Question: When I meet someone new in Norway, how long should my answer be when they ask me to tell them about myself?
Answer: It’s up to you. But it’s smart to keep it short and to the point.
Foreign-born people have asked me this question many times over the years.
When I give the ‘short and to the point answer’, what I’m really trying to get them to do is sharpen their sense of reading social cues. Meaning picking up on the verbal and non-verbal responses they get from their conversational partner.
True communication or just a monologue?
I ask, ‘Is that person looking you in the eye when you speak? Nodding occasionally in understanding? Commenting with an ‘oh, right’, ‘I see’, or something similar?
Or, while you’re right in the middle of telling them how you met your Norwegian spouse when he/she was sitting next to you at a bus stop where you were waiting to catch the 8: 15 to your freshman lecture in biology, and then… they start looking over your shoulder to see if there’s someone else around to talk to?
A cruel world? Sometimes. But as s a newcomer to the country, the burden is on you to explain why you’re here. And if you go on and on about it, your listener – however well-intentioned at the start – is going to lose interest. Your message gets lost in the detail.
The ‘detail tale’
I became aware of this problem because the situation happened to me over and over again when I’d ask my own course takers to tell me their ‘why I came to Norway’ story. They were usually so eager to tell it that they’d launch into what I started calling a ‘detail tale’ with no apparent beginning or end.
I’d have to cut them off, usually because I had to get back to teaching so that I’d get through the evening’s course content. And then I’d feel badly about shutting them down.
So I started bringing up this topic in my courses. A touchy one because it taps into how people tell someone else about what’s often most important to them, their loved ones and their work. They often have a lot to tell.
Sharing the conversational burden
But that’s where we get back to burden – that is, it’s on the newcomer to explain to the native the how and why of coming to the country. So I advise them to keep it brief and relevant. Then we talk about what that means to them. This seems to help them get their conversational footing, and they practice talking about themselves with a partner.
And when they’re out in the real world and done with their story? That’s when they should pause, smile and share their burden by asking the other,
“So that’s my story. What about yours?”