Tuesday, 25 May 2010


I am not invisible. I am not small, I make a noise, I wear a high-viz jacket, I move around a great deal and I have weird hair. I am quite hard to miss. So why do I feel I must be invisible?

This is a tricky subject to write about, but I have to do so. It is the one thing about arriving in Norway that strikes every foreigner like a blow to the head. People from every continent and hemisphere are stunned at this aspect of Norway, so you see, I can’t leave it out. The thing is, even Norwegians know about this odd aspect, mock themselves for it, and are quite prepared to admit it is very strange.

We have already seen that going for a walk in Norway is a form of recreation practised by one and all. Everyone else who arrives here is thoroughly encouraged to go for a walk too. The rewards are immense in terms of scenery, clear air, and more. But they are not necessarily social.

So Mr Tourist goes out for his first Norwegian walk and says ‘Hello’ to the first person he passes. He is amazed to be met with a blank stare. He says ‘Hello’ to the next person....this time he doesn’t even get a blank stare. He tries the Norwegian friendly version on the next one. ‘Hei hei,’ he remarks cheerfully. Not even a flicker of an eyelid as the passing walker marches straight ahead. He wonders if he looks a bit peculiar...maybe his lunch is all over his face, or maybe his flies are down, so people are trying to pretend he isn’t there at all. He tries again, and this time he is met with the tiniest of side-ways glances, but no accompanying smile. He starts to freak out...what the heck is wrong with him? He returns home and takes a good look at himself in the mirror.

The next day, Mr Tourist tries again, this time with a plan in mind. He walks a few kilometres around a lake while carrying out a survey. It turns out that one out of ten people says hello back to him. One or two more acknowledge his existence, but the rest fail to notice him at all.

Now as you know, I am hugely fond of Norwegians, especially those who are polar explorers or pianists. So this odd behaviour seems all the more peculiar in that it does not reflect the warm personality that I know lies within every Norwegian heart. But this is a seriously surprising aspect of life here, so I cannot leave it out...even dogs notice. A Scottish expat dog, sent here to work on some oil exploration project or other, was distinctly put out when nobody stopped to admire him and pat his head...he kept looking about as though to ask why everyone was ignoring him. He was quite miffed.

I mention all this today because in the UK, the Mental Health Foundation has announced that it is concerned about the increasing levels of loneliness that exist in Britain. As human beings are essentially social animals, the avoidance of loneliness is a key factor in maintaining our mental and physical wellbeing. The Foundation says one in ten people in the UK admit to feeling lonely: surprisingly, it occurs more often amongst the young than the old, and is a result of changing social circumstances....pressures of work make for less time to socialize, many pubs, social facilities and even post offices have closed, and with many people living alone due to families splitting up or moving away, an increase in loneliness is inevitable.

I happen to know that ‘social isolation’ is one of the key concerns within Norwegian society too....charities and aid organisations work hard at trying to ease loneliness amongst the most vulnerable but ‘social isolation’ is not an easy thing to quantify. My own utterly unscientific research in this field has consisted of counting reactions while out walking throughout the year, and I am convinced that the sun has something to do with it...if the sun is shining, far more people say hello and acknowledge each other. So perhaps levels of social interaction are related to wherever a population lives on the planet....the further north, the less they speak.

The funny thing is, I’ve got so used to this. The last time I went to Scotland and walked down the road, someone said ‘hello’ to me and I jumped out of my skin with surprise. I was quite shocked. It’s obviously catching.

By the by, have you ever looked really hard at Norway’s most famous painting, Munch’s ‘The Scream’? Apparently the idea for the work came to Munch while he was out walking and crossed a bridge near Oslo. Two people have just passed the main subject, and I strongly suspect they didn’t say ‘hello’.(Munch later said these were his friends, but I hae ma doots.)  All he can do is allow a dollop of northern angst to take over in the form of a great big scream. It could be a silent scream...we can’t tell. But often, when I’m out walking and I feel invisible, I can’t help having the image of ‘The Scream’ flash before my eyes.

So if you think you’re invisible, don’t feel sad and lonely. You're not the only one. Everyone else is probably feeling the same.


  1. Dear Returning Scot, here I believe you have missed an important aspect of Norwegian social behaviour.

    Believe it or not, the likelihood of a Norwegian responding to Mr & Mrs Tourist's "hello" , "hei hei" or "god dag, fint vær idag" is directly proportional to the altitude at which the greeting takes place.

    True, st sea level the Norwegian might not even notice you... But try greeting him at 1000 metres above sea level. Your success rate will be at least 50%....

    Under the same conditions at 2000 metres above sea level your success rate will easily be 80%.

    To further improve on this, add sub zero temperatures and a wind chill factor to your altitude. You will easily get a 100% response rate at 2000 meters with sub zero temperatures and a strong wind.

    It all comes back to Nansen and Amundsen....

    ps. the above only holds true if the greeting takes place outdoors :)

  2. Tor, Ah ha...so that's it. You see, I knew it was something to do with the sun...not the temperature then, just how near one can get to it.
    All is explained. Serves me right for living by the sea.