Norwegian Culture Shock

Downtown Oslo from the Oslo Fjord. Photo via Wikimedia by Billi Gites.

Downtown Oslo from the Oslo Fjord. Photo via Wikimedia by Billi Gites.

Before moving to Oslo, I was living in Long Beach, California: a city where it rains maybe five times a year, summer begins in March (at the latest), and I don’t remember a day when I didn’t have the urge to Rollerblade alongside the beach. I never knew what a typical California girl was until I moved here, but apparently I was that. I was tan all year long, ran alongside the beach, enjoyed mimosas on Sundays (or any days), and enjoyed being active and outside in the sun. I’m cringing a little now as I am writing this from Oslo in May, and it has been raining all week! However, when I first made the decision to move to Norway, I was so excited about finally being able to live out my dream of being in Norway, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I was leaving behind my sunny California life for a new life in sometimes sunny Oslo. To be honest, I don’t think I thought about a lot of things other than the fact that I was finally going to Norway, and because of that, when I finally did arrive in Oslo, I experienced a little thing called culture shock.

As someone who used to think harsh weather was a little bit of heavy rain, wind, and dry heat, Norwegian weather was by far the cruelest joke on this California girl. I had maybe seen snow two times in my entire life, one of those times being California snow where you can technically go snowboarding without a jacket but you still wear one to bring the outfit together. Needless to say, I had no idea what to expect for Norway’s winter which, at the time, was right around the corner. I arrived here in September of 2010, and although it was still summer in California, it was definitely mid-fall here in Oslo. I remember it being nothing worse than a cold northern California winter night, but the thing that was most memorable were the fall colors. I had never seen such dramatic and vibrant yellows, burnt oranges, reds, and browns in my whole life, it was truly something I had only ever seen in romantic comedies that take place in New York. I finally started getting some sort of fall wardrobe going when all of a sudden it got cold, and it got cold VERY fast. With this cold came the first snow fall, and I remember walking in the street on my way home and just looking up at the snow, probably looking like some kind of fool, but it was my first time seeing falling snow after all. Sadly, I would say my love for the snow lasted about two days because in those two days, I learned snow turns ugly and dirty looking and, even worse, it turns to deadly patches of ice. After about my seventh bruise from falling on the ice while trying to walk, I gave up on winter and decided this California girl likes winter a lot better from inside a warm apartment.

Stortinget, Oslo, Norway. Photo via Wikimedia by gcardinal.

Stortinget, Oslo, Norway. Photo via Wikimedia by gcardinal.

That’s one thing that is so amazing about the people here though – I swear, they are born not only with little skis on their feet, but also with wool in their blood. There is actually a saying out here in the tundra: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” I have never heard anything more true in my life. I feel as though this should be the national motto of Norway actually, unless it already is. This saying is represented in all areas of life out here, but I mainly noticed it in the Norwegian daycares. If it’s pouring rain, the kids are outside playing, but with rainsuits on. If it’s snowing, the kids are outside playing, but with snowsuits on. If it’s a really windy day, the kids are outside playing, but in a fenced area so they don’t blow away. At the daycares, the children also sleep outside, but only in weather up to -10C/14F. Now, back in my day in California, you couldn’t find 14F weather, and if you could, you wouldn’t be outside playing in it. This was the most shocking thing for me at first, to see these tiny and cute little Norwegian kids playing in weather I am even afraid to talk about. Though I must say, Norwegians might be the smartest people in the world when it comes to dealing with weather I can only describe as something out of The Perfect Storm. By teaching their kids at an early age to stay active in all sorts of weather, this teaches them they can’t put their lives on hold and stay indoors their whole life because of a little “bad weather.” Because of this, you see a very active population of people walking around in the worst weather – which I think is remarkable, true Vikings indeed. Maybe one day I’ll be able to be as tough as a four-year-old and play in a snow storm, but for now, wine helps in the winter.

Although the weather was the first thing that gave me a taste of culture shock, that was just the tip to my little Norwegian iceberg. The real shock came once the initial excitement of moving here began to wear off and I started settling in to my new surroundings. Once this happened, I found myself constantly noticing and pointing out differences between here and the U.S., and with many of these differences, I found myself getting upset or even angry. I would walk down the street and person after person after person would just walk right into me without saying “excuse me” or moving aside. My response was always, “How rude!” Waiting in line for something also was an issue, mainly because Norwegians don’t do lines. No, no, they do CROWDS. And who cares who got there first – they just crowd around. My response to this was also, “How rude!” I’d have to push people off of me who were trying to cut the line. I would walk down the street and say hi to a stranger who would then give me a blank stare or walk away really fast. I would go to a party with new people and no one would introduce themselves to me, and no one would introduce me to anyone else. I wouldn’t see people holding doors open for people. I wouldn’t see people giving up their seat on the subway for an elderly person or a pregnant woman. The list goes on and on. Eventually, I gave up on saying, “How rude!”

Snow and ice sculpture "The Scream," by artist Mark Szulgit, USA. Placed on Karl Johans gate, Oslo's main street, during FIS Nordic World Ski Championships 2011, as part of cultural program. Photo via Wikimedia by Helge Høifødt.

Snow and ice sculpture “The Scream,” by artist Mark Szulgit, USA. Placed on Karl Johans gate, Oslo’s main street, during FIS Nordic World Ski Championships 2011, as part of cultural program. Photo via Wikimedia by Helge Høifødt.

Norwegians do things differently because they are from Norway, not the U.S.A., and what I was seeing as rude was just the way things are done here (though the line thing could really use some work, Norway, c’mon!). It was actually ME being rude by constantly comparing Norway and Norwegians to America and Americans. Of course there are going to be differences here, some good and some bad – I’m not in the U.S. anymore! But instead of thinking everything Norwegians do differently from the standard polite things we do in the U.S. is rude, I stopped trying to compare the two countries and instead started trying to see where they were coming from and why they do the things they do. As soon as I did this, the culture shock wore off and I was able to walk down the street without wanting to hit everyone who ran into me and didn’t say “excuse me.” I suppose you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take the American out of the girl. Although Norwegians may not do things the same way me and my American self would, I’m going to keep doing the American things I do and hope people aren’t too culturally shocked by me.

Though, I must admit, I do enjoy hugging strangers when I meet them and smiling at strangers on the street because they have the best reactions. Norwegians are a fun group of people!

Molly Feeley

About Molly Feeley

Molly is an American girl living in Oslo, Norway trying to adjust to her new Norwegian life. Though she occasionally misses the sun and spicy foods, Oslo has become her new home and she has a lot to say about it!