Tom Skiba, International I/O Ph.D. Student and ICCM Associate, is spending the fall in Oslo Norway
A brisk morning in September walking to School down a quiet street, which could be any street since all the streets in Oslo are quiet, I pass students and workers dressed quite casually in converse sneakers and few tucked in shirts. Passers by do not make eye contact and I resist my tendency to nod or smile as it will only raise suspicion. On the bus, I watch people play musical chairs between stops to avoid sitting next to one another when possible. Arriving on campus, a large modern building with seven story glass ceilings, I check the location of my class on a large screen similar to airport arrival/departure boards. Sitting in the classroom I am greeted by a variety of students representing mainly European and some Asian nations. We begin what will be a participative class, with small group discussions as precursors to any class debates. I enjoy my first of two 15-minute breaks provided every 45 minutes in order to get a snack or coffee. During the break my Norwegian peers ask me about my weekend, make sure my transition is going smoothly and are quick to offer recommendations for places to visit. Class ends and students applaud the professor, which appears to happen for some classes but not others. After class I meet with one of several groups, as nearly all my class assignments are group based. The atmosphere in the library does not have nearly the same degree of stress and tension that I am accustomed too and closes at 9:00pm, though few stay that late. Students lead a balanced life between school, a part-time job, and typically some sort of outdoor activity, be it hiking, climbing, or running, that they do regularly.
Leaving school I stop by the grocery store to experience the numbing feeling of how little my American dollars can buy and leave with what better be the best eggplant I have ever purchased. I go home and prepare for meetings with some of my professors that I hope to collaborate with. Their emails are informal and direct as if I were a colleague rather than a student. I may meet up with some of the other exchange students in the housing complex later, probably some Germans, maybe some Dutch or French here or there. Otherwise, I end my day responding to emails from the United States.
So far, the transition as an Exchange Student at BI Norwegian Business School has been smooth. The quietness and physical distance of Norwegians felt impersonal or cold at first. However, when approached this shy distant appearance fades quickly and my fellow students open up to ask questions and help me with nearly any request (e.g., spare phone, sleeping bag, understanding wear to find reasonably priced groceries). The spoken English amongst the general population is exceptional. Norwegian English speakers tend to have what I would call an exaggerated Minnesotan accent with wooping endings like a warped vinyl record. Norwegians suggest that this linguistic prowess is partially due to the use of sub-titles rather than dubbing the dialogue in American films. In essence, Pixar helps to teach the children English.
As an American, there has been a certain set of questions that seem standard when meeting Norwegians.
#1 Who are you voting for? Norwegians and other Europeans feel somewhat inundated with US election news and can tell you all the same CNN headlines from back home.
#2 Why did you want to come to Norway? I am struck by the fact that I take this for granted when I meet people coming to the United States assuming that people come for school and work, although they could do that anywhere. My typical answer is, “to understand how Scandinavian culture influences the way workers think and work together.” Which bring about the next question…
#3 Why don’t people want healthcare? This question points to what is maybe the starkest social values difference between the two cultures. People say Welfare or the “Welfare State” with a sense of pride in Norway and they do not understand the undertones of laziness, inefficiency, and class warfare associated with the concept of welfare in America. Remember when you were disappointed as a child and some adult told you, “Dear, sometimes life isn’t fair.” Norwegians do not seem to accept that statement. Fairness is highly valued and people are willing to accept some level of inefficiency in their thick web of bureaucracy in order to preserve a culture of fairness where from their point of view all individuals have a chance to live a fulfilling life. The politics, economics and cultural factors of “fairness” is something that I will explore in a later posting.
During lectures I find myself representing the standard or at times the foil to the Scandinavian methods or strategies of business. Since the major business journals are mainly American, I am constantly listening to thorough critiques of industry and academics from back home.
This brings us to question #4, typically from Norwegian Professors, “Is that your impression of what it is like in America?” My best answer being, “Yeah, probably somewhere at least.” Norway, population 4,985,000, with arguably the most egalitarian culture on Earth, is quite homogenous. It can be hard to relate the complexities of the relatively massive democracy of the United States, population 312,780,968, and draw fair comparisons between the two nations. However, these critiques highlight many of the cultural differences I am interested in exploring. The Norwegian worker and the American worker have many contrasting characteristics that make certain values, assumptions and even some social scientific concepts confusing, if not irrelevant, in the different contexts. The nature of these differences is something I will explore at greater length in future posts.
Overall, my time thus far in Norway has been well spent learning a unique perspective on organizational functioning in the classroom and taking in the immense beauty of the countryside. More lessons and insights to come!