If you have never been to Scandinavia, you may only have the impression of countries with attractive,
blond-haired people who have great health insurance but are sometimes dour because it is mostly dark throughout the winter months. That stereotype has some truth to it, but it hardly tells the story of one of the most vibrant cultural groups in the world.
Scandinavia consists of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, each with its own language. Nordic cultures also include Finland and Iceland, both also with their own languages. People from all five countries are almost universally fluent in English as well, making these countries very easy places to visit.
Each of these nations is distinct with its own flavors, but with commonalities that bind the cultures together. National Public Radio’s charming “A Prairie Home Companion” program captures many of the most easily recognizable Nordic characteristics. The Nordic people tended to settle in the upper U.S. Midwest, and the Midwest has been significantly influenced by ancient Nordic cultures. You can still hear vestiges of their accents, especially among people from Minnesota.
Culturally, these people do not like to put on airs or think they are better than anyone else—at least they never voice this out loud. They are minimalist (“nothing over the top!”) in their approach to design. Visit an IKEA furniture store and you can readily see the clean and natural design elements baked into everything. It affects their culinary tastes, clothing, and art.
Some people consider the Nordic cultural groups to be dour in personality, but that has not been my experience. No doubt the cold and dark northern climate has shaped this group of people, but geographically they are located in the midst of incredibly beautiful fjords, mountains, and coastlines. They may be initially reluctant in their warmth, but once you get to know them, they are as lively a group of people as you will meet anywhere.
Scandinavians have a strong sense of group identity, aiming for ways for everyone to succeed. For this reason, they tolerate very high taxes to support their generous social welfare programs. The Danes are considered to be among the happiest people on the planet. Perhaps this is because people from this cultural group believe strongly in working to live rather than living to work. While they look with amazement at the long hours Americans put in, they have no desire to emulate this lifestyle.
And yet, they enjoy very high standards of living. There is little poverty in any of these countries. While Iceland was especially hard hit by the economic crisis that began in 2008, it has successfully pulled out of that recession. The Great Recession did not create a cluster of people who thought that they should put in more hours at work. They continued to take their long vacations. Most of these countries’ citizens take a full month for vacation each year. Except for retail and hospitality, these countries pretty much shut down during the month of July. They all have universal health care, great school systems, and very modern prison systems.
An intense love of nature drives these cultures, and a love of extremes seems to have influenced their fitness routines of hot saunas followed by sitting in snow banks. Nordic people love the outdoors and will spend most of their time away from work walking in the woods, skiing, or gardening.
Their belief in their own values is so strong that they feel little need to let the rest of the world know what they stand for. They just live and enjoy their values. I’ve learned from my extensive dealings with Nordic people that they won’t attack your way of living, but they would never consider changing theirs.
When dealing with Scandinavians, expect to meet people who are very satisfied with their lives. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are all alike, even though they strongly believe in equality. Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, and Icelanders are quite distinct from each other on many levels. They particularly enjoy making jokes about their differences, even though they are all extremely family-oriented and love the outdoors. While exhibiting different degrees of directness, by and large, they all pretty much say what they want, and you can say what you think back to them. They are, typically, not very religious.
It’s a good idea not to judge these people or call them socialists. They see their system as working for them without the label of socialism. Enjoy them for who they are—a group of people who will have no difficulty accepting you and the choices you have made if you accept them for whom they are. Whatever they are doing, it’s working for them. And their open-faced sandwiches are delicious!