The first time I heard it, I did what all good girls do and politely ignored it. The second time, I shot him a look of disgust. By the third time, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I felt like I was going to be sick. I cast a crazed eye around the room, but to my shock nobody else seemed bothered by the fact that a certain member of the Grapevine team, let’s call him Bill (because we have a Bob), has a penchant for sniffling and snorting large globules of mucous down the back of his throat.
HAD HIS MOTHER NEVER TAUGHT HIM TO USE A TISSUE?
When you move to a new country there are always going to be customs and habits that make you question everything you’ve ever believed. I quickly found out here in Iceland that it is au fait to sniffle. All. The. Time. Nose constantly running? Go on, sniffle loudly! Got a bothersome blob of mucous in your nose? Snort it up, then swallow it down your throat!
Coming from Australia—and having lived in the United States—I’ve grown quite accustomed to carrying tissues with me at all times, in case of a runny nose. I also expect others to do the same, not burdening the airwaves with constant updates of what is going on in their nose. Icelanders, however, seem more than happy to eschew a nose blow whenever possible.
To better understand why it is virtually ubiquitous for Icelanders to favour sniffling over nose blowing, I headed straight to the lion’s den (commonly called Facebook) and opened up some sniffling related questions to the group “Away From Home-Living in Iceland.” The page, which is frequented by both Icelanders and non-Icelanders, functions as a forum for people to ask their burning questions and have them answered. Within minutes of posting my sniffle and snot queries, the replies starting rolling in thick and fast (pardon the pun).
“I can imagine that it has something to do with ‘toughen up’ mentality,” one Icelander told me. “You work hard, play hard. Blowing your nose kind of ruins that image. Nothing says more tough than sucking your own mucous down your throat.”
Others believe it has to do with the chilly climate. “Going in and outdoors makes your nose run all the time”, another Icelander commented. “So instead of blowing your nose all the time, you just swallow your snot. Simple!”
Dirty tourists and their nose blowing
While it is not considered rude per se to blow your nose in public, for reasons Icelanders cannot explain, it is just not commonly done. After I cornered some local friends and grilled them about their nasal affairs, more of the Icelandic psyche was revealed. “I don’t find it that strange that people blow their nose in public, I think it’s changing now,” María Barbara Árnadóttir tells me, “but I remember the first time I witnessed it and I felt it was just a bit embarrassing for the person blowing their nose, like they’d just farted in public or something.”
She elaborates: “Well, unless it’s an old or shabby man with a hanky, I find handkerchiefs disgusting. The thought of accumulating snot. Ugh.”
In a confusing twist, Icelanders do blow their noses, but apparently secret-Viking-club rules state it should only be done behind a closed door. Rather than burden their fellow man with a hearty nose blow, Icelanders prefer to do their dirty, sinful business in the bathroom with the help of the humble roll of toilet paper found beside all good toilets.
This leads to another peculiar observation upon visiting Iceland. If you are lucky enough to be a guest at a local’s home, or even afford the luxury of a halfway decent guesthouse, you may notice the distinct lack of a box of tissues on a mantle, bedside table or in the bathroom.
Sigurður Karlsson, a friend studying engineering in Reykjavik, explains: “There is toilet paper in the bathroom so I use that.” It seems boxes of tissues are superfluous for the common Icelandic household. So what the hell do grandparents give as gifts for birthdays if there is no use for a crocheted tissue box holder? So many unanswered questions!
Psychedelic snot freakout
Comfortingly, it seems that having an initial freakout over this snorting-mucous phenomenon is a right of passage for visitors and expats alike.
Back on my viral Facebook post, plenty of non-Icelanders were eager to share their sniffling experiences. Glenn Wuyts explained how he has to shoulder the mucous burden daily. “This was actually the first and biggest cultural difference I noticed when moving from Belgium to Iceland nine months ago now,” he says. “I work as a physiotherapist and whenever I hear my patients do that [sniffle or snort] I still feel a shiver of disgust running down my spine and kindly offer them a paper towel.”
Chantal Belisle, a student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts (LHí) was also eager to share her snotty tales on Facebook, and her fondness for the subtle tissue pass: “My boyfriend, who’s Icelandic, sniffles constantly. He doesn’t even notice it. I offer him tissues constantly, and he tells me he doesn’t need one, which is a lie!”
Pleasingly, Cat Cursivus, a fellow Australian visiting Iceland, shared my shock at the sniffling (We may be descendants of convicts, but we do have some manners).
“What’s funny to me is that I always sniffled as a kid and it was considered rude, as well as very disrupting, for example in a class or exam. I learnt to always blow my nose in order to be considerate,” she says.
Well, as they say, when in Rome. So, as the weather gets colder and the noses get runnier, I, too, am going to sniffle until my heart’s content. Bill certainly won’t be offended. In fact, he may enjoy having some sniffly, mucousy company in the Grapevine office.
Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!