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.

51 thoughts on “On Being Norwegian-American

  1. Hi
    I have been watching vidios with my kids, and they say it’s helping them understand me ha ha. For me I absolutely have many Norweegen trates. I find that trying to fit in has made me a people watcher. Deserning cause for action. My kids asked me to explain. I can not speak for others but I feel I am actually verry intence on the inside. Some times I reserve showing because I get taken wrong. Of I say you are being an ass it is not to slam. It is so you could take stalk. I’m always taking stalk and deciding that my feelings are my own and there right to not be infringenged on how they feel by me is important so they are free to be genuin. My loyalty is so that I’d literally take a bulit for third I care about and so you don’t get in easy. Not that I don’t want to be cloase but because the person must be worth my level of comitment. Looking in the eye to me feels like a sole serch he ha. And so of not chuse to do that casually. I’m seen as quiet reserved a piece maker so when I’m Frank it shalks. I always feel Frank but often don’t shair unless nesesary. I’m sometimes seen as even week but really my convictions are actually intence. Iv decribed myself as a Cherry soft and sweet, refreshing, but if you bite to hard my put will break your teeth. As I stick up for a friend, or defend myself with “worier” strength. Often people didn’t know what they were getting into because I’m the quiet agreeable person. I have a verry long fiews but the end bang is not prety. I just make shure the situation is worthy of such a mighty blow before I’d inflict it. That doesn’t happen often. I here people asking where is the Viking at that could be so menacing. For me Its in there,and that is why I’m so careful.

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    1. Hello Cherry,
      Thank you for writing. I see myself in much of how you describe yourself. Maybe the most important thing to ask ourselves is what legacy will we leave behind when we are no longer here on earth. Over time (I am in my 80s) I have come to believe that we exist to learn as much as we can about the world in which we live, and to contribute what we can to keeping a respectable balance between opposing forces. It’s not easy to try and walk in someone else’s shoes to understand how and why they think and behave the way they do, but I believe that this is what we are called to do, even when that person makes no attempt to try and understand us in return. In so many ways, each of us walks alone throughout our life, but we CAN accept constructive help when it is offered and show our gratitude. Even that strengthens relationships. Cherry, you express your thoughts and feelings well in writing. I hope that you keep it up.

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  2. 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. Wow just wow. I was borne in Tillamook a small costal cow town in Oregon. But my Grandmother is 100 present Norweegen from Oslo. Iv felt like an alien for my hole life. I never knew why I was supposed to be imprest with people who have have more or the idia that a person with a PhD was somehow smarter, or due more respect because they got to go to more school. The idia that I was inferior due to my gender never made sence. The Iidia that stating plainly an observation made people mad or hurt rather than introspective . I never got that I should tolerate strangers invading my personal space that seemes to be larger than people here. I don’t understand drama and arguing mistifide that you don’t just find the most practical option and just agree to it. I never got the art of sucking up. I don’t like people to talk to me while having a hand on my sholder. I talk while looking down and doing dishes, or drawing. Iv been acused of not paying atention but I just find it uncomfortable to stare into people’s eyes for a long time. I hate holding hands with even boyfriends and miss the point. Also Iv never understood the need for constant reasurance. I’m talking to you arnt I. Of never had my level of loyalty shown back to me and don’t understand why? I also can’t show mush emotion with out stating it because people can’t tell as I have little outward signs. Of been told I can’t be a girl because I’m not needy, or emotional. I thought something was wrong with me. I may have to rethink my nurture vs nature thing. It was really helpfull to read these thank you much. I feel so much more normal now.

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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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