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Expat Exchange - Culture Shock in Norway
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Aker Brygge in Oslo, Norway

Culture Shock in Norway

By Betsy Burlingame


Summary: If you're planning a move to Norway, or have recently settled there, it's natural to encounter some culture shock as you adjust to your new surroundings. Our insightful article is designed to help you navigate this transition smoothly. It offers practical tips and draws on the experiences of fellow expats who have successfully embraced the cultural nuances of Norway.

Welcome to the land of the midnight sun, majestic fjords, and a society that's often ranked as one of the happiest in the world! Moving to Norway can be an exhilarating adventure, but it also comes with its fair share of culture shock. As you prepare to embark on this new chapter, it's important to understand the cultural nuances that make Norway unique. From navigating social norms to learning the language, this guide will help you adjust to your new surroundings with ease.

1. Understanding Culture Shock in Norway

When you first arrive in Norway, the initial excitement can quickly give way to a rollercoaster of emotions as you encounter unfamiliar customs and social codes. Culture shock typically unfolds in stages, starting with the honeymoon phase, where everything seems novel and exciting. This can be followed by a period of frustration or confusion as differences become more apparent. Eventually, you'll enter the adjustment phase, where you begin to understand and accept these differences, leading to the final stage of adaptation, where you feel at home in your new environment. Being aware of these phases can help you navigate them with more resilience.

2. Language Barrier Challenges

While many Norwegians speak excellent English, not knowing the local language can still pose challenges, especially when it comes to forming deeper connections with locals or understanding cultural nuances. Learning Norwegian will not only help you integrate better but also show respect for the country's culture. Don't be discouraged by initial difficulties; many expats find that immersing themselves in the language through classes or language exchange meetups can accelerate the learning process.

3. Top Cultural Faux Pas in Norway

  1. Invading Personal Space: Norwegians value personal space. It's important to respect this, especially in public settings like buses or waiting in line.
  2. Over-sharing: Small talk doesn't typically involve personal matters. Keep conversations light and avoid prying into people's private lives.
  3. Not Following the Allemannsretten: This 'right to roam' law allows people to access certain private lands for recreation, but it comes with responsibilities. Always respect nature and private property.
  4. Being Too Direct: While Norwegians are known for their honesty, they also appreciate politeness and tact. It's important to strike a balance between being direct and considerate.
  5. Ignoring Queuing Etiquette: Whether it's waiting for a bus or at the grocery store, cutting in line is a serious no-no and can earn you disapproving looks.

4. Expat Advice on Culture Shock

Experienced expats often stress the importance of patience and openness when adapting to Norwegian culture. Joining local clubs or groups can be a great way to meet people and learn about the culture firsthand. Many expats also recommend getting outside and embracing Norway's love for outdoor activities, regardless of the weather. This not only helps with making friends but also with understanding the Norwegian concept of 'friluftsliv' or 'open-air living,' which is central to the local way of life. Remember, every expat's journey is unique, but with time, you'll find your own rhythm in Norway's cultural landscape.

As you settle into your new Norwegian life, keep in mind that culture shock is a natural part of the moving process. Embrace the learning curve, and before you know it, you'll be navigating Norway like a local, complete with a newfound appreciation for strong coffee, cozy 'koselig' evenings, and perhaps even a passion for cross-country skiing. Lykke til (good luck)!

"I have definitely gone through the honeymoon stage and I think I'm going through the irritation-to-anger stage now: UDI (Norwegian immigration authority), leaving a big city life for a temporary one in the countryside, having to drive a car more often, and not currently being able to work," said one expat living in Gjøvik.

"I think the only "honeymoon" phase I had (if any) was back when I lived in my own country. I don't believe I went through an "irritation-to-anger" stage at all, but I definitely had a culture-rejecting stage and missed all of the thing Americans do. I still do not feel particularly adjusted to this culture, but that is probably because I can't speak the language. I definitely feel like there are some things I will never get over or prefer to my own culture. Americans always smile, and we aren't averse to chatting with a total stranger, or saying to them our equivalent of "gratulerer med dagen" when appropriate. Here, I would get a surprised look," wrote a member in Stavanger.

"The honeymoon stage lasted a few days until I was invited to a social gathering. Right then and there, I automatically moved on to the irritation-to-anger and rejection stage. I was surrounded by a group of Norwegians who did not bother to speak a word of English throughout the entire night. I was greeted with a one word answer every time I tried to strike a conversation with someone. Right then and there, I realized that this was going to be the first in a string of situations where I will always feel that I don't belong here," commented one expat who made the move to Bergen.

"So many things. The nature, the peace and tranquility, the community-mindedness, the pride Norwegians have in their home, their families, their communities, their nation; the fantastic quality of life here, the hospitality, the civility most people have, and lots of incredibly handsome, rugged men. :)," said one expat living in Gjøvik.

"I appreciate the Norwegian's love of and respect for nature. I like the roundabouts as opposed to USA stoplights all over the place. I bike/walk, so I really enjoy that the sidewalks are separate from the roads and often wind off in completely different directions. I appreciate that Norwegians aren't easily offended. They have great food here as well. I also appreciate their lower crime rates. You can tell people really aren't expecting anything but the best in people they encounter," wrote a member in Stavanger.

"The beautiful nature and the lush green surroundings. Although, I have to admit that it can get tedious sometimes, as I am used to the extravagant city life with skyscrapers at every corner and streets bustling with people. I love the seafood here. I like how people are very independent," commented one expat who made the move to Bergen.

"The hours of operation of shops and other public places; the lack of understanding Norwegian at times when people speak to me (I feel like an idiot); the "can't be bothered" or "pass the buck" mentality people working in the service sector often have here -- whether it is Telenor, UDI, NAV, or the local municipality offices, etc. Experience has shown me that these type of workers are incapable of admitting a mistake, apologising for mistakes, or actually doing their job effectively. Lastly, the staring. I came here from a big US city where people rarely look at you in passing (unless there is really something to look at) each other on the streets or in cars, etc. Here, it is more common. It has angered me so much when I saw people staring or looking at me. I was told it's just local curiosity because they don't know me or haven't seen me before (one person even said it's because I'm handsome), but it's hard not to think it rude and unacceptable behaviour. This is not so much the case in cities like Oslo, Trondheim or Bergen," commented an expat living in Gjøvik.

"Some of their driving rules are backwards from those in the US, such as "yield to people on your right, except in roundabouts". People have stopped and waited on me multiple times when I was pulling out of the street my house is on. I wish people were more friendly and more chatty like Americans. I always say "excuse me" if I bump into someone. I have the impulse to smile at people I pass while walking, or to make a comment to a random person, such as "cute dog"," said an expat in Stavanger.

"Not knowing how to speak the language. It's not easy learning a new language from scratch. I tried speaking Norwegian when I first started taking the course but my spouse was very critical of my pronunciation to the point that I became fixated on making sure the words sounded correctly instead of actually speaking the language itself. Living with a husband and adjusting with life in his country isn't easy either. And the prices here are extortionately expensive. It's difficult for me because back home, I have gotten accustomed to the fact that having fun always involves spending money," remarked one expat who made the move to Bergen.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder and President of Expat Exchange and is one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Prior to Expat Exchange, Betsy worked at AT&T in International and Mass Market Marketing. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

Some of Betsy's articles include 12 Best Places to Live in Portugal, 7 Best Places to Live in Panama and 12 Things to Know Before Moving to the Dominican Republic. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.



Aker Brygge in Oslo, Norway


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