Ever been lost in a foreign city or attempted to communicate with someone who doesn’t share a common language with you? These character-building situations occur less often when we stay in the same place for extended periods of time without ever stepping beyond our comfort zones. Since arriving in Norway for my semester abroad, I have learned that even sharing a common language won’t always mean communication will be effortless. Sometimes getting into another culture’s comfort zone can be even more difficult than getting outside your own!
In committing to studying abroad, we embark on a challenge to observe and honor new cultural norms. Culture can refer to actions, patterns, and philosophies or mindsets that are agreed upon and practiced by a particular group. Almost all culture is taught to us by the society or community that surrounds us. Cultural norms, then, are when attitudes and behaviors which reflect those elements are considered typical or normal to that group. One way to spot cultural norms is asking how and why your community or another does things the way that they do.
Norway is an intriguing place to pick out these differences, but today I want to write about how taking the initiative to get out of your comfort zone does not always mean you are going to feel immediately integrated into a new one! And that’s okay. Have the courage to approach the unfamiliar… you’ll be stronger because of it, in every facet of your life.
The University in Oslo did an excellent job of giving the new international students an inside look at how to prepare for their time studying abroad. Norway In A Nutshell, was a hit! Advice and interesting facts were presented by faculty, foreigners turned residents, and other students, all with a dash of humor, and we were given fresh insight for how to shop and eat healthy on a student budget, a list of good reads and Norwegian hobbies to try, and even some tips to flirt with the locals. “Dating is, you know, a brilliant way to pick up a new language…” one speaker said, and the lecture hall filled with shy laughter.
One popular author has been incredibly successful in contrasting the behaviors of Norwegians with different ways of the world. You’ll laugh at Julien Bourrelle’s “Social Guidebook to Norway” but paying attention to the book’s illustrations could actually give you a smoother transition if you decide to spend some time in this fantastic country. For example, in some places around the world, you greet everyone when you arrive and you bid farewell to all when you depart. However, Norwegians are direct, and (depending on the region) they might not make a lot of small talk. In Norway, to say hello to someone means you are about to begin a conversation. In the comic below, Julien describes returning to Norway after living in Spain, where everyone at the market is jovial and chatty. That is not the cultural norm in Norway, so your salutations will probably be met with quizzical stares.
Norwegians are very practical and pragmatic people. Different countries and cultures might look at the Norsk customs and consider them rude people. But while living here I’ve heard time and time again from Norwegians that the intention is much more about striving “not to bother anyone.” Norwegians are big on privacy; they allow it for others and expect it for themselves. If you are out on a “tur” or a hike, it’s a lot more acceptable to greet one another in passing, but on the tram or in every day walking the streets, people tend to leave one another alone. Part of this is out of respect for one another, so try not to be stunned or feel rejected.
Now, let me clarify, these statements are coming from someone who makes an abnormal amount of eye-contact (even by American standards). I am that awkward person who greets you in the grocery store, “Have we met before?” only to realize we are members of the same gym or one day they were my barista at a coffee shop or something… No, no, we’ve actually never been properly introduced. As if things at this point in our interaction aren’t weird enough, (wait for it), “Hi, I’m Kelsey! Where are you from?” Leaving my personal inclinations behind can be challenging for me, too, but through opportunities like study abroad I’m training myself to comprehend intercultural communication and not assume everyone does things like me or my home country.
At just over 672,000 residents, Oslo is the big city in Norway. Any given day, everyone has somewhere to be and probably something on their mind. Not talking with strangers throughout the day allows for everybody to remain on task and focus on what they are facing in life at the moment. Norwegians are kind and compassionate people, but one of their cultural values is gaining and earning trust, and that means you’ll rarely become best friends with someone from the very instant that you meet. However, please remember, you can be sure that even a stranger is willing to help you if you ask.
Certainly, I believe there are a time and a place to fully express yourself and be true to the culture you identify with best, but there is also a time to get out of your own comfort zone and practice the ways of a culture you’re lucky enough to get to observe. So if in Oslo over the course the coming months you notice a young woman subtly giggling to herself or the birds in the trees, it very well could be me. Don’t be alarmed, I’m just coaching myself not to start up a conversation and make you feel a little outside your comfort zone, because this semester, that’s my job.
“Tusen takk” for having me, Norway, I look forward to learning so much more about you. And “a thousand thanks” to you, USAC, for helping make this dream semester a possibility.
Kelsey Tungseth is a University of Colorado, Colorado Springs student who studied abroad in Oslo, Norway. During her time in Oslo she served as a Digital Communications Intern for USAC.