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Being Norwegian in America

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Growing up in Norway means consuming a lot of American culture in various forms, but in particular TV shows and movies. I guess that's why coming to America in many ways feels like coming home – everything is instantly recognizable and feels comfortable, like a favorite pair of old jeans.

That said, there are bone-jarring moments of culture shock and the occasional sneaking suspicion of having been secretly whisked off to an alien planet.

Let me just say this right away: I love America and I adore Americans. I know this isn't always fashionable and I understand perfectly well why that is, but there it is, I said it. Americans are open, friendly, polite, and very easy to get along with. They are also very generous, sometimes beyond belief.

It's not like I haven't been to the U.S. before; I used to live in Florida when I was a kid and I traveled extensively all over the U.S. in the 80s. So let's start with what's different, what's changed since then.

First, there's the issue of patriotism and flag waving. Americans have always been proud of their country, but there's a marked difference from 25 years ago. It's all a little more defiant and in-your-face today, and there's an edge to it.

Not that Norwegians aren't patriotic, only there it's more with a tinge of nationalism, and not always the good kind. Norwegians don't wave their flags around quite so much, but when they do it's with an arrogant undercurrent of implicit superiority that can quickly become a bit much, even for some natives.

The other big difference is the roads. Back in the 70s and 80s American roads were different, they were filled with huge cars completely unlike anything back home. Today American roads look almost like Norwegian ones, except of course there are many more of them and they're much wider and straighter. But the cars are depressingly like cars everywhere else. Only the trucks, the "big rigs", remind you of where you are.

While we're on the topic of roads and traffic, there are some things that immediately strike the Norwegian visitor as odd, including several car makes. Saturn, Infiniti, and Acura are not generally well known outside of the US. Even stranger are the "No right turn on red" road signs and the dawning realization that in some states, in most intersections, you are allowed to turn right (after coming to a complete stop), if the road is clear, even when the light is red.

Still, the real fun is reserved for when you enter a freeway for the first time. The right lane is for slow traffic and the left lane is for passing, right? Not necessarily. You need to move over to the right lane well in advance of your exit, right? People seem to have different opinions on this, some very different indeed. You need to use the turn signal and check your mirrors before changing lanes, right? You’d think this was a good idea, but apparently not everyone does. All in all, driving on American freeways and interstates requires eyes in the back of your head and nerves of steel.

But wait, there's more. Dear Norwegian or other European reader: The first time you go into an American restaurant, please be careful and do prepare yourself mentally. First of all, the service is great, like nothing you've ever experienced before. Tipping is expected (around 15-20%), but you're not going to mind, you're going to want to over-tip.

Second, the portions are gigantic. If at all possible, order "small" of everything and even then be prepared for the next culinary culture shock: The doggie bag. You get to take your leftovers with you, something we’re not at all used to. It’s enough to make you wonder what restaurants in Europe actually do with their leftovers.

But that's not all, and this will really knock your socks off: At most restaurants they will refill your glass of soda or other soft drink for free. Not that big of a deal? To a Norwegian, it is. We're used to paying more than $5 for a small glass of soda, no refills.

Lastly, when the waiter brings you the check before you ask for it, sometimes even before you're done eating, there's no rudeness intended or implied. Many restaurants do it that way, to the initial surprise and discomfort of some foreign guests.

Even though the U.S. receives many foreign visitors, Americans in general tend to think in domestic terms about most things. So it is with check-out clerks at stores. The following exchange has happened to me on several occasions:

Me: "I'd like to purchase these, please."
Clerk: "Yes, sir. Will that be cash or credit?"
Me: "Credit."
Clerk: "Your ZIP code, please?"
Me: "Oh, I'm from Norway."

Clerk: "Yes, sir. Your ZIP code?"
Me: "21401" (really Annapolis, Md)
Clerk: "Thank you."

There are actually several towns in the US called Norway; perhaps next time I should reply "04268" (Maine) or "66961" (Kansas).

The flip side of consuming all that American culture is the stereotypes it instills.

Europeans are used to thinking of Americans as fat, but this is simply not true, at least not in California, where people are fit and girls are as anorectic looking as anywhere else. However, you will see more severely obese people in America than in Europe, with the possible exception of the UK.

Another common conception is that all Americans carry guns, go to church constantly, and enjoy suing each other all the time. Ignoring the facts of the matter for a minute, we’re slowly getting into politics here. A quick word of advice: Don’t.

In my view, based on personal observation and many conversations, the center of American politics is shifted to the right of the center of Norwegian politics. Or, if you prefer, the center of Norwegian politics is shifted to the left of the center of American politics.

A typical Norwegian conservative can easily find himself labeled a liberal in the U.S., especially on issues like gun control, the death penalty, abortion, and healthcare. A typical Norwegian social democrat won't find many areas of agreement with a member of the Democratic party in the U.S., with the possible exceptions of the same issues.

Individual freedoms and civil liberties have a strong position in the minds of people in the U.S., mostly because of the country's history. In Norway these issues have a strong legal and de facto standing, but most people don't think about them much. The same goes for freedom of speech, which Americans can't shut up about, and which Norwegians just take for granted without thinking.

The biggest difference between Norway and the U.S., when all is said and done, is the friendliness and openness of the people. This usually gets lost in the din of politics, and of course there are infamous exceptions, like New York, but overall it holds true.

Actually, even New York isn’t so bad, especially when compared to Norway and some other Northern European countries. Not that we Europeans are unfriendly, we’re just reserved, withdrawn, and perhaps a little shy. The overall impression it leaves is that we’re rude, and seen with American eyes, we are.

If you bump into someone in the U.S., they will automatically say “sorry”, even though it was your fault. If you walk into a room with other people, someone will invariably recognize your existence by saying “how are you?” or something similar. And they will meet your eyes.

Smiles and conversations come easy, even though it’s mostly just small talk. People appear genuinely friendly and, contrary to legend and with the possible exception of those check-out clerks, they really do want to know how you are. Preferably in three words or less, but still.

Not so in Norway. The Norwegian who can express how they’re doing in fewer words than an average obituary hasn’t been invented yet. And yes, I chose my words carefully there; we’re a melancholy people.

Everyday social encounters seem cold by comparison to the U.S.; people will look down, or meet your eyes for a split second and then look away, their expression blank. If you walk into a store, you have to actively seek the attention of a clerk, and they will appear to not be all that interested in selling you anything.

They don’t intend to be rude, not even when they bump into you and leave you standing there with your shoulder dislocated; it’s just part of the culture. And once you break the ice and get to know someone, they can be very friendly and open. It just takes work.

It’s not all better, bigger, and friendlier in America of course. Driving through a typical suburban area with miles and miles of strip malls and identical chain stores can make a Norwegian heart feel cold and lost. The first time you read about a homicide taking place somewhere you’ve recently visited will also dim your rose-tinted glasses.

You get over it though. And if you start longing for big skies and unspoiled nature, there’s always Montana.

(Photo credits: Norwegian flag by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Wikimedia Commons. Truck by PRA/Wikimedia Commons. American flag by Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis/Wikimedia Commons)

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About Gunnar Helliesen

  • Lynn Voedisch

    Interesting read for a second-generation, 1/2 Swede. I’ve always been told that Swedes and Norwegians are similar–despite all the jokes. However you paint a different picture. My relatives are generally happier and warmer people, but inclined to complain more about the government and taxes. They do like to eat a lot! They love to tell jokes and drink alcohol. I’d say that I personally am in line with them politically, but not the rest of this country would be.
    I wonder how truly similar the Swedes and the Norwegians are.

  • Gunnar Helliesen


    Thanks for your comment! There are of course huge individual differences, but in general I would say all Scandinavians have the melancholy streak and most are reserved until you get to know them. But yes indeed, once you do, they are very warm. Perhaps also my view on this is a reflection on the long, hard winter we’ve had this year. Swedes and Norwegians are similar in many ways, which is also why we often refer to them as “söta bror”, in other words, we are brother peoples.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    Yes, the exterior is cool, that is for sure. And we all have to endure winter and no one likes it, no matter what they tell you. Every Swede I know goes to Majorca or Italy or somewhere warm for a winter getaway. Everyone here says I should be able to withstand winter because I have Scandiavian blood, but I am the same as my ancestors. I can’t wait to get away from the cold! And the melancholy streak does run in the family, even here in the U.S.
    Thanks for an enlightening view of my puzzling forefathers and foremothers. And soon we will be seeing spring and saying Glad Påsk!

  • Major A.W. Carroll

    As a US Marine stationed in Norway, I am experiencing the culture shock from the other side. I laughed out loud reading your blog…good stuff! I have been here 2 years and still don’t know the folks in my apartment building. If it wasn’t for our dog, my husband wouldn’t have met anyone! :-) Having said that, he meets a group of folks every day now…with the dog. Dogs and kids, they definitely help get a foot in the door. Lucky for me the military guys are pretty much normal green gun club types…though they do like to “discuss” things a little more than I am used to. God Bless Norwegians! :-) Have a great day Sir! Semper Fi!

  • Gunnar Helliesen


    About the people in your apartment building.. I know! If you make up an excuse to invite them in, like a party for your closest neighbors or have an outdoors BBQ, you’ll break the ice and that’s usually all it takes!

    You too, have a great day, and thank you for doing what you do and for being in my country!

  • Ailine

    Tusen Takk for this article. It is fairly true. I am first generation American. My parents came over on a ship in 1955, pregnant with me. So, I was made there and born here. When I was a kid, we spent some time (home) as my mother always referred to Norway. It was an idyllic place for a child. I loved being outdoors – climbing mountains, swimming in the ocean and even the cold rivers, skiing. I felt a sense of freedom as a kid in Norway more than I did in the US. But then as an adult, I felt more freedom in this country. I’ve had two large family reunions at our home, which we couldn’t do in Norway because no one has the size home we do to fit everyone and as my aunt pointed out, we spend too much time worrying about cleaning our homes than we do loving in them. She loved coming here and we had the best of times together. I attended one reunion in Norway and it was in a place near Molde where there were cabins and a lodge where the party was, but it was so very expensive, that we have not had one since. Norway is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The people are truly wonderful, with a melancholy, it is true, but then again, they can party like I’ve never seen here. It’s always interesting to see how we’re the same and how we’re different. My late grandfather said it best. I love both countries. There are good and bad to both. I wish I could live with one foot in one place and one foot in the other. No doubt, now, he is :)

  • L.P

    Good article. Interesting to hear another perspective about my home in USA. Good advice about politics and religion. Never bring it up and don’t partcipate when it is. People are very divided these days. Not all of us are on the right of the center. We are made up of many different cultures, religions, and backgrounds. Please don’t believe the steriotypes. And come visit some of our small towns here in the middle states: Decorah Iowa, Stoughton Wisconsin, and Madison Wisconsin. We would love to meet you:)

  • Tex

    Good article. You have a fair and balanced view of life in American and Norway. Thank you for writing this.