Thursday, January 25, 2007

Little Norway


Famed for their open mindedness, honesty, lack of prejudice and ability to negotiate fairly.


I have just had one hell of a couple of years dealing with the subtle xenophobia of the Norwegian work place. What people say in public and all the good ‘opinions’ are actually really at odds with their practice of attitude against foreigners.

Outside the oil industry and education, you will find few non-norwegian names in private companies other than bus drivers. In truth they are loathed to take on foreign staff to positions of responsibility.

My summation is that they have a couple of key drivers here. Nordmenn are not overtly racist and hold strong opinions on those who persecute the underdog and generally hold a torch for the economically oppressed, dark skinned landsfolk. But when it comes to little Norway, back home they don’t like strangers living in their ‘oil berg’ and a black face is an instant trigger for prejudice. Secondly they have a fear in the work place of breaking with consensus, and there is an impression that generally people will disapprove of the appointment of a foreigner.

My god, their Norwegian may not be perfect! There may be misunderstandings!! Tasks may take many seconds longer to achieve. They don’t understand the culture (?)

Most of all they don’t want to be seen to be the one who made the final decision to employ a “furrrinerr.” A bit like Britain in the 1950s they need labour, have screaming wage inflation and demanding BE business brats yet see only bus driving and pizza shovelling as jobs worthy of a foreigner.

Speaking Norwegian doesn’t help much, in fact the reverse. They feel you have won one over them, that you have gone over the doorstep- they pride themselves on their English, yet on average it is actually pretty poor. I’ve seen quite senior managers give presentations tantamount to an episode of Allo’ Allo’ dedicated to that local gendarme. Misunderstandings are frequent. I had one boss who use the completely wrong word for ‘Scenario’ in a high tech business. He made it sound like a bus tour operator by saying the like of “ In two years time we must discuss the scenery, and it has improved then we can invest”.

And going over the psychological doorstep is what it is about. Norwegians, on average, are actually intensely private and closed people. On the surface they are polite and even initially friendly. But if you try to invite yourself in over the threshold to their invitingly cosey parlour then you go over the mark. Speaking Norwegian is a little too in their face. You are no longer a guest in their land- you are an ‘invanndere’ and the word sounds terribly near to invader- take it to mean the same. You are intruding on their nice little set of hypocrisies- on the outside they are liberal, non racist and welcoming. But when you intrude on their patch they let you know. As for asking someone down the pub for a beer….well that is usually well over the mark and greeted with polite declining.

Norwegians are terrible xenophobes. They are racist to the core and don’t even know it! How can this be the case? Well their opinions, their educated attitudes and politically correct atmosphere is very anti racist. But their ‘walking down the street’ and rubbing shoulders in the office feeling is deep xenophobia. Until the last fifteen years they were pretty sheltered and racially pure, The “boat” people were welcomed at first and held up on the usual prolitcal pedistal. In reality they often faced discrimination and exclusion. With the opening of labour markets and acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers, Norway got exposed to a steady flow on obvioyslky foreign peoples. This challenged their political correctness, and some became overtly racist. Most were just nimby’s and ‘not with my daughter or son’ types. Black people get treated like shite in Oslo. People push through them. There is huge unemployment despite often good Norwegian and a shortage of cheap labour.

They have a thing which is very like Scots Presbyterianism – Jantes’ Law. This is all about not getting too high and mighty in the eyes of god. Friendly furriners give them something which only reinforces their need for modesty and understatement. They have something to define what they are NOT. Defining what Norwegians ARE is harder. Even for themselves.

Oslo is particularily unfriendly. I worked there six months with only one invitation to a ‘pay cheque’ beer night, and that was by accident of departmental e-mail. Depsite other foreigners, (who had played it right- getting to know people in English first before going into speaking Norwegian-) I was the both the new boy, the stranger and the threat. I was an unknown quantity, an intruder. A wolf in the woods. I was an outspoken Scot, with a need to be sociable. People picked up on my expectant pauses and little leading conversations and this was all too over the doorstep for them. They love someone in need, but not someone who is needy. They rallied round each other and got me fired.

Privacy is a central theme. Family and the extended version, are the thing they are most taken up with either in front of or just behind ‘friluftsliv’- outdoor sports. Then comes old friends. Nostalgia is a national sickness but they don’ just wallow in it, they seek out new common experience with old friends….to the exclusion of new.

The other thing is they are not only clannish but pretty snide when it comes to

foreigners. In social circuits they will often talk openly behind your back. At work

coworkers or other departmental bosses are quite likely to go over your head on your

language abilities or any misunderstandings or cultural issues i.e. demonstrating

personality and flair, or taking initiative.

I noticed this at University in Glasgow. You met norsk blokes out at night often enough, but the nice looking birds were always chaperoned by a few hangers on from Norway. Like sheep dogs they kept the flock safe from the wolves, and the poor shepherded girls revert to type and pair off with their engineer or agriculture compatriots.

Norway has a lot to defend. It is a good life in Norway, with or without oil. It is all the outdoors life, on boats, mountains and woods. With boots, gun, a canoe and a cabin both sexes are very happy. Skit trips or serious mountaineering are as common and banal as going to the cinema is in the UK……… and the women are beautiful and the men slim and handsome (often rather petite pretty boys than bawdy Viking raiders!). People live not only longer lives, but much richer retirements are anticipated in health, activity and financial terms.

Students are cosseted until many emerge like rip-van-winkel butterflies from their crysali not before they are in their late 20s. This is after rounds of high school till 19, military service, college, university and finally master grades. The average age of people starting PhDs must be six years higher than the UK.

So they do go through a period of expanding their social lives and opening the doorsteps. But collective life is short lived as they return to make their own little womb and haven to build a nest for children. Their social set becomes quite locked, even to other Norwegians. Courting within these social groups can be quite a dragged out affair with a lot of macho posturing, passive aggression or moody glances across party rooms. Lots of false starts and denial and drunken encounters which are politely forgotten. Things can I have heard in small towns, get pretty much like arranged marriages or north African bride sales, with friends being the go betweens.

However, this is one side of the story. The other side of the story relates to alchohol and having a contact or better a good friend from university days.

Having an anchor-man is part of the culture, especially in business. It is a kind of necessary ice breaker in the protocol of business introductions. “ I was speaking to Ole Olsen and he mentioned your name and that you have been operating in…” is a tyĆ„pical opener. However vague you are. Name dropping in a farily blunt way to network your way in worked for me- I mentioned a professor I had never actually met, with some clever ambiguity and opened a door to my first taste of high Norwegian salaries. It was all a lined up- my friend spoke to the professor and spoke to me. It was a bit of a lie. It worked.

Having a good Norwegian friend with a good social circle is the best thing in the world. Once you break into a young social circle, a pre two kids time crowd , you have paved the path to a rich period of parties, ski trips, cabin tours and general nights on the town and availability of introductions to other singles or couples at a similar stage. People get rather enthusiastic about you and showing a bit of Norway off to you. They pare you off from the crowd and give private invitations to maybe share a passion for Monk Fish hunts or teaching you to “telemark turn”. Infact we had friends-of-friends who actively competed over our attention!

Even a friend-of-a-friend is enough as long as the two links ( or even more) are strong. If you are talked about, especially with some of my student and yuppie day antics and sexploits, you become a mini legend and people put you up on a pedestal (not that I am comfy with it but it helps with breaking the ice)

BUT, try and make a new friend from cold and 9/10 you are locked out. Branded over friendly, even strange. You are needy.

I don’t know what works other than waiting for an invitation or holding a party. For the latter you have to get am exisitng gang leader to rally the troups, don’t do it yourself. People will soon start to pop into your office or call you to ask what time, if they should bring food for you and if they can perhaps stay over if they become a little tired.

For the former- waiting to be invited- a good deal of modesty and reverse psychology is needed. If you speak Norwegian , when asked what you did or are going to do of a weekend, it is wise to reply “ Nei, men…” and go into how quiet it was, how you are unsure of the area and where to go but will have a nice cosey quiet time on your own no doubt with a DVD and a pizza. Once at an evening out or a ski trip it pays to be phsycially and psychologically at the boundary of all but the most sociable and boisterous groups. Charm the hell our of anyone who smiles to you, don’t be afraid to chat away about skinning fish to the Britt Ekland look-a-like. Infact, come to think of it girls are far more approachable in general! Especially with an introduction. Beware. Watch out for some of those arranged marriages I talked about. Get the social lay of the land before you make anything that could be taken as a pass.

Speak English the first time you meet people. This is important. No matter what or how long you have lived here it pays to speak English. Norwegians are a bit snobby about crap three-weeks-at- evening-school-pronunciations. More advanced norsk ability is seen as down-right showing off and threatening. They like to let you come in slowly and will use speaking Norwegian to exclude you a bit. Speaking English makes you a valued guest in their country and not an invading threat. It’s also a damn good way of getting rid of tele-sales! Speaking good Norwegian or at least simple, proper understandable sentences will win you huge brownie points but on the first introduction or couple of days in a job “keep it in the bag”

After you have an “in”, remember it is tentative. In effect you are horse wispering. Move in with your body language a bit focused and maybe even say something a little brash and challenging, then face away and relax your body and gaze. It’s not like say Scotland or London where a colleague who would always buy you a beer as you walked in the bar, share the results of the footie and the latest office giggle, would never consider asking you on holiday with them. It is the opposite. People are not very keen on you could say superficial relationships, or the useual friendship and camaraderie people strike up in most English speaking and latin countries. But once you crack them after a few nights out, some recipricol dinner parties and the mandatory ski trips, you may find yourself being asked to come for a whole holiday. Now you are a friend and as a guest to Norway you are honoured.

Weird double think, but actually quite sincere way of thinking. Just extremely frustrating for Brits, frogs, diegos and spic’s. Yanks don’t fair very well. Kiwis thrive.

Office culture tends to be a bit like working on an industrial estate outside town. No one ever mentions going for a beer, there is a clique who have, for example, virtually mesonically organised cross country ski trips you only hear about after the event. “Drinks later in town” are whispered about so that the old dog bosses with wandering hands and big cars don’t get near the totty, and the new, strange foreigners get a definite black-balling.

If you aren’t in oil, things are even harder. I’ve heard stories of it taking 2 years for an otherwise normal, sociable brit to make any headway with friends.

There is however a very notable contradictory exception. Many very pretty Norwegian girls like the attention and charm of the englishers and the latinos. They are fed up with all the macho shite I mention above- which is really a result of shyness, lads culture and pure lazyness. Also many Norwegian men prefer the feminity and softness of non Scandinavians. Partners often fair badly on social terms as the couple enters parenthood and the inevitable and never ending round of family occaisions. Fluent oral ability in not only standard norwegain but the particular dialect of your in laws area is an essential if you are not to go quietly mad.

This relates to the biggest contradiction of them all. Young nordmenn, like mayflies, appear in a totally different guise once a week. This is the famous Saturday night, when all the temperance and modesty goes out the window. They go out

So being “we” and having a nice set of international socio-political values is how they are. We are here. You are there. We agree and help the world solve the obvious problems. Just don’t cross the doorstep without an invitation.

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