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On the introduction culture of the Icelanders

So, Jóhanna brought up an interesting question in the comments to the last post, which in my opinion sort of highlights a cultural difference between Icelanders and most other societies that I’m familiar with. Jóhanna writes:

So they began by introducing everyone in the group, and this made you immediately feel like you were among friends? I don´t think I really understand this. It just sounds a bit odd or strange. If you really want to know somebody you have to allow for some time. Why would you need someone else to introduce you? And why at once? If you´re really interested you can ask the person you want to know something about where they´re from and what their name is, after a little bit of time. If for some reason you can´t ask them, and I can´t imagine why you couldn´t, well then in many instances there´s always the network of coworkers, acquaintances, friends and relatives. Most of the time you can find out.

Besides, why would you like to get to know everyone´s name at once?

In Iceland, there is not much of a culture surrounding introductions. Say you’re with a friend walking down the street and run into someone you know, in most countries it is considered rude not to introduce the person you’re with to the person you’ve just run into. In Iceland it is not customary to do this, which I think is really … unfortunate. I hesitate to use the word rude because it can’t really be rude if it’s a cultural thing — that implies I’m placing my own value judgments on it, which isn’t quite right. HOWEVER, I find it really uncomfortable to be out with someone who runs into someone else and may even spend a considerable length of time talking to that person, without introducing me to him/her, or vice-versa. To be honest I feel like a total dud in those sorts of situations, excluded from the conversation, and sort of like the third wheel under the cart. It’s just not very congenial or sociable.

On our snorkeling trip last Sunday, the two guides began by introducing everyone. To me, that was totally refreshing, and somehow familiar. I’d just come off a tour with a whole bunch of strangers who had barely said a word to each other for the entire four or five hours we’d spent together [not implying anyone should have introduced anyone else there — that wouldn’t have been appropriate in that setting … I’m just using that as a contrast] — so suddenly feeling welcomed into a group was great.

In short, introducing people to each other like that breaks the ice and makes people more comfortable with each other. As soon as that was done, we could start speaking on different terms than we otherwise would have done. For instance I on the way to the ravine I had a conversation with the woman next to me about where she was from, what she was doing in Iceland, what other tours she had done while here and what else she was planning to do, etc. I’m not sure I would have done that if I hadn’t been introduced to her already, didn’t know her name and hadn’t shaken her hand. I probably would just have sat there, perhaps smiled at her politely, and then turned to look out of the window.

Anyone else have any thoughts about the introduction culture of the Icelanders — or lack thereof?



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Marc July 9, 2010, 11:43 pm

    So how would an Icelandic person react if someone was introduced to him/her unexpectedly? And how would the person feel if introduced unexpectedly? What is the problem really?

  • sylvia hikins July 9, 2010, 11:43 pm

    Not the introduction. But it is about communicaton, which is the same sort of thing. Is it a cultural thing just not to respond if someone e-mails or writes – even when you send a small gift. In other European cultures it would be considered extemely rude. I can’t believe that so many Icelanders intend to be rude, so I am beginning to conclude that in the main, Icelanders react face to face but don’t react in writing. Any thoughts anyone?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • meika July 10, 2010, 4:45 am

    Similar thing happens in Tasmania, not exactly the same, but it might be an islander thing, where one takes the easy route of assuming everybody knows of everybody even if they haven’t met. Often Tasmanians don’t use the indicators on their cars because one assumes that everybody knows where everybody elseis driving– “Oh that’s so-and-so, they’ll take the the second on the right to get home.”

    Tasmanians are very friendly and very helpful, kind even, but appear rude and cliquey, because they never learn how to make introductions, and incomers here always tend to move in circles that only include other incomers, or Tasmanians who have spent time elsewhere and have learned how to talk with people they don’t know. It’s a learned social skill, & requires active participation.

  • Andrew July 10, 2010, 6:51 am

    Icelanders are like that aunt we all have who is really generous and friendly but with a little bit of attititude. Little did we know she is up to het eyes in debt and taking out loans on the family assets. She is still brazen and unrepentant up to the day she puts us all in the workhouse.

  • Amy Clifton July 10, 2010, 9:21 am

    I hiked Laugavegurinn in summer 2001. We were about 20 people, led by Útivist, and were together for 5 full days. There were no introductions. But the last night, during our farewell dinner, we were asked to get up and introduce ourselves and say where we were from, etc. I wish I would have known more about these people before the last night of the trip.
    As a tour guide myself, if I am with a group for more than just a short day trip, I make sure to learn names and to have people introduce themselves on the first evening of the trip, usually during our first meal together. It makes a huge difference to the comfort level and comraderie in the group. Of course, I am a native of the US (although I have Icelandic citizenship and have lived here 11 years). I am a naturally gregarious person, but still find it hard to break the ice unless introductions are made.

  • hildigunnur July 10, 2010, 10:33 am

    I don’t agree with Jóhanna at all, well of course one doesn’t need to be best buddies with people at once but I really think it’s more courteous for everybody to introduce themselves.

    I wouldn’t be able to remember the names at once, not very good with names and faces but that’s my problem.

    Sylvia, agree, it’s just different, we for example don’t really write thank-you notes for gifts, just thank people as they bring the gift. The e-mail thing, well yes you sometimes answer and sometimes not, I suppose, depends on what it’s about. In the beginning of using email I remember people talking about not knowing when to stop, with countless emails going back and forth, long after the points of the email communication had been addressed.

  • Pauline McCarthy July 10, 2010, 7:52 pm

    Being British this was perhaps the biggest cultural shock for me coming to live in Iceland. I would be walking with my husband down the street and he would meet old school mates, distant relatives etc and they would shake hands and talk and I would just stand there like a lump. It was sooooooooooooo embarrassing. with the “usually tall” Icelanders occassionally glancing down at me and me returning it with a weak embarrassed smile. I mean for g***s sake I was his new bride and he does not introduce me?????!!!!!????

    In British culture it is the duty of the one who knows both people to introduce them. It just never happens (in Britain) that this introduction does not take place so I was dumbfounded as to what to do. It seemed so strange and impolite for me to say to this total stranger. Oh bye the way I am his new wife! On departing from the meeting I would ask my husband “Who was that? Then after he had told me who it was I would ask him why he did not introduce me. He replied that most Icelanders grow up together and know almost everyone and if someone comes from another part of Iceland then they introduce themselves. It is a total reversal of cultures.

    I am an extremely extrovert person but it still took me many years to get over this cultural difference. I would prod him with my elbow or knock him with my foot to remind him to introduce me and finally I gave up and started introducing myself.

    I was a missionary for many years and have lived in 10 countries so I know a lot about cultural differences but out of all these countries Iceland is the only one who’s culture does not include this introduction of 2 or more strangers to each other by the connecting person.

    Hildigunnur above, mentions that she thinks it is more courteous for everybody to introduce themselves but I think this is very difficult for many people who are shy. Now that I can speak Icelandic I use it to introduce myself to the obviously shy (and lonely) people in public groups and introduce them to each other. I think that in recent years with many people from the countryside coming to live in the Reykjavik conurbation many of these are shy and find themselves isolated quite often just because they cannot find the courage to introduce themselves to their neighbours, workmates etc. I have been told by some Icelanders that they think some outsiders are being snobbish by not introducing themselves and therefore do not want them to talk with them or get to know them. How sad that this cultural difference is isolating so many people.

    Sadly I find that few Icelanders realise what it is to be an “outsider” wither it be a foreigner or a fellow Icelander from the countryside with no family near and therefore do not make the effort to include these “outsiders” into their groups. Certainly there are Icelanders who do go out of their way to include outsiders especially new ones but these tend to be Icelanders who have lived abroad for some length of time.

    LoVe Pauline

  • RK in Los Angeles July 10, 2010, 8:18 pm

    I struggle with the introduction part since I left Iceland. I am so much more comfortable with introductions than without. To me its more an issue of acknowledging that there is a 3rd person (or more) present. Theres hardly ever rude intentions behind it but it can appear that way. I just think that when theres a conversation going on, all present parties should feel welcome to contribute to it. If you do so without being introduced it can feel like you are being intrusive or that it is in some way not welcome.

    Not responding to emails is a completely different thing, thats just plain rude i.m.o. and dysfunctional (f.ex. when you are trying to reach institutions and/or businesses from across the globe with an 8 hr time difference). It really bugs me. However Icelanders will drop everything to pick up the phone. I dont do that at all, I choose the time when I am available. Which again really bugs others, mostly Icelanders 😉

  • Pauline McCarthy July 10, 2010, 8:21 pm

    Oooh, oooh, oooh, I forgot to mention introduction culture in pubs!!!! I am not much of a drinker and almost never go into pubs but friends and relatives who come to Iceland go round the country and visit such pubs. My brother-in-law has been here several times and loves it here EXCEPT for his reception in pubs. You see in pubs all around the world (I presume) when a stranger goes into a pub, especially a small rural one with very few patrons, the barman/woman makes it their duty to make the stranger (new customer) welcome by asking them where they are from, are they here on holiday, business etc. etc. and asking where they are from and telling the stranger a wee bit about their neck of the wood. But no…. not in Iceland. You are served your drink and then the barperson goes and does some menial task, reads the newspaper or watches the TV and ignores the embarrassed, lonely traveller. I have to keep apologising and telling my friends and relatives that the Icelander probably thinks that you are tired and just want to be left alone or they are worried that they will not be able to keep up a conversation in útlensku (a foreign language). I am staggered by the number of Icelanders who do not have confidence in their English (or Danish or other language).

    Often when I meet unfamiliar Icelanders I ask if they speak English only to be told “nei” so I try my “interesting” Icelandic out on them. Seven times out of ten we end the conversation in English as they are often stumped as to what it is I am trying to say and hey ho their English is very good! 🙂 Have courage my lovely Icelanders Þú talar mjög vel ensku 🙂

    LoVe Pauline

  • Luna_Sea July 11, 2010, 12:37 am

    Thanks so much for this post. I have a friend in Iceland who seems to know everyone in Reykjavik and never introduced to people he’d run into. I just thought he was rude.

    And regarding email- I emailed someone who was really nice and helpful to me in Reykjavik to thank her when I got home and on several other occasions and never got a response. I wasn’t even certain she got my email. I didn’t expect a lengthy response but I definitely expected an acknowledgment. I never would’ve imagined that there would be these cultural differences between NYC and Rvk.

  • Johanna July 11, 2010, 2:08 am

    Yes, everything must be dropped in order to pick up the phone. The only way to get around that one is unplugging the thing. I wonder how many accidents Icelanders have had when scrambling to answering the phone. I had a near miss the other day myself.

    Pauline, have courage, your Icelandic will improve. I´m sure.


  • Michael Sullivan July 11, 2010, 4:33 am

    Well, I think you’re in treacherous waters here, but this is an interesting subject. Certainly there are cultural differences. I was recently in Columbia, at a workshop, and was astounded to see the camaraderie and friendship amongst the Columbians. Kissing their co-workers on the cheeks? And the class was fantastic because no one held back, they weren’t afraid to say something wrong, and I loved the highly animated discussions. The city itself – Bogotá was very lively too.
    Now, where I’m from, Wisconsin, I totally understand how you can not say a word to each other for 5 hours, that sounds familiar. I’ve waved a couple times to a neighbor 2 houses away, he’s snowblowed my sidewalk ones, his truck has a “Have you hugged a Swede today?” sticker. Is it that we hibernate all winter? Another theory I have is that with modern technology like this internet stuff, allows us to communicate and get along very happily, feel like we are sociable, and yet we haven’t said a word to the neighbor 2 houses away? Or a third theory – there is a certain meanness in the U.S., fostered by the Fox News, such that we don’t trust our neighbors. “Maybe, they are one of *those* people.” Whatever “those” means in the context, i.e. global warming deniers, republicans, liberals, commies, fascists, etc.

  • Michael Lewis July 11, 2010, 5:06 pm

    Reading online, Icelandic culture does have its redeeming features – apparently Brits like it, because Icelanders tend not to complain about stag parties going there are drinking 24 hours a day. Icelanders more likely to join in, than call the police as elsewhere in Europe…

  • Gunnar Þór Magnússon July 11, 2010, 9:29 pm

    I’ve been living in France for three years now, where introductions to rooms of strangers complete with handshakes and kisses on the cheek are the norm, and this lack of introductions has started to shock me when I’m in Iceland. I remember very well a year ago when I met an old school mate and some girl that was with him, and talked to him for five minutes before he introduced the girl as his girlfriend. She’s not the only one that was embaressed in that situation.

    I think Jóhanna is on to something. We don’t introduce people because it’s slightly embarassing for the person being introduced – they’re being put in the spotlight – and Icelandic culture seems to be all about avoiding putting undeserving people in difficult situations. Which is fine in itself, but has let us to this state of affairs. I find this unfortunate.

  • Jennifer July 13, 2010, 12:50 pm

    I’m late to this because I have been out of town, but this post and the comments are really fascinating. It never occurred to me that introductions were an adaptation to living in a large community. In the US there is an introduction expectation when 2 people meet a third person that only one of them knows, but that isn’t without problems. Far too often I can’t remember or never learned the name of the person I realize I am supposed to introduce. I’ve met too many people—I don’t have the brain power to keep all that information at hand. Maybe our children were in a class together a few years ago and I remember the child’s name but not the parent’s. Sometimes I know I’ve met someone but I can’t remember what the circumstance was, which makes it really difficult to make any kind of introduction. It’s a common predicament and I’ve developed what I think are fairly common strategies. When I am with someone who I see can’t recall the name of the person they are supposed to introduce me to I jump in and introduce myself as if I am just a very friendly person. If it’s me that should be doing the introducing I’ll start talking animatedly to the third person and just slip in the name of the person I’m with as if I mean well but I’m too excited about seeing them to remember to make a “proper” introduction. As in something like, “Oh, hi! How are you doing? How’s your daughter doing at her new school–oh, sorry this is Dennis.” And then Dennis and whoever introduce themselves to each other.

    In small town America, however, there seems to be much more of the “everybody knows everybody” phenomenon. My sister Patsy went to college in the small town of Grinnell, Iowa. When she dropped a much needed check from our mother somewhere on the street she panicked, thinking she would never see it again, but it was found by a person who figured she had to be one of the students from the college because he didn’t recognize her name. He called the college and by the time Patsy got back to her dorm room there was a note on her door saying she could pick the check up at the jewelry store where it was behind the counter.

    I am ashamed to admit I am often taken aback by and sometimes even initially uncomfortable with the friendliness of people in small towns in the southern or Midwestern part of the country. In those communities it is not uncommon to get a friendly greeting on the street from someone you’ve never met, they don’t feel the need for any introductions. Being from an east coast city I am used to passing people without speaking or even making eye contact. If you greeted all the people you passed on the streets of Washington, DC or New York City, you’d never make it to your destination, and if someone you don’t know is trying to meet your eye the chances are they are trying to save your soul or sell you something.

    Thank you, Alda, for providing this forum.

  • Margit July 13, 2010, 7:51 pm

    I think this is a very good post. I’m norwegian and where i come from people introduce themselves just as in Iceland. I have never thought of not introducing/being introduced as being rude or strange until i started traveling abroad and people started doing this to me. To be honest i like best to introduce myself and i find it a bit awkward having to introduce people.
    I also think the same thing about kissing people you are not intimate with on the cheek instead of shaking hands. I alway find myself trying to teach this to people i meet when traveling.

  • Hanne July 14, 2010, 3:29 pm

    Interesting post. I just feel a lot more comfortable around strangers if I’ve introduced myself.
    Liked Amy’s comment. Just came back from a hike where I talked to load of people whose names I don’t know, at least now they won’t expect us to be friends on facebook or anything. In response to the “significant-other-meets-friend-on-street-chats-for-five-minutes-but-does-not-introduce-me” issue I have now taken to just barging into the conversation or, if I’m in that mood, just wandering off.
    I started school here a couple of years back and for the first 6 months I knew the name of about 3 people in our 35 person programme – we met for class 2 days a week.
    I had lecturers for a lecture series (new topic and lecturere every week)that did not introduce themselves, they just assumed that we read the course description well enough to remember who they were, or that we obviously know who was the main expert on X-subject was, where he worked etc…
    I don’t know if it’s particular to Iceland, but I do find it weird.

  • Peter July 14, 2010, 11:41 pm

    My comment is not directly related to the art of introduction but more likely to courtesy habits in general in Iceland. As a continental European living in Iceland, it always amuses me to observe Icelandic people in their common social interactions in public spaces. Because they pretend to be well ahead of other nations in terms of education, one would expect from Icelandic people that their manners follow globalized norms such as holding doors, greeting people in a store, being thankful, etc. It’s precisely the contrary, and it’s quite shocking for foreigners. It’s very common that shop assistants or cashiers don’t greet you or thank you in the store; it’s very common that people don’t keep the door open neither thank you for keeping it open. It seems that Iceland for obvious historical and geographic reasons escaped the process of civilization led by royalties and upper-middle class in Europe for example (the court etiquette). What’s weird in today’s Iceland is that no one seems to care, although people travel(led) abroad a lot, and also people it should be considered as a mandatory thing to behave properly towards visitors/tourists and customers. So often I saw Icelandic people pushing foreigners in bars/restaurants/shops, or burping in public: it’s cute, but not very pleasant on the long run…