I have known for a long time that I was different, not only because I felt it, but because I was often told this by friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.  A little background might be in order:

I grew up on a small farm near a Norwegian-American town of 1,500 people in Wisconsin.  The entire county and beyond was predominantly of Norwegian ancestry and I was related, however distantly, to most. This was an enclave in the truest sense, so much so that when citizens of Norway first visited in the mid-twentieth century, they were surprised that the Norwegian language spoken in my hometown contained colloquialisms used a hundred years before in their own country and which were no longer heard in modern Norway.  I supposed that put us in a time-warp of sorts.

It was when I left home in the 1950s to pursue a higher education and to enter the workplace that I discovered to my shock that not everyone was like those of my Norwegian ancestry.  I was ill-equipped to deal with openly expressed emotions such as anger, sorrow, joy, prejudice, or foolishness.  Arguments and confrontations were foreign to me; I didn’t know how to respond to these so I retreated into silence and didn’t fight back.  If my friends of other ethnicities told me that they liked me or tried to give me a hug, they got little or no response in return.  I’ve since learned to put up with it through the use of humor and actually giving what I perceive as a rather wooden hug in return.  Uff da, whatever works. . . .

Norway is a quiet country, little understood by outsiders.  I’ve never been there myself, but I hope to visit someday.  It is because of the most recent tragedy that happened in Norway that I will try to shed some light on the Norwegian character as filtered through my own experience as a Norwegian-American.

We are reserved to the point of being stoic.  We prefer not to show emotion and tend to keep both joys and sorrows inside.  You are just supposed to “know” how we are feeling without our telling you or showing you.  If I am in pain, emotionally or physically, I am unlikely to let you know (although over time I personally have learned the benefit of telling a few appropriate individuals, and may lace the telling with wry humor).   We do not discuss our problems freely.

Norwegian-Americans are a rational and practical people who view the concept of society as taking precedence over any individual rights and believe that structure and rules are essential in freeing individuals to be themselves in a society which is orderly and understood by everyone living in it.  I am puzzled, for example, by those groups that rely on revenge to settle differences.  Common sense and their own history should tell them that this is futile.

Norwegians’ preference for practicality leads them to rely on creating plans, negotiating differences, and using compromise to come to agreements leading to solutions.  It should be no surprise that Norway administers and awards the Nobel Peace Prize or that it formulated the Oslo Accords to attempt to bring peace in the Middle East.  Norwegians prefer a peaceful society and are willing to help others achieve this too.  That the Accords did not work may be attributed to the chaotic situation in Israel/Palestine and the inability of these societies to think rationally about the situation that they share, and perhaps also to the inability of the Norwegians to understand peoples that do not function in an orderly fashion.

The egalitarian nature of Norwegian and Norwegian-American societies is such that men and women are considered equal and children are encouraged to think for themselves and are held accountable for their decisions and actions.  As a small child, I and the cousins with whom I was raised, wandered freely without supervision on the farm and in the adjacent forests, alone or with one another, the expectation being that we would know better than to fall in a well, or get tangled in the moving parts of farm machinery, and that we would stand perfectly still if we heard a rattle among the dry leaves.   When a neighbor’s young son fell into the moving belt of the silo filler, he was plucked out just before his feet hit the grinder, put on the ground, and told to get out of there.  The rest of us learned from his mistake and humiliation.

Norwegian-Americans may seem passive and even aloof to outsiders. This may be the only ethnic group to whom shyness is not considered a negative trait.  The unwillingness to speak aloud to share their thoughts is seen as reflective of a sensitive nature that does not want to push its opinions on others.  Eyes may be downcast when speaking to another person.  If given a compliment, the person may be self-deprecating, which carried too far can be annoying to those who are not used to this response.

Individuals vary of course.  There are many extroverts in my family who talk a great deal, but generally say little of importance.  Conversations may begin by stating the obvious:
“I see you’re wearing a red shirt today.”
“Yes, I put it on.”
“Oh.”  Head nods. . . .
Short conversations between friends or relatives might continue thus and not go any deeper even when the subject changes.

Other more quiet folks, when they finally do speak, might be direct, shockingly honest and expect to be heard and understood the first time!  That’s me, definitely, and it’s gotten me in trouble numerous times, but I can now hold an ongoing conversation out loud for up to two hours without getting utterly worn out, but if anyone cares to notice, the conversation is rarely about me.  At some point along life’s path, I discovered that people love to talk about themselves, and so I am able to get by with sharing little if anything about myself.  It is satisfying to leave a conversation knowing that I have given away very little and it’s unsettling if I have shared more about myself than that with which I’m comfortable.  I may even have a sleepless night or two after that.

We as Norwegian-Americans have problems expressing our emotions because they may be interpreted differently than we intend leaving us to rely, rather, on avoiding emotional expression at all by creating space between ourselves and other people, even those closest to us. In fact, some of us have become so skilled at this that our closest friends and even our spouses might be unaware of how objectively we might view them.  Achieving emotional intimacy with another person can be tricky, so we are more likely to show love by showing loyalty, consistency, and duty toward those that we have chosen.

The rise of a person such as Anders Behring Breivik in a society like Norway is an aberration.  Yes, there were mentally ill people in the Norwegian-American community in which I grew up too, but these people were more likely to destroy themselves through the excessive use of alcohol or through suicide rather than overtly hurting someone else.  To sink so deeply into isolation (aloneness) that one is no longer capable of receiving the necessary feedback to maintain psychological balance is a horror and not something to be desired.  Somehow, maybe because Norwegians have lived in a harsh climate in this mountainous and beautiful land for centuries that this has inured them to the realities of what it means to be self-reliant both in their inner lives as well as their day-to-day outer existence.

I am a recipient of the characteristics of my Norwegian ancestors even though I was born and lived my life in a land far away.  So I will say this only once and I expect to be heard: I am proud to be a Norwegian-American.  We are good people.  We love the world, our place in it, and we will do what we can to make it a better place for all peoples everywhere.

37 thoughts on “On Being Norwegian-American

  1. I’m writing this a bit late, but I just discovered this today. I grew up in Kenosha, WI. My Grandfather moved to the USA in the 1920’s from Oslo, Norway. I never realized just how much of the Norwegian culture was in our family until I started to research it more. My mother is very much an introvert, and like you described in the writing somewhere (a comment perhaps I don’t remember…) she learned to be social for short periods of time before having to retreat. I find it odd that she married my father, who is one of the most extroverted people I’ve ever met in my life… but anyways, It’s good to hear from someone else how I understand the culture I grew up in. I too find myself thinking of the greater good, seeing things from many different points of view and angles. I also never show my emotions, well, until they become too intense to hide any longer. At any rate, well written article. Thank you for that.

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    1. Thanks so much for writing. More and more, I’m find how special that Norwegian Americans are. The more we understand ourselves as a group, the more we will appreciate ourselves as individuals.

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  2. I too am a Norwegian-American. I share your same thoughts and feelings. There’s only been twice in my 45yrs of life that I shared anything of importance, and both times I’ve been betrayed! Husband and so called best friend. NEVER AGAIN!!

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  3. I was adopted at birth to a family in Texas!i my family found me after looking for fourty years ! I am norweigen from mn. They are special people! I knew I was very different as you described. I was never understood ! I spoke my mind told the truth very direct! I was told I was an embarrassment ! I felt all people were equal. I didn’t show emotion kept my feelings in check . Didn’t like to be hugged or touched! Did not understand why people could not get along with each other! Did not believe in Arguing!
    Talk and work out problems. Lying was not acceptable ! Causing problems for other people was foreign to me. HArd work was important to me. Being self sufficient. After 63 years I found a family who was just like me and found out I was normal by Norweigen standards!

    Thank you for your article! Vicki Evensen salmon.

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    1. Thanks for writing. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how our genetic heritage stays with us even though we are placed in upside down situations? I am so glad you found that you are just like most of the rest of us Norwegian Americans. We are a special ethnic group; No doubt about it.

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  4. I was born and raised in Mt. Morris, WI, about 90 miles north of Madison. My ancestors settled here in the 1850s; they were from the Tvedestrand area south of Oslo. I’ve heard that my great-great-grandfather paid for the passage of 60 people in addition to the members of his family, but have no proof of this. However, it’s plausible because his grandfather was a shipbuilder, and he developed a reputation for being generous after coming here.

    As one with 5 grandchildren (so far), my worry is that global warming will “do in” our species soon (by 2040 per an Arctic climate scientist; here’s something I wrote about this a few days ago: https://www.academia.edu/25611061/The_Two_Reasons_Why_We_are_Doomed_As_a_Species). I try to remain optimistic, but it’s difficult!.

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    1. I am concerned about global warming also, and wonder if the terrible tornadoes and floods that the U.S. is experiencing this year are a result of the climate change. Thank you for writing. I just joined Academia and hope to post there soon.

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      1. “Global warming” is a somewhat misleading term because the extra heat being added to the lower atmosphere is not only causing a trend in warming, but more storminess, larger storms (geographically), more severe storms, and more weather variability (heavy rains, huge hail stones, drought (and consequent fires), flooding, etc.
        Also misleading is the “sapiens” in our name; it refers to “wisdom,” but wisdom in our “leaders” is almost impossible to find!!

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  5. I am proud to have a Norwegian heritage (with some Swede as well!). I’ve been told (but have no proof for this) that my great-grand father, https://www.geni.com/people/Torje-Songe-Solberg/6000000019737749400, in coming over in 1852, paid for the passage of 60 people in addition to members of his family! If that’s true, it’s something to be very proud of!
    What I value most about my Norwegian heritage is that I was taught to treat EVERYONE else as my equal–neither inferior, nor superior, to me. I often wonder: What would this country be like if EVERYONE thought this way?!! (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way!)
    I regard my home as Mt. Morris, Wisconsin, although I have been living in the Milwaukee area for 40 years.

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  6. Thank you for writing this. I don’t feel like so much of a “weirdo” anymore. —I’ve always been interested in “nature” vs ” nurture” because I was adopted at birth by an American ( of English decent) man and his German-born wife. Neither liked me very much as I got older. They said I was cold and unlovable because I stiffened when they hugged me and I didn’t show much emotion. In my heart I felt overwhelming love for them and others…showing it was the hard part. I was always the peace-maker, shy, loved solitude and nature and felt intense inner pain when I was told all of this was wrong and that I should be more like them. At 28 years of age I found my biological parents, and found out I was half Norwegian ( family surname of Viken from Roros, Norway) and looked 100% like the Norwegian side….acted like them too. In my instance, nature was stronger than nurture.—- Your article explains a lot. Thank you.
    P.S. I was raised for the most part in Los Angeles, California…..unfortunately nowhere near any Norwegians.

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    1. I grew up in a Norwegian-American community, and it wasn’t until I left home that I began to realize how unique our ethnic heritage is. Even after visiting Norway a couple of years ago, I began to wonder if those of us of American Norwegian heritage are not so much like the modern Norwegians either, but I wasn’t there long enough to observe much. Pretty complicated stuff. Thanks for writing. The more we talk together, the better we’ll feel (I hope) about being who we are and feeling proud of it.

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  7. I am half Norwegian and half Italian/French so one side of me is reserved but the other side can openly hug people. I think this confuses folks at times especially when I appear to be outgoing but then I seem to be pulling back. I have very fond memories of my bestemor . There was always coffee and krumkaker . She and my aunt Anna would pass the time cracking Ole and Lena jokes. I found their accents to be so charming when they told those jokes in a mixture of Norwegian and English. Bestefar and his brother,my uncle Thor,were very reserved. One of my grandpa’s sayings was,”shake hands with a man at a distance and size him up.” Of course the Italian family gatherings were quite the opposite! My mother, who was the Norwegian-American,was a quiet woman with a great dry sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude but she was very loving.
    Whenever I read about the traits of the Norwegian people I just smile and say,yep,that’s (half) of me! By the way I do say “uffda” but I have never tried lutefisk.

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  8. I am also Norwegian American, I was born in Menomonie, WI. My Grandparents came to this country as teens. People usually say I am cold hearted because I don’t show any emotion at things and don’t like hugging or anything like that. I am glad to know there are more like me.

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    1. I have found for myself that it is easier to hug when I initiate a light hug to someone who I’m sure is going to reach out to me with a hug. Maybe it’s because I feel more in control of the situation. It’s also a bit easier when it’s a casual acquaintance rather than someone dear to me. I really don’t have any explanation for why so many of us Norwegian-Americans are like that.
      Regarding not showing emotions: it can take a some practice to break out of that cultural trait. Try imitating others whose expressions you feel comfortable with. Begin with the eyes, and let them crinkle when you smile. It’s the eyes that really show the emotion within the context of the face. After all these years, I still am self-aware of how I attempt to express emotion when I am with others. Good luck.

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  9. Thank you for making me feel normal. I am at least 50% Norwegian and am happy to be how I am. I am constantly amazed by what people share in public places, and by what people share even with acquaintances! I never assume anyone outside of my very closest family wants me to share with them my accomplishments, joys or sorrows. It just doesn’t seem normal that I should do that. Even things I know other people would share….I can’t. When my Mom died suddenly I had terrible grief but I never felt like I should share that with everyone. Even now, I didn’t want to post this much, but I am so thankful that you wrote this, so I wanted to tell you “Thank you!”

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    1. I SO understand. I have belonged to a widow’s group of only six members for almost 20 years and find that while the others share willingly, I have a tendency to clam up when asked anything even semi-personal. I’m a good listener though, and I’ll bet you are too. I knew early on that, as a writer, I would have to use a pseudonym or I’d never make it. I think of my R.Z. Halleson name as a marketing tool and not as something personal, kind of like an alter ego I suppose. Thanks so much for writing.

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      1. RZ, Thanks again for a wonderful article and also for commenting back. My Dad was born near Antigo, WI. Is that close to the Norwegian community where you were raised? Jane

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  10. Even though I’m only 12.5% norwegian, the shynness, the compromising, the peacefulness all sounds exactly like me. My father, who is 25% norwegian, is a very quiet person too, contrasted with my 100% german [american] mother who loves to talk. Even though I’m mostly german, the little bit of norwegian that I have seems very strong when this article explains what a norwegian is. Although some people may find these attitudes “sad”, I find them very positive and I am very proud to be a norwegian american and also hope to go to Norway someday as well.

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    1. Thanks Kathryn. Out of necessity, I have learned to be outgoing and can keep it up for up to two hours, at which point I have to retreat into an “alone” place. I know that this is part of being an introvert as opposed to an extrovert, rather than having to do with being a Norwegian-American, but it adds to the complexity of it all. It does help to share our experiences though, and I thank you for writing.

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    2. I m 50% Norwegian and have many of the traits mentioned here. I now understand why I have high standards and also resisted hugging. I do not like to be touched and hate going to the doctor. I am fiercely loyal and honest to a fault. I recycle and want to save the planet. i am very happy about my Norwegian heritage,

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  11. I read your article and these comments with particular interest because, living as I do in the North East of England, Norway is very close, and there is quite a lot of shared ancestry between the people here and the Norwegians. Personally I am of the opinion that history has given the Vikings a raw deal: they were traders as well as warriors and they handed down a maritime heritage which enabled us to explore the world, very largely in their footsteps, as it were. The hill-people who were the original inhabitants of the North East and the Scottish Borders before the miners came have many characteristics similar to those you describe: quiet, introspective people at one with the elements and hard to draw out emotionally.

    Sadly, I lack these attributes – there is too much of the Norman in me. But I look on with envy.

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  12. I am married to a Norwegian wife. You have some interesting insights to what and how Norwegians think, believe and do. I can definitely say I have noticed in my wife a great deal in what you have described: reserved, non-confrontational, doesn’t like to speak up and out, doesn’t want to be seen or heard very much. Painstakenly slow to open up even to me. Thinks compromise is easy, achieving some peace for order of society. The discussions don’t go very deep but stay very much on the surface. They tend to be passive and very sensitive.
    Even though these traits are quite evident in this day and age, I found it also interesting yet somewhat confused that
    the great ancestors of the past were quite the opposite. They were a very brutal to others. They pilfered and murdered many less defenseless people. They were very proud people. They weren’t very peaceful or passive people but were very confrontational for their own gain and a forceful people to be reckoned with. The pride was there, but then came the fall. Now today they’re supposedly quieter and gentler people. Interesting.

    So today, I find a very interesting but yet some what strange of the twist or change of the character traits of the Norwegians. It’s kind of confusing of how to relate with them as a whole.
    We live in Minnesota, and I say this for others to ponder that In the bigger picture of time, that eventhough the Vikings may have won many brutal battle in the past, that the Minnesota Vikings today will probably never win the Superbowl. They have played 4 times in its history and still haven’t won. This is my observation of the twist of fate.
    Denno

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    1. It’s odd, isn’t it, how cultural traits come down through the generations. I’m going on a Road Scholar trip to Norway this summer for the first time. I’m wondering if I will even “like” my ancestral people. I’m not entirely comfortable with many of my own personality traits.
      Re: the Vikings. That is a VERY interesting question that you pose, and I’ll be thinking about it a lot. Maybe I’ll try to find out how the “real” Norwegians view their violent past.

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  13. This explains a lot! My sister and I we’re just discussing the other day why we aren’t able to fit in with people the way others do. We seem to come off as shy and uninterested in making friends, but this is not the case. In many ways we don’t seem to be able to connect on the same level others do. I could go on but let me just say that this piece answered a .lot of questions about why I am the way I am!

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    1. Thanks for writing Margaret. Just last week, my son who is a psychologist and only half Norwegian, commented on how stoical he, his sister, and I are. We just don’t show emotion easily. His wife is Italian/Puero Rican and has learned to understand how different the two of them are.

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  14. I find this so interesting… I had no idea what my ethnicity was, and recently took a DNA test to find out. Turns out I’m about 40% Norwegian. After reading about Norwegian people this suddenly makes a lot of sense. I display all of these personality traits; I’ve been shy my whole life, I share very little about myself with others, and when I do talk I tend to shock people because I will be completely honest with them. The thing I find most interesting is I did not know I was Norwegian and I did not grow up around Norwegians… I’ve just always been this way. I guess genetics must have some impact on personality traits. This was intriguing. Thank you 🙂

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    1. I can look back at my growing up in a Norwegian-American community and although we had many different personalities, some traits seemed to be fairly common among the majority of us, so much so that out in the greater world we can even recognize each other as being Scandinavian at least, and sometimes even specifically of Norwegian descent. This is more common maybe among groups like the Irish and the Italians, but because we are pretty much a quiet minority, it doesn’t get noticed by anyone except ourselves.

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  15. I am also Norwegian-American and I enjoyed reading your description of our culture. I am most interested in your statements that we perceive men and women as equal, and that children are encouraged to think for themselves and go outside to explore the world!

    I completely share your experience and perspective. When I grew up men and women say together to talk about world events, local events, the “news” and issues of the day. Women did not go off to another room to sit together and women’s ideas and comments were regarded in no less or no more weight and consideration than the men.

    I have struggled since leaving college, however, because of the dominant belief by others that women are inferior – it took me a number of years to recognize how deeply embedded the the broad mainstream of American culture. My dad cooked, did household chores, without the phrases about “helping” I often hear about men doing housework or caring for children. My mother mowed the lawn if my dad was busy and participated in many “men’s” job chores.

    Now, I see how the mass attitude about women, as mothers and wives and sisters and professionals, leads odten to a relentlessly mostly quiet, but deeply contemptuous, belittling, diminishing of women. These are also methods of inflicting emotional abuse on others.
    Our divorce laws now in Minnesota do not award any financial equality – not even for women who were married 30-40 years, supported their husband’s careers, raised children, managed the family home. Minnesota judges will not take these shared partnership arrangements into consideration. They are simply stating: “He already supported you all these years. He doesn’t have to support you if your no longer married.”

    This passive-aggressive legally sponsored degradation of the lives of women is stunning. I know of countless cases where women with 3-4 children, married 30-35 years, supporting husbands making $250,000, $500,000 a year salaries, end up with meager savings and 50% of their husband’s social security – nothing else unless assets were available or equity in the home – although most have lost all equity.

    How does this happen in any civilized society? This llegal practice deletes the model of marriage as an equal partnership – actually deletes the practice of partnership, if the wife does not have her own separate financial autonomy.

    Consider the position these women are now cast in, their children at some perhaps not fully conscious level, as dependent on the husband – the dad – and “unworthy” of financial equity since she did not “earn” the money!

    As a nation – certainly in Minnesota, as a state, we legally sanction the profound abuse of our mothers, our sisters, aunts, wives …

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    1. Thanks for writing Kathleen. All of that has been a struggle for me too, and it’s been hard not to become cynical about the situation of women in general, and wives and mothers in particular. I try to understand where people are coming from in their attitudes, and at one point felt that a lot of it is about fear. People fear losing control, and seem to need to put down other people so that they can feel that they, themselves, are enhanced by this. The best book that I’ve read about this is Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice
      http://www.amazon.com/Nature-Prejudice-25th-Anniversary/dp/0201001799/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383324734&sr=1-1&keywords=gordon+allport+books

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  16. Hi Derek,

    Thanks for writing. There are so many things that make us what we are: genetics, personality, social culture, how we were brought up, and the values that we choose for ourselves as we get buffeted about. I just finished writing a mystery that you might like to read because it is set in the Norwegian-American community where I grew up. You can read about it here:

    Currently it is only on the Kindle as an ebook, and if you want to read it but don’t have a Kindle, you can download the free Kindle reading app for your computer or other reading device here.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=sv_kstore_1?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771

    I’m just beginning the next one in this series.

    R.Z.Halleson

    P.S. I graduated from South Dakota State University in Brookings and spent a few months doing a project in Rapid City.

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    1. I am also a member of the Sons of Norway, I have been inactive for sometime since I converted over to the Catholic Church, but there are times when my friends will say “I love you”. I know they don’t mean it romantically, but I hardly say it back because it means to me romantically.

      When I dated my ex girlfriend who was Italian who was from Salt Lake; she couldn’t figure out why I didn’t say I love you much. I told her I love you, but I don’t need to say it all the time and if it changes I will let you know. She couldn’t get that. I was taught about that by my family. I was also taught to respect Jantes Law where you are no better than any other person. I know I get misunderstood a lot, because people think I’m unemotional and weak, but I’m not. I just don’t show much emotion. I do only if I’m in the really reallly emotional stages I do show it. Where my grandfather won’t even do that nor my dad. When I go to meetings I hardly offer ideas or suggestions, because I am afraid that there will be conflict and I was always taught that conflict does not solve a problem

      For a long time I was ashamed to even admit that I was part Norwegian, because of some of those traits; but I realized that I shouldn’t be ashamed and I should proud of it. It’s hard sometimes when people don’t understand you.

      I have a nook app. But I can still download a kindle app on a mac?

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  17. I can relate to a lot of those traits, because I myself am part Norwegian only 1/8, but it’s very hard for me to show emotion. People don’t understand why I don’t like compliements, but I just tell them anyone can do it.

    My Grandfather told me this saying “Talk is Silver, Silence is Gold”. Some people hate that I use Jantes Law, but I am proud to be part Norwegian. It’s also part of South Dakota values as well.

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