

Norwegian Culture - Enjoying coffee
Coffee

There is very little that will truly offend the Norwegians as they are very well aware of the differences in the world around them and they are quite liberal so odd behaviors are generally accepted (but not encouraged). Despite this, there are a few things that you must be aware of so you are a good guest in Norway and to guarantee you don't offend anyone.

Your behavior should begin with modesty as being loud, rude, showing off wealth, or dressing provocatively will get you stares. Likewise, placing yourself above others or boasting is viewed negatively, whether that be in your attitude, talking about finances, making others wait for you at a meeting, polluting their environment, or even in personal relationships. Putting others down gets the same reaction; Norwegians view men, women, minorities, and people of all sexual orientations as equals and not doing the same can be very offensive.

Perhaps the greatest offense you can make to a Norwegian is confusing them with the Swedes, but getting them confused with the Danes, Finns, or anyone else is also very insulting. Although no Norwegian will openly boast about their country, they are quite proud of their nation, history, and culture so be sure to know a bit about these things and avoid comparisons to their neighbors.

Dress

The traditional dress for ethnic Norwegians in Norway is called the bunad and represents the family's home or community. In this way, the clothing cut and style is similar across the country, but the design and patterns are very different.

Although the designs vary drastically across the country, the bunad usually consists of a white shirt, white socks, and black shoes for both men and women. Women also tend to wear a red, green, or blue top and a long skirt that is again in these colors and goes to their feet. Men often will wear a shirt in blue, green, or red, but also wear knickers and a jacket, which is typically either white or a dark blue or green.

However, the bunad is only wore for special occasions, like weddings and national holidays, and today most Norwegians wear clothes that are similar to clothing found anywhere else in Europe, North America, or Australia. Styles and even brands common in these regions can often be found in large Norwegian cities and it can be difficult to distinguish a Norwegian from anyone else. Of course there are some local items that distinguish the Norwegian if you have a keen eye; this is most noticeable in the shoes and in the many layers the Norwegians will wear as the temperatures drop and they always seem to be prepared.

The ethnic Sami have a different traditional dress called gakti, which is still often worn at traditional events and many reindeer herders also wear this dress on a daily basis. Historically this dress was made from reindeer leather, but today is typically made from modern fabrics, such as wool and cotton. It tends to be red, blue, green, or a lighter color and during the winter it also includes a reindeer fur coat. Women tend to wear long dresses, while men tend to wear long jackets. The gakti also includes boots that often have rounded toes and hats. Again, the details of the dress vary from region to region as these details also indicate whether or not a person is married.

Today the Norwegians rarely dress formally. As a laid back country, whose culture is based on rural life, it's not common for people to spend hours getting ready to go out for dinner or a drink. Dress in businesses is also usually a bit more informal, although for business meetings a suit is still regularly seen, depending on the individual and the relationship.

As a visitor to Norway there are few dress restrictions or expectations. As a fairly informal people, you may dress as you please and will receive few to no odd looks. The worst that can happen is that the Norwegians will spot you as a foreigner, but they are kind and this may only encourage them to talk to you. The only issue to be aware of is that nakedness and women going topless is restricted in many locations, despite being a fairly liberal country. If in doubt, follow the example of the locals or ask.

Arts & Entertainment

Norwegian Culture - Chess in Bergen
Chess in Bergen

Today entertainment in Norway is not that different from entertainment in much of Europe. The people love sports, movies, and music, especially outdoor music festival during the summer months. They also find entertainment in socializing with friends at a restaurant or bar. There is growing fine arts scene in Norway as literature, the performing arts, and visual arts are also popular. In fact, Oslo has one of the world's most impressive opera houses, although most of the people who make their way to the building do so only for the architecture.

The movie scene in Norway is somewhat limited as many people speak English and prefer American movies over Norwegian productions. Despite this, Norwegian movies are regularly made and many have become quite popular in Norway as they are shown next to Hollywood blockbusters. A number of American movies have also been filmed in Norway, including The Vikings (1958), Scott of the Antarctic (1948), and the world famous and cult favorite, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), whose famous opening scene on the "ice planet" of Hoth was filmed on the Hardanger Jokulen Glacier.

The music scene is quite similar as international artists are popular in Norway, but there is a much larger local music scene in Norway than there is a movie scene. This history dates back to traditional folk music, which was popular with both ethnic Norwegians as well as with the Sami, whose folk music is called jojk. This tradition continued with the famous composers Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) who put Norway on the map as home to internationally renowned music. Today unique music continues as Norway is home to thousands of bands, many of whom have a large local following, although few have made a name for themselves outside the country. Concerts by these performers and international artists are very common today.

Norway doesn't have a real long, or consistent literary history, as much of the population was illiterate throughout history and their literature is best known from their early history then again from the 1800s as education and independence movements arose. Bjornstjerne Bjornson (1832-1910) was a leader in this movement as he wrote in vivid detail about Norway's peasants and their daily life at the time he lived. Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) was also very popular as his books were translated into numerous languages, giving him a huge following; perhaps his best known work is The Growth of the Soil (1917). A final author of note is Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), who gained fame for her books about the medieval ages in Norway.

The visual arts and performing arts are also popular in Norway, especially in the capital of Oslo. Most of the country's operas, plays, and theater are all centered here as are many of the country's best art museums.

Folklore

Norwegian Culture - Troll
Troll

The folklore in Norway is extensive as it has evolved from the historic Norse mythology. Over time Norse mythology has divided into two classifications, that of the gods and goddesses of Norse mythology, also known as high mythology, and the folklore of the many beings said to roam the land, including trolls. Both have fallen in popularity and belief since the introduction of Christianity, but both still hold an important role in Norwegian culture. The high mythology of the gods and goddesses is well studied throughout the world and has lended the names of the days of the week, but takes on little additional role today. The folklore has created traditions and introduced common phrases into the language as it still plays a significant role today.

The most well-known of these mythical creatures is the troll, which is said to be stupid, slow, and quite large. It was believed that leaving the trolls alone meant they would do the same to people, but they are no match for the quick witted or the religious (specifically Christian) so there are stories of conflict with the trolls. As a myth, there seems to be numerous types of trolls in Norway and the rumors of their behaviors wildly vary, although there are many commonalities, such as the beliefs that they hate church bells and can alter form. Clearly the folklore of the troll has altered substantially from pre-Christian to post-Christian Norway.

In addition to trolls, there are other mythical creatures said to roam the Norwegian lands. The huldra is believed to be a forest seductress who lures men into her home. She is beautiful, but has the tail of a cow hidden under her dress, which can only disappear if she marries a man in a church. If married in a church her tail will fall off, but her beauty will disappear and her rechet personality will be revealed. Today many women still refer to beautiful and seductive women in this way, or as a warning to their husbands to stay away from other women.

Among the many other folklore creatures in Norway are female warewolves called maras, the good-hearted mermaids who helped sailors, witches, the waterfall-dwelling fossegrimen who plays the fiddle all the time, and the shape-shifting nøkken, who plays the violin and tries to drown people. Of course there are many more, but few have maintained a place in Norwegian culture and society today. One that has though is the the sub-terranean wight, which is also known as a gnome or dwarf. One wight in particular watches over farmers' land so long as the farmer feeds the wight, which is still a tradition on Christmas.

Another character that has shifted focus over time is the fanden, which was the most evil creature. The fanden had horns, a goatee, and a hoof instead of the left foot. After the introduction of Christianity the fanden has been replaced by the devil, but the imagery of the fanden has taken hold throughout the world as the devil is often depicted in this manner.

No matter the being, the best way to scare off these creatures of folklore is to wear a piece of iron or steel, have salt, or the ability to start a fire, all of which are said to successfully scare off even the most evil of these beings.

Superstitions

There were many superstitions from Norway's past, but most have disappeared as they were often tied to Norse mythology and folklore, much of which is now only studied in schools and universities and rarely believed to be true. However, a few of these superstitions still exist in some form today.

Many of these superstitions, of both past and present, are based on fishing and the seas. It was said that seeing a crow was a sign of bad luck for fishermen. Also, if a fisherman expected to get a lot of fish and brought a great number of buckets to store his fish, the opposite would be true. So fishermen would go out to sea with small buckets, hoping the opposite rang true and they would catch more fish than they could carry back to shore.

One superstition from Norway's folklore states that before entering a house or barn one much make loud noises then should take off their hats and loudly say: "Hallo! Hallo!" so as to not upset the gnomes and dwarves who may live in these places when the residents are away. Norwegians also sometimes say "tvi tvi" to ward off evil spirits also found in their folklore.

Perhaps one of the most commonly practiced superstitions of the modern age is that 13 people dining together is considered bad luck (one of these people is said to die) so dinners always include a different number of diners and tables are never set to seat 13.

Sports & Games

The Norwegians love the outdoors and sports of all kinds including non-competitive sports like hiking and kayaking to competitions of all sorts, especially for outdoor games. In fact, without Norway the Winter Olympic landscape wouldn't look the same as ski jumping, Nordic combined, and biathlon were all invented in Norway. Additionally, cross country skiing has been around Norway for centuries and may have also originated in the country.

Norway's history is also intertwined with cross country skiing when in 1205-1206 a couple birkibeinars put the Norwegian prince, two-year old Haakon Haakonsson on their back and skied from Osterdalen to Trondheim to save the young prince's life and maintain their movement. The prince later went on to rule Norway from 1217 to 1263, ending the civil war in Norway and establishing peace. Norway's tradition in cross country skiing and other winter sports continues today with the Birkebeinerrennet ski race and in 1994 the Norwegian town of Lillehammer hosted the Winter Olympics.

Today cross country skiing remains popular, but that love has expanded to include alpine skiing, ice skating, ice hockey, curling, and of course ski jumping. Summer sports and indoor sports are also on the rise in popularity in Norway as soccer (football), handball, and swimming are all very common. Despite the long history of cross country skiing, today soccer (football) is perhaps the country's most popular sport.

This page was last updated: August, 2013