I still believe it is a difficult task to compare cultures, because one phenomenon, like food, or sweet foods, or coffee, or politeness, does not necessarily fill the same function in different parts of the world.

For me politeness is sometimes necessary, and I sometimes expect it, but most of the time, i my culture, it is not very interesting. But in some cultures, if you get into a really polite conversation, you should pay attention, because the other person is really giving you something. Sometimes a letter you get from someone feels like a work of art, and you feel totally in awe that someone is able to pay you such an amount of respect and put so much work into trying to make friends with you or at least make your feelings or attitude friendly towards the writer.

To generalise about these things and speak about “Norwegians” or “Swedes” or whatever nationality or region, is of course always inaccurate, even if one may have a point, even an important point sometimes, you can never find out one person completely through sociology, hobby- or professional. Every person has a certain possibility of relating and reacting to his or her own culture, not only following all the rules, and there are always subcultures and competing cultures and a lot of other exceptions to the rules within what is conceived as one culture.

One should keep this in mind, but the two examples above I have experienced myself.

As I said, in my world, respect is normally not shown through a lot of politeness, even if I was brought up to expect a little, maybe in the beginning of a conversation, but through friendliness, which to me is a much simpler and more spontaneous way of behaving. The polite phrases comes inbetween or as a quick start, maybe, when you meet, maybe even among friends, but then you move on to the real thing, the things you really want to talk about.

In general, or in my generation, the politeness-thing also does not really have a fixed shape, I think, almost any comment can do sometimes, depending on where you are, with whom etc. Asking about relatives’ well-being is I guess a habit of my parents’ generation, and I feel it is ok as long as you don’t turn it into a science, which some older people do. Even worse when it is connected to disease which may hit one or the other. To me asking about work is normally not a dumb place to start, mainly because I am interested in my own work and usually curious about what friends are into right now. It is for me also a way of pushing myself a little, because if I tell friends about my own plans and activities, the next time we meet they will probably ask how those things are going, and I have created momentum for myself.

Anyway, I think one should be fairly open when one meet socially, with anyone, too much of a fixed agenda limits the scope and the free breathing of socialising. Addison and Steele, two English writers who ran a very interesting periodical for some years, in London in the 1700s, had an article which treated the question “Do you listen or talk most in a conversation?” 

I don’t remember the answer, but to consider the question can be useful, and interesting.

Sitting in a café or “chatting” as some call it, can be related to work. In the internet, too, of course.

I really don’t care much abut bragging about my work, but I am also used to an appreciative approach from the time I studied, I think we used to comment on each other with the intention of pushing friends ad colleagues up, not down, and from an actual, positive interest in the project, too. This way you don’t have to work so hard to get some positive attention…

Another feat you may often meet in a social setting in Norway, at least in my generation (I am 58) is to start a conversation in a very modest way, toning down your own person and whatever subject you may be touching upon, including work. 

I don’t think this is the only attitude here in Norway either, regional cultures at least used to make the country very different from place to place and town to town, and it was not easy to get a real overview of the whole culture.

Sometimes a loud voice can be really sympathetic in spite of the volume. Of course personalities differ too. 

But still, the ideal of modesty used to be here, and the other attitudes connected to equality, meaning that if you as a foreigner expected a brilliant overture which stated one’s own brilliance in one’s field or the fantastic results in the latest research work or whatever other work one did, you would probably be disappointed, because what you would customarily get was a comment that could sound stupid to you, daft, not made from a professional viewpoint, too mundane or simply from an everyday setting, not a professional one.

Even people with really a lot of knowledge would often behave like that, and if you as a foreigner would be stupid enough to end the conversation after a start like that, because you thought he or she was really stupid,  you could miss basically everything, interesting conversations also on a high level. Creativity and improvisation also used to be sitting completely in our bones, creating sometimes very interesting results. The right way of doing things very often used to be the least interesting way, and you could find the really interesting ideas basically anywhere, sometimes only not where you would expect to find them.

Just to brag…just a little.

You could also be losing a possible friend if you dismissed someone in this way, because feeling high up and being condescending used to be the one thing which would normally or very easily place you outside of a crowd for good. 

I say this half way in the present tense and half way into some form of past, because things change, especially now, social patterns are not quite easy to understand or even find these days, they are changing quickly and in many directions, it seems, for many reasons.

An everyday comment on an everyday issue, as a starting point for talking, this may be a road into really interesting stuff, on any level of society, any level of economy, any level of education and with persons of every type of background.

You still don’t know what you get until you are past this modest introduction, I think.

Social differences do exist, of course, relating to all sorts of things, but I would say that they are not carved into our minds like the ten commandments on a tablet, on the contrary, in principle everybody has and had the right to speak and be part of the common discussion.  This is also a key to understanding the Norwegian brand of democracy. Today it may go too far, but I still very much believe in this principle.

So if you don’t notice these things, but believe that someone who stutters or is a little shy in stating things very clearly is also not capable of thinking or doing things, professionally or not, and if you believe that the people who talk loudest and with most confidence are the real experts, what you will have in return is annoyance, and a lot of it, and I feel sometimes with a good reason, because the really interesting things in society used to be kind of hidden.

So take one step back, listen for a while before you conclude, in, well, many matters, and we’ll love you for taking a little care of us.