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Scandinavian Stereotypes

Scandinavian female stereotype

Revealed! The truths and the myths of widely-held views about Scandinavian people.

What comes into your mind when you hear the word Scandinavia? A region full of blonde-haired blue eyed happy people, hiking in the mountains and eating fish while they count their mountains of money?

Is your view of the Nordic people defined from experience? Or is it defined by things your parents told you, or what you've seen in the media or read online?

Judging by the content of the emails we receive here at Life in Norway HQ, we know that many people’s perception of Scandinavia and Scandinavians is wildly inaccurate! So, let’s put that right.

Read more: All about Scandinavia

Let's take a look in detail at some of the most common perceptions of people from this fascinating region.

A question of perspective

Stereotyping of Scandinavian people differs greatly depending on your perspective. Most foreign generalisations of the region's people paint them as wealthy, rational, and perhaps even boring, with very little differences seen between the three nationalities.

Yet step inside the region, and you’ll be surprised. Norwegian stereotypes about the Swedes and Danes are just as strong as the external perspectives of Scandinavians in general, and the same holds true from the perspective of the Swedes and Danes.

Scandinavian jokes

Scandinavian jokes featuring “the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian” are commonplace in schools. As depicted in this excellent long-running web comic, the typical Swede is seen as rich, arrogant, and tech-savvy.

The Scandinavian flags

The typical Dane is usually seen as a slightly decadent hedonist, with a can of beer never far from reach. The typical Norwegian is shown to be an uneducated jumper-wearing country bumpkin, always with a fish close at hand.

It should come as no surprise really. It’s impossible to discuss the history of one without mentioning the others within a couple of sentences. There were political unions, wars, and contested boundaries in the region throughout the Middle Ages.

Although this article deals with stereotypes from a global perspective, it’s important to remember this, especially when you get into a conversation with a local!

Now, it’s time to get back to a global perspective. let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular Scandinavian stereotypes. Which ones are true, and which ones are myths? Let’s find out!

Blonde hair, blue eyes

Perhaps the most popular stereotype about the region’s population is that everyone – men and women – is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. This is perhaps the biggest myth of them all!

It is true that the percentage of blonde-haired people is a little higher in Scandinavia than in the rest of the world, but it is a long way from being a majority.

A female Scandinavian

Like elsewhere in Europe, Norwegians, Danes and Swedes have a range of hair and eye colours. There are two theories as to why many Scandinavians have blonde hair.

One popular theory is it was caused by genetic mutations as a result of the lack of sunlight once humans began to spread north. Another more controversial theory has it that blonde hair began to develop in Scandinavia as a result of sexual selection, as it was deemed more attractive.

Whatever the truth, it’s thought likely that the Viking travels from the late eighth century onwards is what helped to spread the distinctive hair colour throughout Europe. So if you're blonde on top, you may have the Vikings to thank for it!

They're all socialists

The Nordic model is perhaps one of the most misunderstood economic systems in the world.

Far from being socialists states, the three Scandinavian countries are in fact principally free market capitalist economies. What defines the Nordic model is the comprehensive welfare state and collective bargaining layered on top.

Norwegian ballot box

As for politics, from 2013-2017 Norway had a ruling centre-right coalition, which was re-elected (albeit with some additional support from the centrist Liberal party) through until 2021. Assuming the government stays functional, that will be eight full years without left wing representation at the highest level of Government.

In Sweden, a coalition led by the Social Democrats has been in power since 2014, but it is one of the weakest minority governments in the country's history. Since 2015, the Prime Minister of Denmark has been Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the leader of the centre-right Venstre party.

The people are rude

This one divides opinion, and with good reason! Many academic studies have been done into Nordic behavioural patterns, and the results are fascinating.

While we’re not going to dive into detail here, the results can be easily summarised as a cultural misunderstanding. Behaviour that Scandinavians perceive as polite – such as not bothering a stranger with small talk – is perceived by some foreigners as standoffish and rude.

Read more: Are Norwegians rude?

A researcher from NHH’s Department of Professional and Intercultural Communication finds no support whatsoever for a universal standard of politeness in her studies:

“No, Norwegians are polite. We don’t bother other people unnecessarily. We don’t ask for help unless we feel we really need to. To us, that’s being polite,” she explained.

All Scandinavians are wealthy

Norway is a wealthy nation because of oil and gas, whereas the Swedish economy was built on copper and steel. One thing all three countries have in common is that the government, unions, businesses and people, generally speaking, work together for the greater good.

It also depends, of course, on your definition of the word ‘wealthy'.

Scandinavian oil wealth
Norway's oil and gas industry still drives the economy

While salaries are relatively high in Scandinavia, so is the cost of living. Every citizen knows there is a safety net there should they lose their job, become unable to work through injury, or fall seriously ill.

Because of the high cost of living, it's normal for both people in a relationship to work. The excellent support for new parents and priority of children in Nordic society means taking time off to have children is not a problem.

So while every individual Scandinavian isn't rich, there are a lot less people struggling to make ends meet than in certain other developed countries. How would that make you reevaluate your relationship with money?

Everyone’s house looks like an IKEA showroom

Come on now, IKEA is Swedish after all! In case you were wondering, there are 24 IKEA stores in Sweden, nine in Norway, and five in Denmark.

Scandinavian homes tend to skew smaller than you'd get in the United States, for example. This means no space is wasted and clever storage solutions are utilised wherever possible.

Read more: An Introduction to Scandinavian Design

So while not everyone shops at IKEA, the functional style of furniture made famous by the furniture store is certainly a feature of many Scandinavian homes.

All Scandinavians are happy

Another classic stereotype, albeit with a difference. This one is backed up by data. The Scandinavian nations, and in fact the Nordic countries in general, seem to always rank highly in various quality of life surveys.

Let’s take a look at the UN’s World Happiness Report. Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland ranked first through fourth in the 2019 edition. Sweden ranked seventh. So does that really mean that Scandinavians are the happiest people on earth?

Well, no. Not all researchers agree with the methodology used to establish happiness or quality of life. Of course, it boils down to the definition of happiness.

Some American expats living in the region say that “contentment” is a more appropriate word for how Scandinavians feel about their lives:

“It’s an understated emotion stemming from a number of assumptions Norwegians are fortunate to grow up with. These include that people are generally good and can be trusted, and that the government exists to serve its people and will fulfil that purpose,” said American expat Audrey Camp, who has lived in Oslo for several years.

Perhaps a more accurate way to put it, is that Scandinavians are the world's least unhappy people!

In summary

Remember those intra-Scandinavian stereotypes we talked about earlier? Let's finish with a joke.

A Norwegian, Swede and a Dane are travelling the ocean, but soon find themselves shipwrecked on a remote island. Just as the three Scandinavians wonder how they will survive, a genie appears and grants each of them a wish. Without a moment's hesitation, the Swede says, “I want to go home to my large bungalow, Volvo, and slick IKEA furniture.”

He vanishes, so the Dane says, “I want to go back to my cozy little Copenhagen apartment, to relax on my sofa with my sexy girlfriend and six-pack of beer.

As he too disappears, the Norwegian ponders what to do. Finally, he says, “I'm really lonely now, so I wish for my two friends to come back.”

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

40 Comments

  1. I’m an Indian, lived in Norway, recently traveled to Sweden & Norway ( cruise from West coast to Nordland) and spent five weeks. Great places , people. Lived there until well 1987 , still feel at home. Language, neither was nor is a problem. Managed for ten years and have same proficiency today. Love 💕 Nordic , especially Norway 🇳🇴

  2. That’s a slight variant of my favorite Scandinavian joke, best told in an exaggerated Nordic accent, “Aye vish dose tew guys vas back here.” As a Minnesotan who has lived in Norway, that’s not too difficult. And during my family’s Norwegian sojourn, of my son’s closest school chums, exactly one was stereotypically blonde/blue.

  3. Love the joke.
    My Norwegian behaviors must be in the DNA as I am 3 rd generation from the Norwegian immigrants. Uffda I said too much already.

  4. Great article! I live in Fargo, ND and have Norwegian ancestry. I can confirm that the blonde hair/blue eye stereotype is very much believed in these areas to be a fact instead of a myth!
    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Lived in Norway 14 years and thoroughly enjoyed the Norwegian/Swedish jokes! always miss it and wish I am back there

    1. So why are you not back? Are you in the US to save them? They are smart guys, they don’t need saving. Although European authorities could help a little bit. Take a more responsibility for the rights of our relatives over there in the US.

      1. Where did anyone say they needed saving? And why did you assume this person is in the US? There is nothing to indicate that they are in the US.

  6. Great article and joke. Toured Norway , my ancestral homeland, I am 100%
    Norwegian 🇳🇴. Originally from northern Minnesota, and oh yeah, I have the accent people tell me. Myself and lot of my 57 first cousins are or were blue eyed and blonde, but certainly not all. I read these Norwegian articles and now I am craving Lefse, and none in the house, Uffda./

    1. Neither am I a Norwegian, nor live there now, but love the country and the original attitude, people have. Have enjoyed my decade long stay and every visit now.

    2. Love sharing my maiden name with you. The Canadian Hegge family from Thunder Bay are descendants of Theodore Nicolaison Hegge and Maren Mortensdatter from Norway. They were married in Steinkjer near Trondheim, Norway in the early 1900s and came to Canada shortly after. There has been a word here and there that there was more family in Minnesota. TN and Maren had 5 children, 3 born in Norway, and 2 in Canada. Maren came after TN, in 1912, and missed boarding the Titanic as one of the kids had Chicken pox!

  7. Born and bread in Oslo, but left when I was 20 in the swinging sixties and since lived in London for 45 years and Malta for 5 years.
    Even the Norwegians are very different, either coming from Eastern Norway, the west coast or northern Norway. Compared to British they are rude, never or hardly ever saying please and thank you.
    Now at the age of 70, I am going back to Oslo for the last part of my life.
    I am still blond and green eyed

    1. Wov, you are considered rude if you don’t thank for the dinner or for the help you receive. It is time you get home. You know what happens to Norwegians who stays too long in Sweden, they lose the touch with reality and acquire all sorts of strange opinions. When they visit home, they think they speak Norwegian, but actually speaks some sorts of Swedish. Staying abroad too long is dangerous, environmentally dangerous, It gives you a skewed perception. You start to think it is normal that four-five persons own most of the country. And that a country can be run without taxes. Or that a whale is some kind of human. Welcome home. 😉

  8. I’m of Norwegian descent and believe that the Reformation in the 1500s, when the Danish King banished the Catholic Church, has much to do with the evolution of the Scandinavian mind set. No authoritarian church administering and taxing the locals. Think about it a little.

    1. Wov, you are considered rude if you don’t thank for the dinner or for the help you receive. It is time you get home. You know what happens to Norwegians who stays too long in Sweden, they lose the touch with reality and acquire all sorts of strange opinions. When they visit home, they think they speak Norwegian, but actually speaks some sorts of Swedish. Staying abroad too long is dangerous, environmentally dangerous, It gives you a skewed perception. You start to think it is normal that four-five persons own most of the country. And that a country can be run without taxes. Or that a whale is some kind of human. Welcome home. 😉

  9. I am Norwegian heritage, Holidayed in Norway, would love to live there,lack of money keeps me tied in Canada. someday maybe??? Dream on. elis

    1. No, Fennoscandinavia is not Scandinavia. If you’re a Finn, then you probably should know the difference. I’m from the US and I know the difference, even with our trash school system in comparison.

  10. Many years ago when I was young, I asked my Grandmother why Her and I had brown hair not blond like my Dad’ Her Son’. She told me We were spacial because we were “Norwegian Coffee! ” It made me feel very special.

  11. I was married to a Norwegian and enjoyed going to Oslo 3 times. I am from Canada. I found the people to be friendly. It is a beautiful country and I would love to visit Oslo again but also some other cities while I am there.Judie

  12. Great article my parents were norwegian and proud of it yes they immigrated but were proud to be come canadians and worked hard to make life good!

  13. I am of Norwegian descent on my mother’s side. Her grandfather, Ener Andreas Timandsen Lund , was born on Lund farm at Eftelot ((Sandsvaer) Norway and migrated to the United States in 1869 along with his brother, Anund, and sister, Maren Eline. In 1871 he married Sophia Helina Stenbek who was also born in the Sandsvaer region of Norway. They both died near Pelican Rapids, Minnesota and are buried at Bagstevold cemetery north of Erhard, Minnesota. They had nine children, one of whom was my grandfather, Gustav E. Lund. I own a copy of a book, “Lund Family – 20 Generations (1370-1975)” , by Leonard M. Lund, which was published in 1976 (Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 76-12113). I was lucky enough to inherit blond hair and blue eyes, although some credit must be given to my Swedish/German paternal ancestry. Unfortunately, I have not been lucky enough to visit Norway, the home of my mother’s ancestors!

  14. My father’s parents came over on the boat to Brooklyn NY … he was born here w his 5 siblings….my mother, her sister & brother came over on boat when she was 6 yrs… Mom & brother was a platinum Blonde/blue eyes like their Dad ..her Mom had dark brown hair/eyes..
    Dad had black curly hair his parents had brown hair … my sister & I born w blonde hair/blue .. brother had brown hair/green eyes 😊
    Wonderful kind hard working people all ❤️

  15. Have you noticed that Denmark is connected to Germany? Not to the Scandinavian peninsula?
    But if you look at Finland then you will see that a part of the country is a part of the Scandinavian peninsula. And we have some common history with Finland. Since Finland and Sweden was one country for a long time. I just mention it. It does not mean that I think the Danes is Germans. It seems the German has been a little bit confused regarding that matter through history. It is claimed that logic is not a particularly strong trait in the human family. Perhaps it could explain what has happened with the definitions.

  16. Have lived in Norway for over 3 years now. From New York City. From my perspective the Norwegian people are stiff and superior and not at all relaxed or open to change. Their society is absolutely conformist and all the young girls dress exactly alike and the young men too. Older middle-aged women become very manly and have a very stern look in their eyes. You feel as if people are looking at you with critical eyes judging you. It is extremely uncomfortable. The recent grand displays of wealth makes one long to be back in American and around normal people. Sorry Norway. I know you have a lot of money but the lack of creativity and freedom for artist-types is just too constraining. I am planning my escape. Meanwhile liberal posts on Facebook talk about how great Scandinavian countries are. They just have no idea what they are talking about. Money isn’t everything.

    1. You come from New York which is one of the rudest, dirtiest money-obsessed places in the world. Americans are also absolutely conformist where most of the men wear cargo shorts, baseball caps worn backward, and are obsessed with sports. All middle-aged women become more manly because their estrogen levels go down and their testosterone levels go up. As for Scandinavia being a place with a lack of creativity and freedom for artist-types, I don’t know what type of art you engage in but if you are an artist that engages in traditional realistic art and you try to get a showing in any major gallery in the United States you will quickly find out how closed off they are to traditional art of any sort. Their obsession is with the abstract modern art and it has been that way since the end of WW2 at least. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  17. A true Scandinavian person here! Born in Denmark, my mom is Norwegians and my father is a mix between Danish and Swedish 😅 my family and i moved to Norway when i was 14 years, and i can say that this is all true! Altough, maybe just my family and friends, but unless you venture off into Oslo (never do that) many People are in fact blond, and most Norwegians have blue/green/grey Eyed! Yes many People have Brown hair too, but it is often a Light to medium Brown! Very rarly do you see a dark headed Scandinavian ❤️ love to all! And yes not looking or taking, just quickly smiling at a stranger, or say hmm hmm excuse me if you need something from a stranger is Very polite here! Same as we do love our hygiene and it is seen as polite to shower and not smell, same with bad breath, not very polite having bad breath while talking to someone, we Even have a little teethbrush song that goes

    Puss puss
    Så for du en suss
    Puss så for du en suss
    Hver eneste tann med børste og vann
    Puss så for du en nuss

    Brush Brush
    And you’ll get a kiss
    Brush and you will get a kiss
    Every tooth with a Brush and water
    Brush and you will get a kiss

    It rimes in Norwegians and every kid learns this at maybe like Even 3 months, we just start signing ut, it is in our DNA when we Brush them theet 😂

  18. Hei/Hej/Moi, Part of Finland is on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Denmark is not.
    Am born and bred in Western Finland. My DNA shows 15% Southern Swedish/Southern Norwegian. 10% Scotland/Ireland, 4% Southern England. I wonder what happened to get that mix. Probably Vikings went to England/Scotland and brought back some ‘wives’ perhaps. Anyway, am blonde/blue eyes.
    Been living overseas away from Scand. for 40+ yrs. I agree with Erik Hansen’s comments above. Been to Finland & Norway on holidays few times. Finland was voted ‘happiest country in the world’ in 2018. But I don’t see much evidence of it. Don’t see many happy, smiling , laughing faces even in restaurants ! Attended a function here where the Finnish Ambassador was speaking and asking people to emigrate back to Finland. After the talk, I went to talked to him and his wife. Told them ‘I will return to Finland when they get rid off the Laughter Tax (nauru vero) ! ‘ He did not bat an eyelid, but at least the wife did as she was laughing her head off and then had to explain it to him. They seem to be devoid of any humour. Never heard of the word ‘excuse me or sorry’. Not in their vocabulary. They don’t open or hold the door for anybody, rude. Kase.

  19. I am not a scandinavian, but a “continental” european as they say, and travelled in different countries in Europe and have a special interest in anthropology and genetics. There are quite many clichés about the origins of blue eyes and light hair as it can be noticed even in this article: “it’s thought likely that the Viking travels from the late eighth century onwards is what helped to spread the distinctive hair colour throughout Europe. So if you’re blonde on top, you may have the Vikings to thank for it!” No, if you are blue eyed and light haired, you have not necessarily viking ancestors or germanic ancestors. Sorry to disappoint some of you. But at least, it says “likely”. The idea of a typical european having light eye- and haircolor is also a cliché ignoring that at least 50% of the europeans (n.b. excluding recent admixtures) are neither blue eyed or blond haired and we are not talking about southern Europe, but about the largest part of the continent including central, western and eastern Europe. The brown eyes with brown hair is one of the commonest combination in most parts of Europe. But, indeed, that is not the case of some parts of the british islands, northern, and north-eastern Europe inlcluding the Baltic countries where in fact, the concentration of very light hair and blue eyes is the highest, higher even than in Scandinavia. The origin of one of the genetic variants responsible for light eye color seems to be in the vicinity of the steps of the Black Sea, many years before the viking migrations, in fact corresponding to the Iron Age, about 3000 years ago, maybe more. And it is only a part of the truth as eye color, as well as hair color, are controlled by several genes, it is a polygenic treat, even if some genetic variants have a stronger effect. In fact many europeans and not only them, but in lesser extent, also people from the Middle East towards east, Afghanistan, northern India, Siberia, etc are carriers of light pigment for the eyes and hair and that it is not necessarily a consequence of the germanic, viking or other Middle Ages migrations, prisoners, slave trade, etc, even if these also had their role. This means that at least in Europe, many browned eyed and browned haired people are carriers of these variants, but as the “pigmented” variants are dominant, they get a darker color, even if not too dark either, not like in asians. And usually the hair in europeans is also thinner regardless of the color. That being said, on the continental Europe, it is not unusual that two browned and brown colored people get children with different eye colors including blue eyes and blond hair. The opposite, two blue eyed and blond people getting a brown eyed is less frequent, but has been described as a proof for polygenic involvment in the eye and hair colors.
    The people who settled in Scandinavia migrated from the continent when the ice-age ended. There were several waves of migration and eventually people carrying the genetic variants for light hair and eyes came too, but, as all the others, they came from the south/continent. Now the question is why the light pigment has concentrated in these regions? An explanation could be the controversed sexual selection (if we take the results of a norwegian study seriously, saying that blue eyed men prefer blue eyed women…no comment on this). Another explanation could be a “bottleneck effect” meaning that a small cohort of “continentals” settled in, and the majority of them happened to be blue eyed and blond haired and/or many of them, even if brown eyed/brown haired carried the genetic variants for light pigment. Then this population has grown from this small set of ancestors, and the light pigment has become predominant. Anyway, the theory of natural selection by climate with less sunny days can be discussed, as there are multiple examples of other populations leaving in similar conditions and without selection of light pigmented genetic variants for hair and eyes. It is rather the skin pigmentation which is most influenced by the climate, as for the need of vitamine D synthesis.

    To resume, the origin of blue eyes and blond hair is not in Scandinavia even it is now concentrated in those regions, and not only (see Baltic). The majority of europeans are carriers of these genetic treats and that is not necessarily because of admixture with scandinavians or germanic people generally, even if this has also happened, but the european continental population was already (!) carrying those variants when those “germanic” migrators came back to the continent during the migrations of the early Middle Ages (around 1500 years ago) and later on with the vikings (around 1000 years ago).

    1. I see. Boris Johnson UK PM is very blond and blue eyed. I always thought his ancestry is Scandinavia or German. But recently read it’s actually Turkish. ie. around the Black Sea as you say is the origin of this blue mutation or the original brown eyes.

      But I always thought the mutation happened in Scandinavia due to lack of sunlight. How do we know that the people who settled in Scan after Ice Age 11,000 yrs ago were already blond/blue?
      What about the Lapps /Sami people who live in Northern Scan., do they have blond/blue combination? But I think they have dark skin similar to Eskimos. Also have heard and seen blonde/blue eyed dark skinned Solomon Islanders. Did the Vikings go all the way to the South Pacific ? Kase

  20. Love this! I’m of Norwegian decent and I have brown eyes and brown hair. I hate the blonde sterotype. My mom was blonde but all her sisters were brunette.

    1. Megan, you might be the unlucky one. Around here all the girls seem to aspire to be blonde because ‘gentlemen prefer blondes’! So we see a lot of bottle blondes, I have never seen any bottle brunettes or rangers (red heads).
      Kase.

  21. How about the Laps in northern Norway?My mother’s side was from near the arctic circle and were black haired and dark skinned.

    1. Well that’s another story really. Laps roam all over the Arctic circle area from Norway, to Sweden, to Finland and all the way to end of east Russian at Bering Strait next to Alaska. and I would say Laps are related to Eskimos who are related to Asian lines who have dark skin and dark hair. Kase.

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