Understanding Scandinavian Culture and the Nordic People

looking_over_Bergen_city_from_Ulriken_Mountain_in_Norway There is a lot more to the Nordics than good seafood and breath-taking views. I certainly don’t mind both though!

I have been trying to understand Scandinavian Culture and the Nordic people in general, to make my integration here as smooth as possible. This region has got many cultural nuances, and I have learnt that you risk some frustration if you go in unarmed. You know what they say: knowledge is power. And forewarned is forearmed.

When I first started coming to Norway, Ian encouraged me to buy this book. The Almost Nearly Perfect People – Behind The Myth of The Scandinavian Utopia. Very interesting title, I know! From hygge to janteløven to nude saunas, this book is a great insight for anyone considering an extended stay in the Nordic region.

The book is a comfortable read with a satirical take on many things Nordic, while staying true to the subject. While there are several injections of a healthy dose of humour through out this book on Scandinavian culture and the Nordic region, the book does not trivialise.

Many things that I have read about in the book, I have witnessed in real life in the short time I have spent among Scandinavians. I have spent a bit of time in Norway, and visited Sweden, Denmark and Finland. So you see, I really need the Scandinavian Cultural education, as I am going to be living and working in this region. Let’s take a look at a few things that stand out. I have spent more time in Norway so I’ll be referring to Norwegians, but feel free to extrapolate these descriptions to Scandinavians/Nordic people. There are of course exceptions to every rule, so do not take these generalizations as Bible truth.

Their reserved nature

When you first meet people in this region, expect a degree of reservedness. The British are said to be reserved, but Norwegians even more so. It is commonly said that when you board a bus in Norway, if there is only one person on it, then find the farthest seat from that person and take that one. People like their space and tend to keep to themselves. That is until after a drink or two.

An interesting relationship with alcohol

The Nordic countries are known for their high consumption of alcohol. Drinking yourself silly, while not advisable, is not as frowned upon here as it is elsewhere in the world, from what I’ve seen with my own two eyes. People love their drink here and the scandalously high prices of alcohol, as well as the government’s monopoly on selling wines and spirits in Norway and Sweden have done nothing to separate people from their wine, beer and spirits. That’s right, the government has a monopoly on the sale of wine and spirits. You can’t walk into a grocery store and buy anything other than beer.

In Norway, the stronger alcoholic drinks are sold at Vinmonopolet – the wine monopoly. As if that’s not enough, the sale of alcohol is limited to only certain hours of the day. In restaurants, you can’t get spirits before 1.00pm, while at stores you can only buy beer up to 8:00pm on weekdays, and til 6:00pm on Saturdays. If you want to buy a beer from a grocery store on Sunday, forget about it. In Norway, you are not even allowed to drink a beer in public. That’s right, you can’t have a beer at a picnic. In Denmark, on the other hand, there is a good time to be had. Whenever, wherever. Whatever your poison, you can find it at the grocery store, and wine picnics are as common as bicycles on the road.

Whenever you are invited somewhere in Norway, make sure you take your own alcohol. In addition to the bottle of wine you might be taking for your host, carry some for your own consumption. Alcohol is so expensive that you can’t expect your host to carry the whole weight of the evening’s entertainment.

The most interesting thing about alcohol in Norway for me, is how many people need it before they can loosen up enough to have a conversation. This is also common knowledge, Norwegians themselves admit it. It amazes me every single time I meet new people. The person you meet at the start of the evening is very often a different person two drinks in. So when you first meet people, give it a bit of time if they are coming off as cold and distant. Allow the liquid courage to kick in, then get on to making friends.


I had never seen flags in a cake until I came to Norway. The Danes do it, and so do the Swedes. On birthdays, or any celebration that calls for a cake, the national flags make up a big part of the decor. You would be forgiven for mistaking it for an Independence Day celebration.

Speaking of Independence Day, the day in Norway – 17th May – is marked by beautiful, elaborate celebrations comprising of champagne breakfasts with family and friends. Most people wear their traditional outfits on this day – the bunad – and those that do not own one (it costs an arm and a leg, you see) will dress elegantly too. Think suit, or lovely dress. They also mark the day with marching bands and parades through the cities.

The cabin in the woods – hytte

The love of a cabin in the woods to retreat to over the weekends, Easter holidays and any chance you get is a universally Nordic characteristic. I have to say, I love this one very much, having partaken in this myself several times. Sometimes the cabin will even have a sauna, and often by the sea side. That way you can alternate between the sauna and an ice cold dip in the sea.

Janteløven – Jante Law

Jante’s law is to Scandinavians what the “tall poppy syndrome” is to Australians. You get too tall, you get chopped down. Janteløven is a set of norms among the Nordic people meant to discourage people from standing out, or not conforming in society. It suggests that being too different – ambitious, too successful, aiming too high – is a bad thing, inappropriate, and aims to make people fit in.

Janteløven attempts to keep an egalitarian society, in my opinion by guilt-tripping people who aim too high in life. Aksel Sandemose first described the philosophy in his 1933 novel about the fictional Danish town of Jante,  but the attitudes he describes had been held by society much longer. It describes a set of 10 rules, the first of which reads, “You are not to think you are anything too special,” and my favorite: “You’re not to think you are good at anything.”

Somehow, Jante Law has worked, to an extent. In Norway, people like to (or at least try to) keep society as homogenous as they can. Private schools have the same curriculum as public schools. All children must have equal opportunities after all, and none should be treated better than others regardless of wealth. University education is free for all and health care is accessible for all. Clearly there are many positive aspects of this Nordic egalitarian aspiration. The negative side is in all the judgy neighbors and negative Nancys that think you are too different should you try to stand out.

Everyday at work is casual Friday

People rarely dress up, from what I have noticed. It must have something to do with the weather and how cold it gets. Comfort comes before style. It took me a while to get used to this, as I was used to dressing up for work. Turns out jeans, a sweater and sneakers will do most days. I’m still not good at that.

The love for the outdoors

Many people love the outdoors, but in the Nordic it takes on a new meaning. I suppose this is down to how long and dark the winters get, so much that during the more well-lit months of the year people try to enjoy the outdoors as much as they can. Hiking is a favorite pass time and often comes with a set of rituals that includes tangerines and chocolate wafers.

There are more things that are typically Scandinavian than I can obviously write here. In fact, one of Norway’s favorite themes of discussion is the question “what is typically Norwegian.”

Do I really need to bother educating myself about Scandinavian culture?

Nordic culture is certainly worth learning more about especially if you will be spending some time here, if for nothing else than to learn the social cues and norms.

Some lovely Norwegians I have met have advised to simply be myself and not worry too much about what might be considered un-Norwegian. This is good advice. As long as you are well mannered, you should be okay. However, what is normal one place can be completely taboo elsewhere.

Check the book out on Amazon, and read some of the reviews. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Scandinavian people and their special ways. If you don’t want to read all of it (I can’t imagine why!), get a preview on your Kindle.

What’s the difference between the words Scandinavian and Nordic, are they interchangeable?

Glad you asked! Scandinavia refers to the lands that were originally occupied by the Vikings. These are Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Nordic refers to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Some people use the two terms interchangeably but there is a difference.

I feel that The Almost Nearly Perfect People – Behind The Myth of The Scandinavian Utopia was a good way to prepare for my Scandinavian move. Have you read it? What did you think? Do you know someone traveling to the land of the people of the North for a while? Why not get it for them as a going away present?


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