What are stereotypical ‘Icelandic traits’? How can you define an Icelander?
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 single Icelander you will encounter!
Nevertheless, stereotypically – and historically, Icelanders have some traits that should give you an idea of what to expect when you come to Iceland. Here are some of the things that come to my mind:
Icelandic Friendliness and Language Skills
(Photo credit: Icelandic police Instagram account)
Icelanders are friendly and welcoming. They’ve recently been voted the friendliest country in the world. When a foreigner is engaged in conversation with a group of Icelanders – most of the times they will swap over to English when speaking so that the foreigner is able to understand. (This can be frustrating for people that are trying to master the Icelandic language – patience is not a virtue that many Icelanders hold and they will get impatient quickly if your Icelandic skills are not up to par!)
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 that Icelanders speak 2 or even 3 more languages besides Icelandic (most common are Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, French or Spanish…)
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 travels and knowledge of the outside world highly – evident from the Icelandic Sagas. The word ‘heimskur’ (ignorant) derives from the word ‘heima’ (home) – used in the saying ‘foolish is the one that never leaves home’. (Heimskt er heimaalið barn).
Icelanders are very proud of their sagas and their language. The Icelandic language has been well preserved and a new Icelandic word is made up for every new invention or word that enters the world.
Icelandic Independent Working Environment
(Photo credit: CrossFit Wiki)
Icelanders are generally hardworking. That may be rooted in the Viking origins and from living in a harsh terrain. It is considered a good trait to be hardworking and it is not unusual to have a few jobs.
Most Icelanders start working at a very early age – the government provides kids with summer jobs from the age of 13-15. Most teenagers have a part-time job alongside their studies – giving them financial independence.
Icelanders sometimes find it quite hard to be lazy and just not do anything. Even when they take a day off they spend it hiking mountains or playing games or doing some sort of an activity. If you encounter an Icelandic in a foreign country, it is most likely that person will have a busy schedule of shopping, sightseeing, socialising and doing activities. They are not very good at simply relaxing.
Icelanders have a ‘small nation complex’. They constantly compare themselves to other countries, especially other Nordic countries – always wanting to outdo everyone and be the ‘best’ at everything.
Equality in Iceland
Icelanders are very much in favour of equal opportunities for both genders and all sexualities. Icelandic women are known for being very strong and independent – supported and respected by the males.
Gender equality in Iceland is one of 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. The nation is led by a prime minister, currently male, although the last one was a female – and an openly declared lesbian.
Homosexuality is accepted and celebrated in Iceland and same sex marriages are allowed by law. There is a big Gay Pride festival in Reykjavík every August and various popular homosexual ‘celebrities’ within the Icelandic entertainment sector.
Icelanders are not known for being particularly easy to get to know – except when they are drunk. Personally I think this has been changing in recent years as the world grows smaller, with Icelanders being more open towards new people, even when they are sober. The rule still applies that they become overly friendly during weekends when a large quantity of the younger generation heads towards many of Reykjavík’s bars and clubs.
Icelanders are also considered to be quite rude by many foreigners – or more accurately: They are to the point. Some foreigners are for example 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’ (Actual translation: Could I have one beer please. Literal translation: Beer, thanks.)
You may be told that the word 'please' doesn't exist in Icelandic, it does (vinsamlegast) - but it's very formal and is 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' - basically 'bon appetit'), after dinner you thank the host for the meal or for yourself ('Takk fyrir matinn/Takk fyrir mig' - 'thank you for the food/Thank you for [taking care of] me') and hear 'Verði þér að góðu' ('may it be good for you') in return.
These are sayings that I feel are lacking in the English language for example. My personal favourite 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' - 'Takk fyrir síðast'.
So the 'rudeness' of Icelanders is largely 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 without beating around the bush (still with a smile on your face!) and in return you’ll get honest and effective results. But be prepared for people being blunt, if an Icelander doesn’t like you – you will know about it. And if an Icelander does like you and invites you round for dinner, then it is with all honesty and no falseness and you should take them up on their offer!
(Photo credit: Myspace)
Iceland has a very small population, a total of 320 thousand 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 probably 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 of friends – it is quite likely that people within either group will know someone from the other group (depending on age and location obviously). When meeting someone new, most opening sentences revolve about finding out who you know in common.
Fashion, Art and Music in Iceland
Lastly, I have to mention the fashion and art scene in Iceland. Icelanders are very fashionable and a creative bunch. Everyone continuously tries to stick out in some way, seeing as the country is small and people tend to look similar and there are waves of big fashion trends.
That means you're bound to bump into some people wearing a 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… Also check out my list of ‘The 10 Weirdest Things About Icelanders’. What am I missing? :)