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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.

Pictured is a calendar.
This is why Norwegians use numbered weeks. Pictured is a calendar. Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

“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.

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READER QUESTION: Why do Norwegians rate things out of six? 

If you see a film, restaurant or album given a six in Norway, it's been met with the highest possible accolades rather than middling reviews. So, where does this unique ranking system come from? 

READER QUESTION: Why do Norwegians rate things out of six? 

Question: Why do Norwegians use a dice roll to rate things? 

This is an excellent question that even those who have lived in Norway will often ask themselves. 

Many have been left scratching their heads after hearing someone wax lyrical about something, only for them to say it deserves a score of six. 

For many foreigners, it may not make sense that films like Verdens verste menneske (The worst person in the world) received a score of six, despite being such a critical darling worldwide. 

Six for many represents a respectable score, but it’s the highest accolade possible for films and the like in Norway.

Also, grades in Norway are ranked from one to six, with the highest-grade students can aim to achieve being a six, showing just how strongly the number six is associated with excellent achievements. However, the origins of the two systems appear to be unrelated to one another. 

How does the system work

The reason why six is the highest score awarded for media, restaurants and cultural performances is that Norway uses the teringkast or dice roll system to rate things. 

When using dice, six is the highest number you can roll. Many film posters, book covers, and product advertisements proudly display their favourable “dice scores”. The score is usually displayed as red dice with white pips representing the product’s score out of six. 

Therefore, it is more common to hear things ranked out of six rather than five or ten, as there are no commonly used dice with this many sides. Some publications will award scores of one or seven to heap heavy praise or criticism on something. 

Furthermore, as much as parts of Norway’s wilderness can feel like a fantasy world, Dungeons and Dragons has yet to hit the mainstream in a way that means a D20 is adopted as the new universal scoring system. 

And (don’t let any Norwegians hear this), when scores are displayed on products on a dice, see the example for Verdens verste mennesk below, the system kind of makes sense. 

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A post shared by Verdens Verste Menneske (@verdensverstemenneske)

Where does the system come from? 

The system is over 70 years old, first appearing on March 31st 1952, in an issue of Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang (VG). 

Film critic Arne Skouen introduced the format as he wanted to summarise a film’s quality in a short and concise manner. To do this, he devised a system of displaying the film’s score on dice so readers could easily see whether the movie would be worth their time. 

While this system is certainly easy to digest for readers, it is perhaps strange that it has caught on, given Norway’s conservative attitudes to gambling. 

These days, the system has been adopted by most online publications and newspapers for reviews. 

Such is the popularity of this system, it has even been extended to rank the performance of political leaders during debates.

Dice rolls for scores are especially Norwegian, rather than a quirk unique to Scandinavia. The system is rarely, if at all, found in neighbours Sweden and Denmark.