A guide for foreign workers in Norway: How to decode and understand instructions and feedback in a Norwegian office.
Reading up on doing business with Norwegians, I find statements like ‘Norwegian communication style is very direct,’ ‘they believe in saying it exactly as it is’, and ‘Norwegians do not think it is disrespectful to point out what they regard as an error.’
We say it as it is, avoid beating around the bush – or ‘walk around the porridge’ (gå rundt grøten), as we say in Norwegian. Direct, concise communication (formidlingsevne) is valued.
Describing someone as a tåkefyrste (a fog lord, someone who has wrapped the message up in so many words that it’s difficult to decipher), is definitely not a compliment in Norway.
But are all forms of communication equally direct? I’m not so sure.
‘Norwegians are often presented as clear and direct communicators’, agrees Karin Ellis, CEO and founder of Ellis Culture when I ring her up for input, ‘but this is not always the case.’
Karin has 30 years’ experience working in multicultural environments and her company ‘… strives to build bridges between cultures through increased culture awareness.’ Karin is the author of several books and offers talks and workshops to companies and individuals.
‘The lack of clarity is the biggest challenge for newcomers to Norwegian workplaces,’ she shares. ‘New employees will seldom be told what is expected of them, instead they will get minimal guidance, instructions, feedback and follow-up. In Norwegian workplaces, there is a tendency to simply assume that things are okay unless otherwise stated.’
‘Welcome; here is your computer and access card. Ask if you need anything’ – onboarding? I suggest, having experienced this myself.
‘Yes,’ Karin confirms. ‘But new employees don’t necessarily understand that a high level of individual responsibility is expected and that they must work independently and find methods for solving problems.’ This can be a challenge for Norwegians as well as immigrants.
‘Leaders often focus on what needs to be done,’ continues Karin, ‘rather than how. We value independence and don’t want to tell others what to do; but to someone who is used to detailed instructions at work, this can be a real challenge.’
Phrases like ‘kan du ta en kikk på dette?’ or ‘kan du se på dette?’ (could you have a look at this?) often cause confusion. ‘‘Could you have a look at this?’ should not be seen as a suggestion to just look at something’, Karin shares, ‘but rather as a task that has been delegated to you. You’re expected to work out how best to handle it. If in doubt, ask! By asking questions when in doubt, you will be perceived as a trustworthy colleague who is determined to do the best possible job,’ she concludes.
It is far better to ask how, than to ignore a nagging insecurity and do nothing.
If onboarding, simple instructions, and follow-up can be vague despite an ideal of clear and direct communication, how do we fare with evaluations?
Erin Meyer, professor at INSEAD Business School, works with intercultural management and is well known for her book The Culture Map.
Here, she discusses how our cultural backgrounds affect communication and interaction in many areas. Her ideas on how evaluation and disagreement is seen in different cultural contexts are interesting:
How we deliver negative feedback can be direct or indirect, writes Meyer. A direct feedback is blunt. It is not softened by positives and often delivered with linguistic upgraders such as ‘totally unprofessional’ and ‘completely unacceptable.’
Direct evaluators are not afraid of delivering open and honest feedback to your face, in public.
An indirect negative feedback, on the other hand, is diplomatic, and often wrapped in positive statements, like a sandwich. Linguistic downgraders can be used to describe something as ‘somewhat unprofessional’ or ‘largely unacceptable.’ Indirect evaluators prefer to deliver negative messages in private. A publicly delivered negative evaluation would be seen as embarrassing for both sender and recipient.
Something happens in the intersection of communication- and evaluation norms. Could it be that although Norwegian communication style is direct overall, a general discomfort with direct confrontation and our belief in egalitarianism and individual independence muddies the waters and make us less direct when delivering negatively charged evaluations? Have a look at this:
Imagine you have written a proposal for a presentation. This is a feedback statement.
‘Bra, men du må inkludere mer data i andre del.’ (Good, but you must include more data in part two.)
This is a direct, unambiguous sentence with little room for individual choice. The verb is bidding and there are no softening downgraders.
As someone who regularly hands out feedback on language production, I strive to be unambiguous and clear. Pinpont positives. State the problem if there is one and suggest a solution/way forward.
At the same time, I’ll be honest and admit that it makes me a bit uncomfortable to directly tell another individual what she must do. Additionally, I believe there is learning in solving a problem rather than being told what to do.
As an alternative to a direct, unambiguous instruction, you may receive something like this:
Direct, but less confrontational communication
‘Alt I alt er dette en solid presentasjon. Jeg liker måten du har løst oppgaven på. Jeg har et forslag; du kunne kanskje inkludert en tabell med tilleggsdata i andre del?’ (All in all, this is a solid/good presentation. I really like the way you have solved the task. I have one suggestion; you could perhaps have included a table of additional data in the second part?)
Several things have been done to make this less confrontational:
- There is a more substantial positive introduction. The underlined sentence is the ambiguous one.
- The modal verb has been changed from an instructional must to a suggestive could, and it is used in a verb form that indicates politeness in Norwegian.
- Linguistic downgraders or modifying words – kanskje, muligens (maybe, possibly) – are used.
- I have phrased a question rather than a statement.
Another ‘trick’ I could have used to soften a potentially negative message is inserting personal opinion, and then ask for the recipient’s opinion in return: ‘Jeg tror kanskje det kan være greit å inkludere en tabell i andre del. Hva synes du? (I think perhaps it might be a good idea to include a table in the second part. What do you think?)
A direct but non-confrontational communication style opens the floor for some degree of ambiguity and individual choice. The sender is not telling the recipient what to do, she is suggesting; it is up to the recipient to interpret the suggestion.
This can be tricky; for everyone, but especially if the sender and the recipient are far apart in terms of linguistic and cultural frame of reference. Is she telling me what to do, or not? Does she mean ‘include the table of data?’ Can I choose to say ‘no’?
Clearly, the power distance between you is relevant when trying to decipher meaning and options. Are you discussing the presentation with your co-worker, or receiving feedback from your responsible line leader, editor or proofreader?
Bluntly? Yes, I mean you should include the table of data. But the floor is open to discuss saying ‘no’. ‘Norwegian managers are usually open to listen to you,’ writes Karen Ellis in Working with Norwegians. ‘It does not always mean that you will get what you want. However, your honest input is appreciated.’
Disagreement – or ‘honest input’ – could be voiced directly or indirectly:
Phrasing and decoding disagreement
You could boldly state that ‘Jeg er ikke enig’ (I don’t agree), or ‘Jeg er helt uenig’ (I completely disagree), relating your disagreement to fact rather than person. These are certainly very clear and concise statements, but they don’t leave much room to talk. After all, what else is there to say?
Alternatively, you could choose a more non-confrontational approach, saying for example ‘Hmmm… jeg er bare delvis enig.’ (Hmmmm…. I somewhat agree/I agree to some extent), or ‘Jaaaa…kanskje du har rett.’ (Yeeees….perhaps you’re right). Downgraders, remember?
Instructional textbooks for adult language learners – a great place to learn about language use and conventions – will tell you both approaches are acceptable, depending on the situation and desired outcome.
What to do?
I don’t think it’s fair to state that ‘this is what you can expect, and this is how to understand the message’. There are several factors at play in a workplace that are well beyond the scope of this text. We must, however, remember that a message travels between a sender and a recipient, who may or may not share a similar understanding of the message’s context, intention and meaning. There’s plenty of room for misunderstanding here.
‘Can we mitigate this?’ I wonder, and again I turn to intercultural trainer Karin Ellis for input. ‘That is why I do this work,’ Karin shares.
Norwegians often want foreigners to adjust to our cultural context, she continues, and of course, they must – but employers must also reach out to meet them. Often, it doesn’t take all that much; we can come a long way with information and some tailored guidance.
In the meantime, your quick-fix to decoding instructions and evaluations could be:
- Listen for ‘wrapping’. Is there a suggestion for improvement wrapped in positives?
- Listen for the use of downgraders and suggestions. Is there something you could possibly have a look at or consider in there?
- Remember, communication is cultural and relational. If you’re not sure your understanding is correct, ask for a clarification.