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Do you need to speak Norwegian to make friends in Norway?

Do you need to speak Norwegian to make friends in Norway?
Photo: Janko Ferlič on Unsplash
Moving to a new country has its challenges. The culture, climate and daily grind are all new, making it perhaps one of the times in your life when you’re at your most vulnerable.

Making friends in Norway requires initiative and a willingness to put yourself out there, but how big is the language barrier?

To understand the role played by the Norwegian language in the uncertainty of new surroundings, it can be helpful to gain insight on how open Norwegians and their culture are to friendship in general. 

From a Norwegian’s perspective

The task of making friends in Norway is entirely situational. Of course you can find people in this country who speak the same language as you do, thus eliminating a major hurdle in communication.  But what if you are interested in becoming friends with a local who speaks the native language?

Norwegian Anders Eide, a student in Oslo, describes how willing he is to make a friend who doesn’t speak his native language.

READ ALSO: Do you really need to speak Norwegian to work in Norway?

“I am definitely more willing now that I have already made an English speaking friend,” he says. “It’s less stressful now that I am older.”

Eide said he remembers how uncomfortable he was when his cousin brought his American girlfriend to his house for the first time, and he knew he would have to speak English at the dinner table.

“I was absolutely nervous and didn’t want to, but I was young,” he explains.

When asked if he would give his friends a heads-up if he were to bring a non-Norwegian speaking friend to a party he replied, “yes, of course I would! That’s just how it is.”

Eide may be more willing to make friends with a person who doesn’t speak Norwegian now that he’s older but admits there are many in his group of friends “that would think it would be too difficult.” 

Managing certain social situations as a non-Norwegian speaker

There are certain social situations where meeting new people can occur more naturally, even if you have yet to learn the language. Special occasions like weddings.

Traditional Norwegian weddings have a lot of speeches. A lot! Speeches start from the ceremony and are carried on throughout the whole reception. If you do not understand Norwegian it can make the celebration a bit confusing.

Luckily, with festivities that come with a special occasion, people are more likely to mingle and start up a conversation. If you are attending or are seated with someone who is willing to translate, take advantage of this and make introductions.

Generally, if you are in any social situation where you are hoping to meet someone new, think about who you know first. It would be ordinary to ask a friend if they knew of any job openings within their company, or to let your neighbour know you are looking for a squash partner. Networking is key in this country! This is true for both Norwegian speakers and non-Norwegian speakers. Utilise your existing relationships to make new contacts.

The benefits of living in cities

Oslo is by far the place in Norway with the most immigrants. According to the World Population Review, of the 648,000 people in Oslo 190,000 were born to immigrants or are immigrants themselves. That’s almost 30 percent. The multicultural influence plays heavy to a newcomer’s advantage in making new friends. English is more commonly used in the nation's capital, and residents will be more likely comfortable speaking in English.

Customs that can be noticed and used without needing to understand Norwegian

If you have had the opportunity to take public transportation in Norway, you have probably already noticed this custom. Norwegians appreciate silence. Talking on your phone or loudly with the person you are with is unusual and will attract some stares. This is true until 3 am when everyone is fueled with alcohol and loudly making their way home.

When meeting people out it is not common to offer to buy someone a drink. This may be attributed to the high alcohol prices in the country making the offer not appear as casual as it would in other nations. Do not be offended if your date doesn’t offer to pick up the tab. It is not a sign that they are rude or not interested in this culture. 

Closely following winter sports. During the colder months, the headlines are dominated by Norwegian winter athletes and what competitions they are participating in. Locals are more likely to be found on the ski slopes and at their winter cabins. 

An understanding and willingness to engage in these customs can be beneficial for building relationships in Norway. 

The difference between generations

It is a wide-spread belief that all Norwegians can speak English. This is not the case, especially in more rural areas and with elders who were not required to learn English in school. Generally speaking, language may make it harder to make friends with a Norwegian from an older generation. This does not mean it is impossible, but it may be more difficult if the struggle to speak each other's languages goes both ways.

A common belief

There is a common presumption that Norwegians are a cold group of people or perhaps more reserved than other cultures.

School teacher Inger Sodeland, 34, in Trondheim shares her opinion on the wide-spread belief.

“Everyone thinks that Norwegians are pretty cold but I disagree,” Sodeland explains.

“Yes, it may be more difficult to make contact because we spend so much of our time indoors. The climate is a part of the reason. It’s not like we’re cold in the sense that we don’t need people in our lives. That’s just as needed here as it is anywhere else,” she says.

Sodeland said she is open to a friendship with someone who doesn’t speak Norwegian.

When asked if there was anything from her past that made her more open-minded to making new friends she recalls, “when I was 17, I moved to Arizona to study abroad. I learned from that experience early on just how lonely it is to move to a new place. Even moving to a new city inside the same country can be lonely. I empathise with people who are in that same position.” 

Whether it is from the confidence that comes with age, or stemming from the roots of empathy, there are plenty of reasons Norwegians don’t always live up to the stereotype of being more reserved.

An immigrant's point of view

Does it perhaps become easier to make friends in Norway when you are years into the integration process and have learned the language?

Former restaurant manager and immigrant Annie Wall speaks Norwegian and has been living in the country's capital for the past six years. She believes the language helps, but there are still obstacles.

“Of course learning Norwegian has helped a ton! But every time I’m headed out to an engagement where I know I’ll be speaking Norwegian, it’s hard to shut off the constant mental reminder that conversations will not come as naturally as they would if they were in English,” Wall says.

“I am proud of my new language, but I often  wonder if I will ever feel fully at ease when speaking it,” she admits.

Wall recommends taking the initiative to make plans with a Norwegian even if you are uncomfortable doing so.

“You have to try,” she explains. “My Norwegian friends are always complimenting my initiative in making plans to meet up! Even if they can’t attend.” 

READ ALSO: The Norwegian habits foreigners might find strange


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