The Disadvantages of Being a Wallflower

Ever since I came to Norway, I have become a wallflower. Obviously I haven’t turned into a southern European plant, but I have now become an excluded person at parties, sitting at the side of the room, without a partner for conversation. This exclusion has nothing to do with my shyness (I’m not shy), and wholly has to do with the fact that I do not speak any Norwegian.  My Norwegian skills are limited to a “hei!” and “takk”.

For a country where English isn’t their first language, Norwegians speak English really well. Being an English speaker myself, I am very grateful for that fact, as it makes communication in the streets so much easier. For example, at the supermarket, all it takes is an “English please!” to get them switching effortlessly into a language I understand. I rarely have to resort to awkward hand gestures to explain myself, and their ability to understand me as well impresses me every time. However, once you put several Norwegians into a room or social setting, they seem to forget their ability to speak English and carry most of the conversation in Norwegian, in which I cannot take part.

Have you ever been stuck in a room where everyone speaks the same language, except you? Norwegians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and I know they don’t intend to cut me out of the conversation (or do they..?), but getting Norwegians to remember to speak English has been one of the hardest things to do. This often leaves me in a language bubble. Amidst all the chatter and noise, my eyes start to glaze over and I escape into my own world. The Norwegian words float around me and fly over my head, and ironically enough, I am encapsulated in my bubble of silence and I am relegated to the role of an observer; a wallflower.

It starts out simply enough. In an effort to include me into the conversation, some kind soul will speak in English, indicating that the rest of the group is to follow in suit with English as well. We have a lovely chat, and they speak fluently and confidently, keeping the conversation going. However, the time comes when that one (annoying) person forgets to speak in English and replies in Norwegian, and it’s all downhill from there. Almost as if someone flipped a switch, the entire group now switches to Norwegian effortlessly, maintaining the flow of conversation in Norwegian as if nothing had changed. The funny thing is, that if I pretend to understand what they’re saying, and keep nodding my head, they seem to completely forget that they are no longer speaking English.

At first I don’t say anything because they seem so happy talking, and it seems rude to abruptly interrupt and ‘demand’ them to speak English. I still try to stay engaged in the conversation so that it doesn’t get awkward. I look at whoever’s speaking, try to inconspicuously laugh when everyone else does, and even nod my head every once in a while. But after a while it does get tiring and the Norwegian begins to sound less like a language and more like noise. At this point, I slowly drown out the noise and go into my own world.

And then someone remembers that the Asian girl over here is pretending to understand and breaks my bubble by directing the conversation in English. To that person, I am immensely grateful, and room starts to open up again. They now continue in English, but the vicious cycle soon starts again and I spend the entire time zoning in and out of the conversation. They don’t mean to do it, they say, it’s just that they don’t realize they’ve swapped languages. I guess that is perfectly understandable, when they are so proficient in both, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I can see them being animated and talking excitedly about things, but I don’t know what they are talking about and cannot contribute to the conversation. I can only wait at the edge of the group for the moment when they switch back to English.

Literature has somewhat romanticized the notion of the lonely, shy wallflower (I’m looking at you Stephen Chbosky) but it is much more of an isolating and frustrating position. As much as I want to engage in the world around me, I am forced into my own bubble, where I can’t understand everyone else. It also makes going to Norwegian events difficult, as they don’t cater to the 1% of non-English speakers. While this situation is understandable for countries where the English proficiency level of their citizens is low, I find the insistence of speaking Norwegian, at the expense of a few people, somewhat frustrating for a country with such a high aptitude for English.

Thankfully, my classes mostly consist of exchange students where the common language of communication is English; therefore they have to speak English. However, the lecturers are Norwegian and their preference for Norwegian is hard to hide. Sometimes, they forget that the class doesn’t speak Norwegian, and start to suggest readings and articles written in Norwegian, or show us graphs solely in Norwegian. It was eye opening to realize that there was an entire field of literature that was inaccessible because if its language, but then it also became frustrating to hear the same words over and over again. “It’s a very interesting read actually, unfortunately it’s in Norwegian… Oh, sorry about that!”

I do realize that at this point, I am starting to sound like a whiny brat, and I apologize. I do understand the discomfort in speaking a language that isn’t your first language, but my question is this: Since everyone in Norway can speak English so excellently, and can understand it perfectly, why can’t they just remember to speak it for the extra 1% that can’t understand? In this way, instead of only having 99% your audience understanding, everyone can benefit. Another exchange student summed it up perfectly: Norwegians love to invite you to events and parties, but when you’re there, they probably won’t talk to you. It isn’t so much a critique, but more of a comment on the strange social situation one encounters in Norway. It is both a frustrating and amusing experience, one that almost every exchange student I’ve met has encountered, and wholly part of the Norwegian exchange experience.


By Charis Anne Chong

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