Kristin Rygg, associate professor and Japan expert at NHH, found a letter to the editor published in a Norwegian newspaper a few years ago very interesting. The descriptions of Norwegians as unsociable and unfriendly also hit a nerve among many of the newspaper’s readers. No wonder, perhaps, given the following descriptions:
‘Will I end up becoming like most Norwegians? Unfriendly and impolite? I don't want to insult Norwegians in any way, and I don’t believe that all Norwegians are unfriendly. As soon as I get to know someone, they usually turn out to be nice in fact! But whatever happened to normal politeness?’
Rygg refutes these allegations. She has written several research articles on ‘politeness theory’, which is a separate discipline in language research.
The researcher from NHH’s Department of Professional and Intercultural Communication finds no support whatsoever for a universal standard of politeness in her studies. So, when the tourists start flocking to the old Hanseatic wharf at Bryggen in Bergen again, as they soon will, they will not encounter rude and aloof Norwegians, just a people who practise a different form of politeness than, say, Americans.
"There’s nothing wrong with our manners, then, as many critics claim?"
"No, Norwegians are polite. We don’t bother other people unnecessarily. We don’t ask for help unless we feel we really need to. To us, that’s being polite," she says.
Norwegians are criticised for not greeting or engaging in small talk with strangers, for not being personal and warm in social contexts, and, of course, for ‘the Norwegian arm’, a well-known term internationally for Norwegians’ tendency to stretch across the person sitting next to them at the table to reach what they want.
"Some people say that it’s very rude of us not to say “can you pass me the salt. please”. But that’s not how we are brought up. In the Norwegian version of politeness, it’s more important not to bother other people, including at the dining table. And engaging in meaningless chat with people we don’t know definitely comes under the definition of bothering them. Which is why we do it as little as possible."
In Norway, many people believe it's polite to leave other people alone. This takes precedence over small talk and unnecessary comments and questions. We don’t bother others more than necessary.
"People from different cultures have very different perceptions of the term phatic communication that language scholars use. Phatic talk is communication whose main purpose is to strengthen the social relationship, not to exchange information," Rygg explains.
"Strengthening social relations through speech is fine, but it’s not a Norwegian tradition. Because it’s more important not to bother other people."
"Do you thereby dismiss the claim that Norwegians are impolite?"
"Yes, I do, definitely. There are no universal standards for politeness. I've read a great deal of research literature on politeness, and no one has managed to find a universal form of politeness. The only thing we can say is that other people are seen as impolite if they do not live up to my subjective expectations of polite behaviour. These expectations are based on my upbringing and what I believe to be polite."
"But if we're in the USA, then maybe we have to respond a bit more positively to what many Americans see as “warm” communication?"
"The smart thing to do if you're visiting another country is to play around a bit with forms of communication, and not obstinately expect people to be like yourself," says the language scholar.
There are nonetheless limits to how much people can adapt, she believes, because politeness has to do with unconscious values.
"No one has taught me these rules, so what happens when we meet people with different unwritten rules is that we react with our feelings and not based on logic."
Types of politeness differ greatly around the world. "For instance, many Japanese people camouflage what they want to say; they express themselves very indirectly and pussyfoot around," explains Rygg, who worked on the Japanese language and forms of communication at both master’s and doctoral level.
"It's implicit in the Japanese language, you might say. There, people often give their sentences an open ending or add a question mark at the end. If you ask me how many people live in Tokyo, while I know that the answer is 14 million, I might instead answer that “14 million live there, but ...?” because I don’t want to sound too direct or cocksure, and because you might not agree with me."
"Generally speaking, we can say that Americans like to use small talk to create warm relations, and that they therefore think it's fine to talk about personal matters. In Japan, they have very many polite figures of speech that are very common, but that are not personal."
"Do you have any examples?"
"When you go visiting and enter someone’s house, you say “I am making a nuisance of myself”. They don’t give any more thought to the meaning of this phrase than we do when we say “you’re welcome”. It’s just a phrase you say automatically. If you give someone a gift, you say “this is a boring thing, but please accept it”. Before being served tea, you say “thank you and sorry”. When you leave, you say 'I have been a nuisance'."
"It's important to know all these phrases that everyone uses. They make you a well-mannered person. You don't have to be personal. If you're sitting on a long-distance bus in the USA, on the other hand, it's fine to show fellow passengers photos of your children and to talk about personal matters. Whatever can create warmth between people is polite."
"In the arm’s length politeness culture that I believe characterises Norway, it's not a case of becoming best friends with people, but of respecting people’s personal space and waiting to be invited in."
"Some people also find small talk inane, don’t they?"
"Yes, many people do. What's the point of saying that the weather is good, when everyone can see that it’s good, some people ask. It’s a waste of words. When Norwegians are told personal stories and invited into an American’s home, some people see this as the start of a friendship, but it's really only a there and then experience, and an exchanges of courtesies."
"'How are you' doesn’t sound very good here in Norway. If someone on the bus asks you how you are, you are not expected to tell them you about your actual problems, are you?"
"When Norwegians get annoyed with Americans who say 'How are you?' without seeming to expect an answer, it might be a good idea to remember that 'how are you' in American usage does not correspond to 'how are you doing', it’s more like the greeting 'hi'," Rygg explains.
"But would you have asked someone you don’t know about how things are going? I wouldn’t. That said, some people who live in Norway, but who grew up in another country say that they can feel lonely because of the Norwegian form of politeness," says Rygg.
By making Norwegians more aware of the Norwegian form of politeness, Rygg also wants to give people a chance to be more conscious of how their version of politeness can affect others.
"Making conscious use of what you know to adapt how you express politeness to others’ expectations, and thereby please others, is the very essence of being polite," the NHH researcher says in conclusion.
Rygg, K.: Typical Norwegian to be impolite. Impoliteness to whom?. Accepted for publication in the Scandinavian Journal of Intercultural Theory and Practice.
Rygg, K.: Was Malinowski Norwegian? Norwegian Interpretations of Phatic Talk. Published in the Journal of Intercultural Communication. 2016
An extract from Kristin Rygg’s doctoral thesis ‘Directness and indirectness in Japanese and Norwegian business discourses’ is available here.