Yes, that would be what I call “the Norwegian reserve.” This actually isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed an American bewildered by it. Earlier this year we attended a church in the Los Angeles area where the pastor shook our hands and peered into our faces asking with concern, “Is everything progressing all right here? Are things going ok?” We smiled and nodded, puzzled at his questioning since we had never met him before. The next time we visited he again expressed concern. This time I asked him why he asked. He said that my husband just seemed so quiet and sedate. In surprise (and a little irritation) I quickly responded, “Yes, that is his Norwegian culture.” Besides being a lesson in how not to engage visitors, it was a lesson in the rather apparent difference between Americans and Norwegians.
I have grown so accustomed to “the Norwegian reserve” that I had almost forgotten about it. But it didn’t slip into my world unnoticed. Our matchmaker warned me about it in an e-mail a few days before I met my husband for the first time: “Norwegians tend to be a bit reserved as many Europeans are. They aren’t excitable like Americans. My only point in bringing this up is to help you be aware of his temperament, so you don't misinterpret his lack of enthusiasm.” I was doubly warned as her counsel matched what I had read in my cultural guide to Norway. So I went to New York fully prepared for a quiet man that was pleasant but didn’t really talk. As it turned out he was a kind, mild-mannered man who wasn’t afraid to laugh. There were lulls in the conversation but we never had an uncomfortable silence.
In getting to know my husband I found that he would think before speaking, he wasn’t overly expressive and his words were always genuine. In the US I often joked with him that I had to interpret his English to “American English”. If he said his day was “ok” that meant it was good. If his day was “good” it was really good and if it was “very good” that meant it was exceptionally great! In general, Norwegians don’t utilize the hyperbole. Of course there are exceptions to the rule and you can certainly find every personality type in Norway. But reserve is the cultural norm showing value for depth of thought, authenticity and economy.
I’ve never been very gregarious myself and in the “tell all” American culture I have often felt stigmatized for being too quiet and shy. In Norway I have immediately taken to their reserve as if I have finally found the right flock of ducklings. I like that I can interact pleasantly with Norwegians but I don’t need constant conversation to be at ease. I like that “instant friendships” are nonexistent, making friends deeper and truer. And I like that I’m not obligated to cheerily greet strangers unless I genuinely mean it.
Of course I am just months in to my story of Norway. In a few years I can tell you how it went making it past the reserve to build my own Norwegian friendships. What I can say (with a bit of American extravagance) is that if they are just half as wonderful as my husband turned out to be – it will be worth all the time and effort in the world!