Mars and Venus: (Not) Talking to Strangers in Norway

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a fellow expat at an event arranged by my women’s network in southern Norway. New to the region, she started telling me about the trouble she was having getting used to the fact that nobody spoke to her out in public.

She gave the example of having been sitting on a crowded train next to another woman her age. It was a beautiful day outside, a rare thing in November. ‘Where I come from, we’d comment on this weather. Maybe it would lead to a conversation, and maybe it wouldn’t. But at least we’d share some banal remark about how nice it was that day. But she just sat there looking out the window. What a downer.’

So this expat decided to defy the downer, as it were, catching the other’s eye and remarking in her halting Norwegian on the pleasant weather. Sadly, a second downer was in store.

“She looked at me like I came from Mars. Mumbled something I didn’t catch and looked out the window again. I felt like an idiot. Did I do something wrong? Should I have acted differently?”

Done something wrong?

Of course not. Have you been in this situation? I certainly have, learning the hard way that good intentions on the speaking-to-people-you-don’t-know front aren’t always enough to save you from feeling deflated if your effort isn’t rewarded.

We learn it’s wrong to stereotype for good reason, so I tried to put my answer to this unhappy expat into the most general of terms:

‘Well, you see, certain people here are just not that comfortable speaking to strangers.’

Why is that?

Norwegian politeness = no contact rule

There are several possible explanations – the one I like best comes from an article I came across this spring in which researchers answer why by stating the following:

‘…Norwegian politeness is expressed by trying not to intrude on others’ privacy.’

So if we go back to the awkward train incident described above, could that be what was happening here? The woman/Venetian was trying not to intrude on her seatmate’s privacy, and, becoming a bit startled when her own was intruded upon, didn’t know quite how to reply? (Yes, can hear some of you thinking that perhaps the poor Venetian just didn’t understand what the Martian was trying to say, therefore the lukewarm response. But still.)

Or is it just too easy to pass this situation off as politeness in action?

Accept it or…not?

Whatever the reason, to put it profoundly in modern day terms – it is what it is.

And it can either bring you down or doubledown or – better option – make you realize that there are other ways of acting towards strangers than the ones you’re used to.

So the expat/Martian above wasn’t wrong. She didn’t need to act differently. In fact, she should try again as soon as possible.

Better luck next time? Wouldn’t you agree?

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