Insider Outsider: What is it like living in Norway as a foreigner?

Sognefjord hikePhoto: Carl Cerstrand / Unsplash

One thing I have noticed, in my time in Norway, is that my fellow immigrants (or expats or non-Scandinavians) really love to have a whinge and a whine about life here in Norway. The coffee culture is horrible, the price of a glass of wine is ridiculous, and neighbors barely look you in the eye – these are just some of the complaints that I’ve heard more than once. Yet knowledge truly is power. If you don’t understand the culture, the history, and the people, you will never truly understand Norway. This is a deeply personal, totally subjective, and most definitely irreverent look at a foreigner’s guide to life here in Norway. God lesning!

From Vikings to Oil: A brief history

Humans have lived in Norway for thousands of years but the first Norwegians to make an impact on the world stage were, of course, the Vikings. Their story is one of plundering, pillaging, and generally terrorizing Europe for around 400 years. Many modern Norwegians are their direct descendants and, though more civilized, traces of their wildness can still be observed anywhere that serves alcohol on a Friday night at approximately 2 AM.

Since Norway has been conquered, invaded, forced into a union, and generally bullied by its bigger neighbors, Norwegians are a tough, independent-minded, and pragmatic people. You have to be that since being more or less subjugated for a millennium from the Middle Ages.

Independence finally came in 1905, so one must remember that Norway as an independent modern nation is still a relatively new historical concept. There is a lack of cynicism, racism, or ultra-nationalistic sentiment when it comes to celebrating the national day, the flag, or other symbols of Norway. On May 17, Norwegians are simply happy and proud of their country and don’t mind showing it.

Following kicking the Germans out after the Second World War, Norwegian society took a turn for the better. Successive left-wing governments built the modern welfare state which is, according to most Norwegians, the 8th wonder of the world. From cradle to grave, the Government has your back. For the most part, in Norway, the Government works for the benefit of society and the people and not the other way around.

Since oil was discovered in the late 1960s, economic growth, and widespread immigration, have transformed Norway into the progressive, economically successful, and diverse society we live in today.

So, you need to remember a little of Norwegian history when dealing with Norwegians. They are the descendants of strong, independent, and pragmatic Vikings (have you ever heard of a Viking saying ‘please’ when ordering a coffee?), they have been conquered multiple times and so are deeply proud of their (now independent) nation, they believe in a strong Government system to help all, and they have only recently experienced widespread immigration.

May 17th
Proud to be Norwegian: The annual May 17 celebrations in downtown Oslo. Photo: Jon Olav Nesvold / NTB scanpix

Culture, culture, culture…

I think one mistake that all foreigners make, like the author, is that they place a high focus on learning the Norwegian language and less on the Norwegian culture. Like a bad smell, culture permeates everything around you and yet you cannot see it. From their distant past, when Norwegians lived in small villages, through today’s welfare state, people have had to work together to get things done. There is no ‘rugged individualism’ that Americans love so much – after all, it’s a bit hard to survive a Norwegian winter if you’re on your own.

Norway is a highly gender-equal society, perhaps one of the most in the world. Though there are still some gender imbalances, sexism, and gender bias, women have, generally speaking, huge amounts of power and agency. You will find that women are valued and empowered members of society that have a voice. It is normal to see women in the Armed Forces, the Police Force, and other ‘masculine’ jobs. What I love about Norway is how your gender does not limit your possibilities.

The Law of Jante

The ‘Law of Jante’ is VITAL for any dealings with Norwegians and has helped this author through many situations. Essentially, it means maintaining a certain level of conformity and not sticking out. A friend explained it to me as ‘Who do you think you are? You are not any better than me or the guy on the street so don’t show it, be quiet and be respectful.’ Being personally ambitious here is often seen as being greedy, selfish, or just plain immature. This law, essentially, places society in front of the individual.

So it’s probably not the best idea to brag about how much you make, how good you are at your job, and other such scenarios which, in other countries, people often do. Be humble and be understated because, according to Jante and the author, self-praise is no praise at all.

Crown Princess Mette-Marit
Crown Princess Mette-Marit at a language cafe at Bergen Public Library. Language cafes are run by Caritas & the Red Cross and are a great way of practicing your Norwegian language skills. Photo: Lise Åserud / NTB scanpix

Language: Private vs. Public

Like many newly arrived immigrants, I knew that I had to learn the language. Norway truly is a bilingual country in more ways than one. Aside from having two written languages – Bøkmål and Nynorsk – Norwegians have a high English proficiency. Unlike in other countries, even the older generations have great English skills as they often travel abroad to escape the cold Norwegian winters.

In my own experience, this is both a blessing and a curse. Being from an English-speaking country (though I’m sure some British people would disagree that Australians actually speak ‘proper English’), it was obviously easy for me to communicate and be understood in Norway. However, this can cause a level of laziness and you need to be extra willing to learn Norwegian. For many newly arrived immigrants, English is seen as the easy way out.

Private language schools are good but can often be quite expensive. On the other hand, courses given by the Red Cross or Caritas are free but often can lack the formality and structure of a paid course. It should also be noted that the Department of Welfare and Labor Administration (NAV) does give free Norwegian courses, which have helped this author and many friends. NAV is a great place to start your Norwegian language journey.

Meeting Norwegians

One of the many stereotypes that foreigners have of Norwegians is that they, like a February morning at dawn, are extremely cold. They don’t possess the politeness of Brits or the warmth of Latinos. It can be hard for foreigners to make Norwegian friends due to the high ‘cliqueness’ of friendship groups here. Norwegians have often been with the same circle of friends since elementary school or even earlier. Yet this should not discourage foreigners.

Obviously, any form of employment is a great way to start to meet Norwegians. My advice for successfully meeting Norwegians, for friendship or romance, is to do what Norwegians love doing. Sports are a big deal in Norway, especially in winter, so don’t be shy to join. If you’re less athletically skilled, volunteering (for example at the Red Cross) is also a great way to meet Norwegians and, what’s better, you’re giving something back to the society that has welcomed you. There is also a plethora of book clubs, art clubs, movie clubs, and similar, to join – and not to mention that most millennial way of meeting people: dating apps! Get involved, don’t be shy, make an effort, and once you’ve made a Norwegian friend, in my own experience, you’ll have them for life.

business young people
A great work-life balance, consensus building, and a flatter power structure are hallmarks of Norwegian work. Photo:

Money, work life balance, and working culture

As mentioned, Norway has a relatively high cost of living. To live a good life, you have to find a job. NAV has a wide variety of programs and courses to help you start your career in Norway. Learning Norwegian is also important, and after securing a basic level, jobs in hospitality, food stores, or kindergartens are a great start.

From my own experience, hospitality was a great way to secure a paycheck first up. Norway is a small country with a highly educated workforce, so having a degree and speaking English are not real advantages here compared to other countries. For those in the business realm, internships are often a great way to start climbing the corporate ladder.

The egalitarian nature of Norwegian society (remember Jante) means there is a flatter structure in Norwegian workplaces. Bosses mingle freely with their subordinates and see them as valued individuals. Consensus building is important and everyone, regardless of their position, is allowed to both have a voice and an opinion.

Just remember that Norway is a strongly unionized country so working conditions are, generally, better than even most Western countries. Salaries are high, work is highly structured and formalized, and health and sickness benefits are universal. There is a high level of flexibility and work-life balance here – Norwegians work to live and not live to work. NAV helps new parents to focus not on paying the bills but on raising their newborn. Generally speaking, don’t expect to be spending long days at the office… Especially when it comes to the warmer months!

Baby, it’s cold outside… So strap on your skis, we’re going for a quick 30km ski. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB

The Great Outdoors

There is an old Norwegian mothers’ expression:  ‘there is no bad weather, just bad clothes.’ Norwegians have a love for the outdoors all year long. When it’s colder, winter sports are popular. Skiing (both downhill and cross-country), snowboarding, ice skating, and ice hockey are popular. In the warmer months, swimming in the many lakes or fjords, cruising on sailboats, and other marine activities peak. Year-round, you can always see a huge number of people hiking in the woods, regardless of the weather.

I think to understand the essence of Norway, its very soul, you need to go out and get lost in the woods or a forest. There you will be surrounded by pristine nature and often without a soul in sight. There is nothing more special, in my opinion, than strapping on an overnight bag and heading out to camp somewhere. Waking up and brewing coffee with a campfire in the middle of a forest, swimming naked in a cold lake, and that first beer after you’ve set up camp for the night are small pleasures that all Norwegians love.

I’ve always been impressed by the generally lean nature of Norwegians. They are literally outside 365 days a year walking, hiking, swimming, and skiing – so it’s no wonder that they’re all so tall and thin!

A final piece of advice: Learn how to ski!

To sum up, I would like to pass on a little of what I have learned during my time in Norway as a foreigner. First and foremost: get involved! You need to actively be an involved member of society – get a job, learn the language, volunteer, and make the effort to go outside of your comfort zone.

From a personal experience, I can look no further than skiing. Arriving here, I had never seen snow in my life – let alone thought about hurtling down a hill on two pieces of wood. I joined a beginner’s skiing club, and spent a lot of time falling over and massacring the finer skills of skiing, but I persevered. I met many friends from other walks of life, cultures, and countries. This was a great friendship base. Spending so much time on the slopes, I also slowly made friends with the ‘professionals’ (aka Norwegians). Having a shared hobby was a great ice breaker and this, in turn, helped me make friends, start a network, and generally feel more at home here in Norway.

So my advice to living here is to brush up a little on your Norwegian history, try and understand the broader culture here (what’s accepted and what’s not), and find ways to belong: be it a job, a sports team, a book club, a language course, or a volunteering society, you will never truly feel like Norway is your second home if you don’t get outside your comfort zone. Like yours truly learning how to ski, if I can mix my metaphors here, if first you don’t succeed, pick yourself up and try, try, try, try, and try again!

Lykke til!

Source: #NorwayTodayTravel

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1 Comment on "Insider Outsider: What is it like living in Norway as a foreigner?"

  1. Ben Onwusa | 20. June 2022 at 22:04 | Reply

    With what I have read thus far, I think I will like to visit or live in Norway if I have the opportunity.

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