Politeness in Norway may not seem like something you need to learn. But the differences from your home country can be surprising.
We are hardwired to think our own normal is, well, normal. This includes what we see as polite. Did you grow up smiling to random strangers at the bus stop, saying ‘hi!’, ‘how are you?’ or ‘great weather’?
Do you use a polite address in your language, and if yes, to whom? Do you greet people with a handshake, a nod, kisses, a hand to the heart – or no greeting at all? Do you frequently use little words like please, thank you and sorry?
There is no universal standard for politeness
‘Polite' behavior refers to ‘behavior that is in line with social norms.’ There is no universal standard for what that means, and assuming that our normal and polite is normal elsewhere won’t get us very far.
Different people have different ideas of what is polite, ordinary, normal, and what is not. This becomes very clear when we move to a different cultural context; say, to Norway from almost anywhere else.
If we want to understand social norms that are different to our own, we must accept that ‘normal' is changeable.
Read more: Are Norwegians Rude?
Using one's own frame of reference to evaluate observed and experienced behavior in a different cultural setting may lead to misunderstanding and conflict.
I hasten to add that I am not trying to argue that everyone in Norway – or anywhere else for that matter – shares a unified idea of polite and proper.
Nor am I trying to pitch ‘Norwegians’ against ‘others’. I am merely stating that politeness differs with cultural contexts.
Phatic talk explained
The term phatic was originally coined by anthropologist Branislow Malinowski in 1923 and refers to talk that holds a social rather than strictly informative function (Rygg, 2016).
Phatic communication can be verbal or non-verbal. It includes simple greetings like waving a hand or (air) kissing, but also verbal greetings like ‘hi’, ‘how are you’ or ‘how are things’, as well as so-called small talk.
The plot thickens when we consider that this is a cross-cultural minefield. First of all, what are acceptable non-verbal greetings?
In Norway, we have had the handshake versus hand-to-the-heart debate, and as someone who has moved around a lot, I can safely say that trying to remember how many kisses are the norm in various cultures and which side to start kissing, when my own norm is ‘firm handshake or nod at a distance, thank you’, can be challenging!
Similarly, you don’t even have to be non-Norwegian to experience mild confusion when greeted with a hearty ‘Javel!’ – untranslatable, really; the best I can offer is ‘Right!’ – and some head nodding in Stavanger.
Having established initial contact, you may engage in small talk – but what are acceptable topics for small-talk? Can we move beyond the weather, the upcoming holiday/weekend, and sports?
Will enquiring about someone’s personal finances or how they met their spouse be a faux pa? How about work, or ‘quirky’ questions like ‘tell me about the last book you loved’?
I recently had my intermediate level Norwegian class compile a list of acceptable small-talk topics in their own countries and was surprised to find that indeed, personal finance was perfectly acceptable in some places, as was commenting on weight and enquiring about diet.
I tend to recommend sticking to weekend activities, holidays, films/series, kids if applicable or books. I have tried versions of ‘how did you guys meet?’ in different cultural contexts; not a unanimous success!
What form communication takes is important – but so is the question of who you engage in communication with in the first place.
Peaches or coconuts?
Saying hello on the bus, chatting about non-informational things at the supermarket checkout, and smiling to passersby facilitates smooth social interaction in the right cultural context.
Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner and, more elegantly, Erin Meyer, refers to this as ‘peach cultures.’ In a peach culture, engaging in social interaction with strangers is normal, ordinary and accepted. Polite.
In peach cultures, the communication style can be described as soft. Smiles come quickly, greetings are cheerful; but softness does not necessarily translate into close and lasting friendships. Erin Meyer shares this story, told by a German, in her article One Reason Cross-Cultural Small Talk is so Tricky:
“In Brazil people are so friendly – they are constantly inviting me over for coffee. I happily agree, but time and again they forget to tell me where they live.”
In ‘coconut cultures’, like Germany (ibid.) or Norway, people may appear more closed off. Fewer smiles, less information shared, significantly more (uncomfortable?) silence.
While I am more than happy to smile, shake hands or chat about the weather or Netflix (The Chestnut Man if you haven’t seen it already!) in a setting defined as ‘social’, I see no reason to do so with a stranger on the bus. We will likely never meet again, I respect his (assumed) need for privacy and personal space and I expect him to respect mine in return.
It seems even which settings we define as ‘social’ and worthy of social glue, vary.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people from peach cultures can find people from coconut cultures cold, uninterested – uninteresting, even – rude and difficult to get to know. Vice versa, the chatty peaches may appear a little manic for the average coconut, who just wants to sit on the bus in peace and quiet, scrolling through Insta, thank you.
Alternatively, coconuts can interpret initial chattiness as the beginning of a new friendship, while the peach was merely being nice, without any intention of a deeper bond.
It is well beyond the remit of this text to go into anything more than a gross generalization of cultural difference, but I would like to repeat that ‘normal, ordinary and polite’ are relative terms.
What is accepted as ordinary behavior in one place may not be elsewhere. Failing to recognize this could result in misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
Polite talk in Norway: what can I actually say?
So, cheerfully greeting everyone, friend or stranger, or attempting a debate on ‘best Netflix series’ on the bus is not the norm for ordinary polite behavior here. Much has been said about Norwegian politeness centering around non-interruption and respect for others’ time and space.
You can read more about this here, but if you live in Norway, you are probably engaging in social interaction on a more concrete and verbal level.
How can you be polite in a way that people understand as ‘polite’ when you communicate verbally in everyday life? Language is part of culture! So what can you actually say?
Last year, one of my intermediate level Norwegian students had an epiphany in class.
‘Oh, my goodness!’, she exclaimed, ‘I understand now! He was just directly translating Norwegian phrases, thinking they were polite because they are here!’
It turned out she had had several discussions with her Norwegian partner while the two of them lived in her home country together. He would consistently say things like ‘I want the fish’, ‘I’ll have a caffe latte’, and ‘can I have a beer?’
She found him rude, as did the majority of serving staff they interacted with, according to her. He didn’t see the problem.
When her Norwegian proficiency was good enough to understand everyday conversation, she saw what had happened. He had translated a (polite) Norwegian term into an (impolite) English one, failing to account for accepted communication patterns and politeness norms.
As a young elementary school child, my own son had a similar experience, receiving a stern look (from mum) and loud snigger (from the other kids) when he said ‘Oops, I farted!’ at a party, rather than constructing a sentence around ‘passing air’. The mum took me aside to explain that she insisted on ‘passing air’ because saying ‘fart’ was rude. To my son, a fart was a fart.
Å kalle en spade for en spade (to call a spade a spade) is a Norwegian idiom illustrating one of the Norwegian communication norms perfectly. Directness, just say it as it is, avoid beating around the bush or wrapping statements into a myriad of unnecessary words.
Does that work for polite verbal communication more generally? Yes, it does!
Please and thank you in Norwegian
There is no equivalent to the English please in Norwegian. Please translates vær så snill, but it is not used like please is used in English.
Children can be heard saying ‘værsåsnill!’ if they’re pleading. If I say vær så snill, it is to indicate that I have made the same request one too many times and I am starting to lose my patience.
Could you please remove your smelly socks from the bathroom floor becomes kan du være så snill å fjerne de illeluktende sokkene dine fra badegulvet?, but rest assured, no one would think I was being especially polite.
Thank you, on the other hand, is in a sense comparable to the English ‘please'. If in doubt, say thank you!
Takk (Thank you), tusen takk (a thousand thank yous), hjertelig takk (thank you from the heart) and tusen hjertelig (takk) (a thousand thank yous from the heart). Takk for meg/oss (thank you for having me/us), takk for besøket (thank you for coming) – and don’t forget takk for maten (thank you for the food).
The Norwegian arm
Imagine you’re seated at a dinner table, and you would very much like another glass of water. Unfortunately for you, the water jug is out of reach. You could say nothing and throw out a Norwegian Arm.
The Norwegian Arm is often seen as funny, weird, absurd or, yes, rude by non-Norwegians, but it makes kind of sense within a framework of ‘do not disturb or interrupt.'
My family dinner table is a busy affair. There are five of us and we don’t overlap much in a normal day, so at dinner, we talk. A lot.
My husband would easily reach across the table, narrowly avoiding dipping his shirt into my pasta sauce to retrieve the water jug, without interrupting his math conversation with the 15-year-old or my discussion on appropriate party attire with the tween.
How to politely ask questions
Alternatively, you could interrupt the flow of conversation and ‘use your words’, as more than one toddler parent before me has urged their little ones. If you chose to use your words, simply phrase them as a question and you should be fine.
Kan jeg få ……? (May/can I have…?), kan du sende meg …..? (can you pass me …..?)
If you interrupt someone, say unnskyld (excuse me) before starting your sentence. When you receive what you asked for, say takk! You could also say takk at the end of your query: Kan jeg få en kaffe, takk? (May/can I have a coffee, thank you?)
It is common to hear statements, for example Jeg tar en kaffe (I’ll take a coffee), which isn’t for everyone. Phrasing a query should keep you safely within the norms of polite conversation.
Lastly, you could use verb tenses to express politeness. In my examples above, I have indicated queries using the present simple of the modal verb, kan jeg (can I) to form a question.
More politely, you could choose a different verb tense: kunne jeg få (could I have…) or kunne jeg ha fått (could I have had…). There we are.
Being polite across cultures is not for the faint-hearted. What can we talk about and what is best left alone? How do we phrase ourselves to be understood rather than misunderstood, and who can we expect to engage socially with in the first place?
I often refer to Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) journalist Noman Mubashir, who in a brilliant text advised non-Norwegians to get a dog to help with integration. Perhaps he is right.
Coconuts may not engage in conversation with strangers for no reason at all, but a dog is a topic and I hear they are nuts about dogs.