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.