I always hear from other immigrants that Norwegians are rude as they don’t talk to you on the street. However, this is always due to the misunderstanding of Norwegian culture and character.
The Norwegian language is about saying something with as little fuss as possible. In English, to be polite when you meet a friend you’d say in one big breath ‘Hi, How are you? I haven’t seen you in ages. You’re looking well. Lost a bit of weight, have you?‘ But in Norwegian to mean the same thing all you need to say is ‘Hei! Takk for sist!‘ (Hi! Thanks for the last time we met.) It’s short, simple and straight to the point. Norwegians are a people of few words that mean a lot.
Over the centuries Norwegians have developed a habit of passing each other in the street without a glance. This may seem rude to non-Norwegians however, in fact, it is not rude but practical. If you meet a friend in the city it would be very silly to stop and have a conversation when it is below freezing temperatures, snowing and blowing a gail. Shaking hands with thermal gloves, nodding your head in your thick heavy hood and smiling behind your scarf can all be missed by even the canniest of body language watchers. So everyone in Norway have collectively agreed that the best way to handle the situation is to save it for a more appropriate time.
But since living in Tromsø, I’ve discovered a third reason for not being ‘polite’. Quite often I find myself ducking behind the apples in the grocery store or looking the other way in a one way street when I see particular people. This is not because I’m being rude, in fact, I’m being helpful. Confused? When you live in a Norwegian city long enough (I’ve been in Tromsø for two years now) you get to know a fair amount of people. But not just ordinary people, people who have seen you at your most vulnerable – doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, gynaecologist, microbiologists, physiologists etc. People who have seen you inside out or who know your embarrassing secrets. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t see someone that has had something to do with the birth of my children. On the barge to Alta I saw the midwife who delivered Lilu. While shoe shopping I saw my family doctor. While at the movies I saw the hospital gynaecologist. Imagine if you have grown up in Tromsø all your life – all your doctors and nurses are likely to be your High School classmates! So, I politely ignore them and they politely ignore me back.
Because of doctor-patient confidence it is awkward if a doctor comes up to you at the shops and says ‘Hi, L-Jay. How’s that gangrene coming along?’ What else does a doctor know about you other than your medical problems? So to save both of you the trauma of the conversation we ignore each other. That’s perfectly fine with me, and that seems to be perfectly fine with everyone else. This is a ‘small town’ mentality. When you can meet each other five times a day how many ‘hellos’ does it take to be ridiculous? And since practically all of Norway is one big small town (if a Norwegian doesn’t live in a small town then they at least grew up in one) one can appreciate the Norwegian culture of street etiquette.
So since Norwegian culture has good reason to exclude ‘polite chit-chat’ with friends, neighbours, acquaintances etc you are welcome to ignore them too. Of course, this ‘ignorance’ is not strict protocol in Norway. If you say ‘hi’ to someone out of the blue they will likely smile, or even say ‘hi’ back but don’t get offended if you don’t even get a nod as no reaction could possibly be the most considerate politeness of all.