So What Are Icelanders Really Like, Then?

Reviewing Alda Sigmundsdóttir's 'Little Book of the Icelanders'
3.9.2012
Words by Valur Gunnarsson
“Dissecting the psyche of a nation is a daunting task. It is also doomed to failure.” So begins Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s study of Icelandic stereotypes. She may be trying to guard against criticism, but one could also submit that since we are a small, heterogeneous nation, Icelanders lend themselves uniquely well to gross generalisations. In fact, the rest of her book bears this out.

‘The Little Book Of The Icelanders’ deals with such themes as names, optimism, conformism, family occasions and the general irresponsibility and aversion to rules often on display. It quite rightly starts with a chapter called “The Independence Thing.” Icelanders certainly like to see themselves as independent people, and this permeates everything from the name of our largest political party and our greatest modern novel to fast food and TV talk shows. How this interacts with another apparent trait, the need to keep up with one another and conform to expectations, might be the subject of an entire book of its own.

Although born in Iceland, Alda grew up in North America, which makes her well placed to examine the quirks of her nation. She claims that even though she speaks her native language fluently, she still feels like an outsider of sorts. This phenomenon is addressed directly in a chapter titled “On Graduation.” The Icelandic school system differs from most countries in that secondary school lasts from the ages of sixteen to twenty. Most socializing/partying goes on during this period, rather than during the university years as is the norm elsewhere. This is where people make friends and often meet spouses. If you miss out on this, chances are you will never really find your way in.

AN ICELANDER IS ALWAYS LATE

Alda’s observations are usually spot-on. For example, never being able to show up on time and always leaving major decisions, such as where to go on holiday or what to have for dinner, until the last possible moment seem to be a national characteristic.

This reluctance to make plans may be exhausting, but it also gives the country a lot of its dynamism. People are flexible and a lot actually gets done at the last minute, which may be one reason why we can recover quickly from economic collapses and natural disasters. It may also, as Alda says, have to do with the weather. You never know if it’s going to rain or shine, so why make plans for tomorrow?

I find myself disagreeing with Alda’s description of Icelandic parties, though. She says these tend to show off the hosts’ generosity, but that’s not always the case. Sure, it’s nice to get Elton John to sing at your birthday bash, but most parties I’ve been to involve everyone bringing their own plastic bag filled with booze, to be kept under the table and away from other guests. Her description seems more apt when it comes to weddings, confirmations and major birthdays than a Saturday night.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH ICELANDIC MEN?

Inevitably, the most eye-raising chapters have to deal with Icelandic courtship rituals, or lack thereof. She describes Icelandic men as “renowned for being hopeless at hitting on women.” There might not be much finesse involved, but Icelanders have actually often been shown to be near the top of the list when it comes to frequency of sex, so someone must be doing something right.

Maybe it’s a matter of adapting. As Alda’s twenty-year-old daughter says, she would never consider going on a date with someone. After all, what if the guy turned out to be boring? Perhaps this explains why all “dating” here takes place in drunken bars. And Alda is spot on when she describes the natural course of an Icelandic relationship as: sex, a movie, kids, moving in, perhaps marriage. In that order. Whether good or bad, this rings true.

The only problem with the book is that despite its perceptiveness, it is rather lacking in the humour department. When the running gag is calling the country “The land of the nice,” you know you’re in trouble. Occasional phrases stand out as pure gold, though, to wit: “Icelanders are the Southern Europeans of Northern Europe.” That kind of says it all.

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BIG PEOPLE, LITTLE BOOK

Mark O'Brien talks Viking raiders, Nordic humour, and being ‘flott’ with ‘Little Book Of Icelanders’ author Alda Sigmundsdóttir.

You were born in Iceland, but have since lived in Canada, the UK and Europe. Do you feel more affinity with Iceland or elsewhere?

Iceland. Definitely Iceland. Always did, always will.

The characterisation of Icelanders that comes across in your book is strong family people with a dark humour but a great deal of positivity and a can-do approach to life. If this is true, do you think your character resembles the Icelandic character? Or are you more influenced by your Canadian or European experiences?

I've been influenced by all the places I've lived, and it's made me into the person I am. I think we're always shaped by the places we live. I do feel Icelandic in many ways, especially today (having acclimatised over the last eighteen years) but I definitely feel a very strong sense of being socialised as a North American. I most certainly identify with elements of the Icelandic national character, though—I think my sense of humour is very Icelandic and I tend to not take myself too seriously, which I think is one of the more positive aspects of the Icelandic character.

But I'm also not "one of them"—I spent my formative years in Canada, which shaped me profoundly. For example, I am really sensible when it comes to finances—I always make sure I can afford stuff I want, and I make sure I never overdraw my account. This is very non-Icelandic. Also, even after all those years in Iceland I am consistently appalled at the Icelanders' poor manners and deficiencies in the social graces.

How much do you think the crash and the events since 2008 were influenced by elements of the Icelandic character?

I couldn't possibly say HOW MUCH the aspects of the Icelandic character influenced the meltdown, but I am positive that to some extent they did. For example, the Icelandic character is such a curious mixture of boldness and insecurity, and I know that having all these "Viking raiders" going around abroad and buying up companies evoked a lot of pride among common Icelanders.

We were proud because they were "our people" and were possibly willing to look the other way or ignore aspects that might have been slightly dubious or confusing. Also, they were all so "flott" and the Icelanders are suckers for anything that is "flott," so we were willing to suspend our doubts or confusion about how they actually managed to get that way.

Another facet of this was, of course, the way these guys conducted themselves, which I think was very Icelandic—this boldness, or audacity, just "going for it" without thinking too much about how they'd get themselves out of it, this "þetta reddast" mindset.

But I hasten to add that I'm making sweeping statements here, and I really can't speak for anyone's experiences of the time before the meltdown, save for my own. And frankly, I don't spend too much time thinking about it. I spent a good three years wallowing in the meltdown and I wound up pretty burnt out. I think it's essential to learn from the economic collapse and to bring people to account, but I also feel it's vital to focus on happier and more positive things as well.

How have Icelanders reacted to reading your book? Are they happy with how they are portrayed, or less than flattered?

Well, I haven't had a lynch mob outside my house yet, so I'd like to think they're OK with it…! No, seriously, one of the best things about the Icelanders is their sense of humour and their willingness not to take themselves too seriously, so on the whole I think they've responded with good humour. They also love to mirror themselves in the ‘gests auga’—the "eye of the guest" and this book definitely allows for that. I'm actually surprised by the reception the book has received. I expected it would fly under the radar, and maybe a few copies would be sold to tourists. I'm delighted the Icelanders are responding to it, as well.


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