This article first appeared in print in the October/November issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
Linguistics and culture are peculiar concepts. Going about our daily lives, we tend to pay them little mind. But when thrown into unknown environments, our senses become heightened to differences in our surroundings, linguistic shortcomings and cultural oddities. That which one culture lacks, another makes up for in abundance. And so it is with the (lack of) Scandinavian conversational practice and the bountiful Canadian word exchange.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I casually throw out to the store clerk at Save-On, and we merrily chat away about trivialities for a few minutes while I pay for my groceries. I can pick up a conversation with just about anyone now. But it took a while getting to this point.
Before moving to Canada and Revelstoke, I thought of myself I was a well-traveled, open-minded person that I had an understanding of most cultures and that I would have zero issues living in foreign lands. While this was partially true – I had visited a fair few countries and I did have a very open mind – I was not prepared for the cultural clash I was about to experience. Canada never struck me as being too different from Norway. Mountains, rivers, and lakes, small towns, expensive flights and long distances. A functioning health care system. Similar indeed. Yet culturally, there’s an ocean between us.
Scandinavians keep to themselves. We don’t approach anyone unless we need something, based solely on the principle that we should not bother others. No one will strike up a random conversation with you while waiting in line at or sitting at a café. But here, anyone can and will talk to you: walking down Mackenzie, grabbing a coffee at The Modern, or sitting down for a cold one at the Bierhaus — conversation will be all around you.
This took some time getting used to. There is no real equivalent of “How are you?” in Norwegian. Sure, we will ask our friends how they are doing, genuinely wanting to know, but there’s no conversation starter or opening line of the sorts. A simple “How are you?” and its derivatives “How’s it going?” is incredibly useful. From a linguistic perspective, surely having such an amazing tool to throw around at any time has contributed to this easy-going conversational culture.
From a Scandinavian perspective, it makes everything take twice as long. And we don’t know how to handle it. We’re sufficient people, giving one-worded replies and avoiding any and all small-talk. One can easily be perceived as rude — quite the opposite of what your standard Canadian will be perceived as.
Whenever I meet Scandinavians abroad, I experience some excitement and a sense of familiarity and belonging. I want to know exactly where they are from, why they are here, where they are going. And it’s usually a lot of fun to switch to a Scandinavian language mid-conversation and bask in their surprise.
I used to do that a lot, but not anymore. These days, I don’t always reveal that I am, in fact, one of their countrymen. Because that’s when the conversation ends. As fun as it is to see the bewilderment on their face, nothing good comes from it. Without the “How are you?” to kick things off, our meek “hvordan går det/hur är läget,” normally reserved for friends and family, doesn’t do the trick. From the free-flowing river that is an English conversation, you’re left with a trickling creek slowly ebbing out and dissipating into someone suddenly having to leave.
We all love hearing about our own country’s quirks. We enjoy the cultural misunderstandings and misconceptions and we take pride in getting upset over trivial matters.
I proudly declared that no, Finland is not a part of Scandinavia, and yes, Scandinavia does have three different languages. I’ll happily state, “It really is precisely like that!” when seeing a funny reference about something strange that Norwegians do. And now, after three years in this country, I find myself proudly commenting on my friend’s Norwegianness whenever they don’t want to hang out somewhere because there are other people around, when they choose to stand on the bus because someone’s sitting in the window seat and when they collect and take home whatever’s left of what they brought to the dinner party (even nearly empty bottles of wine).
There’s plenty of other things it took me a while getting used to, and some I have grown to cherish. I still find tipping, for instance, an odd practice. It’s peculiar, yet useful, that you can turn right on a red light if the road is clear. I’m forever frustrated by the choice of doorknobs over the much more user-friendly door handle.
Just like pretty much any foreigner, I don’t appreciate that the price you see is not the price you pay. I’m actually very fond of the extreme politeness and the abundance of thank you, please, and sorry.
And I genuinely love this newfound territory of talking to anyone you’d like. It’s been a few years now, and I’ve grown accustomed to all these things. I’ll admit, occasionally I wish to be left alone, to not have to chat with anyone, and not have to answer “I’m good, thanks, and you?” when I am, in fact, not good at all. But in truth, this small but major cultural difference is the one I have embraced the most since moving here. Once enabled to talk to anyone, there is no limit to who you can get to know, and what you can discover.
So in my opinion, Canadians can have as much hygge as you please, you can fill your homes with Nordic minimalism, and you can keep skiing our skinny skis. I’m stealing your conversation starters.