Why Norwegians use week numbers instead of dates
Having to regularly check which date is meant when a Norwegian gives you a week number can be frustrating, but there’s a method in the numerical merry-go-round.
“We are closed because the team is on annual leave in week 23.”
“We’ve scheduled the meeting for week 42 as the project should be near completion by then.”
“We should be able to begin construction in week 23.”
If you’ve ever read (or heard) a sentence like any of the above in Norwegian and found yourself cursing in frustration and clutching your phone while you google “what date is week 23”, you are not alone.
The use of week numbers to refer to points in time – either in the past or future, but usually within the current year or beginning of the next one – is common in some European countries, and Norway has embraced it since it was introduced in the 1970s.
Norway isn’t alone in this practice and its Scandinavian neighbours Denmark and Sweden also use numbered weeks to refer to dates.
In Anglophone countries, including the United Kingdom and United States, the convention is not used, and weeks are more likely to be referred to loosely as the “second week in July”. If a specific week needs to be given, it might be written down as a range of dates or something like “the week commencing Monday, July 18th”.
As such, the use of week numbers can be very jarring to people not used to them because they are difficult to connect to an actual date and therefore don’t seem to give any kind of useful reference point. They require the extra step of referring to a calendar to look up a date which could have just been given in the first place.
At the same time, Norwegians often seem to instinctively be aware of the week number they’re currently in, the exact date of an earlier week number, and how far into the future a given week number might be.
Below, we look at why week numbers are commonly used in Norway and where the tradition comes from.
How does it work?
Norway’s calendar system designates “week 1” as the first week of the year, which includes four or more days of the new year (in other words, four January days with no more than three still in December).
Another way of putting this is: the first week in which Thursday is in January is week 1.
This means that the number of weeks in a year can vary, because 52 multiplied by 7 is 364. As such, week 53 sometimes makes an appearance at the tail end of the Norwegian calendar.
It follows that week 1 can start in the old year and week 53 can include days in January. It’s probably a good thing that most people are still on their Christmas holidays at this time of the year.
Why does Norway use this system?
Norway introduced the numbering system for weeks on January 1st 1973 (a Monday), in accordance with an international standard, ISO 8601. The country began considering Monday, rather than Sunday, as the first day of the week at this point.
Numbered weeks were used in Norway before this. Then, however, weeks would begin on Sunday, and the last day of the week would be Saturday.
Some countries – like the United States – still designate Sunday as the first day of the week in calendars. This is also the case in Israel, where Sunday is a regular weekday.
Unlike the Norwegian habit of rating things from one to six, there doesn’t appear to be anything specific to Norwegian culture that would make week numbers popular.
READ MORE: Why do Norwegians rate things out of six?
With workplaces using them, the people working there need to keep track of them, and this means they’re more likely to be able to recall which week number they’re in than someone from a country where these are not used.
The result of nearly 50 years of thinking about dates in this way? It’s easier to answer quickly when the receptionist at your GP asks if you can come for your next follow-up check in “week 13”.
How can I stop being frustrated by it?
I don’t have all the answers to this, but one way of making it easier to look up week numbers is to change the settings on your phone calendar to display them.
On an iPhone, this can be done in the Settings->Calendar section by switching on “Week Numbers”. On Android devices, you can use the settings within the calendar app to show week numbers.