What are some stereotypical ‘Icelandic traits’? How can you define an Icelander? Continue reading to learn all about what makes the people of this island nation traditionally Icelandic.
Obviously, by defining a nationality, you’ll end up classing them into stereotypes. I apologize beforehand if some of the following descriptions don’t apply to every Icelander you will encounter, but can guarantee that they are true for the most part. This list is simply here to help give you some idea of what to expect from the people when you come to Iceland on your travels.
The following traits are the things you are most likely to notice.
Icelanders are friendly and welcoming, to the extent that we’ve recently been voted the friendliest country in the world. This is particularly notable for English speakers; when a foreigner is engaged in conversation with a group of Icelanders, most of the time we will swap over to English so that the whole group is able to understand.
This can be frustrating for people that are trying to master the Icelandic language; in spite of being very nice, patience is not a virtue that many Icelanders hold. We can get a little testy if your Icelandic skills are not up to par yet you insist on using them.
For anyone under the age of 50, and in most cases even older, you can expect the person to speak fluent English. It’s not uncommon for Icelanders to speak two or even three more languages besides Icelandic, the most common being Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, French, or Spanish. The people here realize that it's very unlikely for foreigners to speak their native tongue.
One Nordic language (most commonly Danish) and English are mandatory subjects in school, with the additional choice between French and German and sometimes Spanish. Increasingly, students opt to go abroad for higher education or on exchange programs.
Traditionally, Icelanders value travel and knowledge of the outside world highly. This is even evident in the medieval Icelandic Sagas. The word ‘heimskur’ (ignorant) derives from the word ‘heima’ (home); it is used in the saying 'Heimskt er heimaalið barn' (foolish is the one that never leaves home).
In spite of usually being at least bilingual, Icelanders are very proud of their language. It has been well preserved and a new Icelandic word is made up for every new invention that enters the country.
Icelanders are generally very hardworking. This trait may be rooted in the Viking origins, or from living and laboring in a harsh terrain for centuries. It is not at all unusual for people today to work two or even three jobs.
Most Icelanders start working at a very early age; the government even provides kids with summer jobs from the age of thirteen if they are eager. Most teenagers have a part-time job alongside their studies, eager for financial independence.
Icelanders sometimes find it quite hard to be lazy and to spend hours doing nothing. Even when we take a day off, we often spend it hiking mountains, playing games, or doing some sort of activity. If you encounter an Icelander in a foreign country, it is most likely that person will have a busy schedule of shopping, sightseeing, socializing, and doing activities; we are not very good at simply relaxing.
Part of this may come from the fact that Icelanders have a ‘small nation complex’. We constantly compare ourselves to other countries, especially other Nordic countries, always wanting to outdo everyone and be the ‘best’ at everything. In spite of this, we are very proud of being Icelandic and are a very happy nation.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Helgi Halldórsson. No edits made.
Icelanders are very much in favor of equal opportunities for all sexualities and genders. Icelandic women are known for being very strong-willed and ambitious, and they are largely respected by men.
Gender equality in Iceland is the highest in the world (although there are always some things to improve on). Iceland was the first country in the world to have a nationally elected female president, back in 1980. Our first female prime minister was also the world's first openly gay leader, in 2009.
Homosexuality and other sexualities are accepted and celebrated in Iceland, and same-sex marriages and adoptions are treated equally. There is a massive Pride festival in Reykjavík every August, and an ever-growing queer scene.
Icelanders are not known for being particularly easy to get to know, except when we are drunk. This seems to be changing in recent years as the world grows smaller, but the rule still applies that we become much friendlier during weekends when a large quantity of the younger generation heads towards many of Reykjavík’s bars and clubs.
Icelanders are actually perceived as rude by some newcomers, but this is only because we tend to talk straight to the point. Some foreigners, for example, are puzzled by the fact that the word ‘please’ is not commonly used in Icelandic, although it can be substituted with the word ‘thank you’. In a bar, you can ask for ‘bjór, takk’ (or 'beer, thanks').
You may be told that the word 'please' doesn't exist in Icelandic, but it does: 'vinsamlegast'. It's very formal, however, thus not commonly used. Instead, we have several different polite sayings depending on the occasion.
When sitting down for dinner, people say 'Gjörðu svo vel' ('do so well', our version of 'bon appetit'), and after dinner, you thank the host for the meal ('Takk fyrir matinn/Takk fyrir mig', or 'thank you for the food/Thank you for me'), and hear 'Verði þér að góðu' ('may it be good for you') in return.
My personal favorite is when you see someone you've met before and had a pleasant last encounter with; then you can say 'thank you for last time', or 'Takk fyrir síðast'.
So the 'rudeness' of Icelanders is partly due to language barriers, but also because Icelanders don't like to beat around the bush.
I consider this ‘rudeness’ or 'straightforwardness' to be a virtue and not a flaw; people want to get things done quickly and thus by being direct, you tend to get effective results. It also means that Icelanders will not go out of their way to please you unless they genuinely like you, so if someone invites you for dinner, take them up on the offer because you'll know they like you with no falseness.
Iceland has a very small population, of around 330,000 people. Therefore ‘everyone knows everyone’. Everyone is also related to everyone.
If you ask an Icelander if they have met Björk, they probably answer that their brother was in her class, or that she is their cousin, or their best friend is her son. Everyone has met the president, or the former president, or the first lady, and maybe even had coffee with one of them.
The same thing goes for any ‘celebrity’ to come out of Iceland. I say ‘celebrity’ within quote marks because Icelanders don’t really consider Icelandic ‘celebrities’ to be real celebrities, possibly because we know all of them personally.
If you make friends with two different groups, it is quite likely that people within one group will know someone from the other (depending on age and location, obviously). When meeting someone new, most opening sentences revolve about finding out who you know in common.
Lastly, I have to mention the fashion and art scene in Iceland. Icelanders are a very fashionable and creative bunch. Everyone continuously tries to stick out in some way, seeing as the country is small, quite homogeneous, and there are constant fashion trends. This means you're bound to bump into some people wearing pretty kooky attire, and that's normal.
Art, theatre, dance, music, and perhaps especially literature are highly regarded and Iceland is the home to an endless amount of talented musicians, artists, and authors.
I could go on and on, but these facets are the most stereotypical Icelandic traits. To learn about the more unusual side of this country's people, check out my list of ‘The 10 Weirdest Things About Icelanders’.