Icelanders have a lot of special talents developed over generations of practice. Drinking, for example. Making gorgeous and functional sweaters. Taking fish out of raging, frozen Arctic waters. Chewing down rotten shark without gagging. But there is one skill that my adopted countrymen have yet to develop: the art of small talk with strangers. Maybe because they are stoic Vikings who keep their feelings locked inside, or maybe because the community is small and they all secretly hate one another, or maybe they are too busy for a pointless conversation, but Icelanders simply fail at small talk.
As an American by birth and background, I stand out as excessively chatty when compared to the average quiet Icelander. Armed with my magic-power-ability to talk to anyone anywhere at anytime about anything, I have made it my personal mission to cultivate the small-talking prowess of my fellow humans on this cold rock in the middle of the ocean. In my mind, this is an active project in preserving my self-identity. While there is a lot about being from America that does not make me feel super-duper proud (see: Trump, Donald), our friendliness, openness, and positivity are cultural quirks I choose to uphold, despite the temptation to slide into my shell of solitude walking the Reykjavík streets.
The stop-and-chat? But I have nothing to say to you
Solitude is a slippery slope that, for cultural outsiders like me, leads straight to social isolation. Once, I was in line at a Reykjavík coffee shop and realised that I had met the man directly in front of me through a mutual friend at a party the night before. We had talked. I remembered his name. We made eye contact and he saw me, and then he artfully avoided speaking to me, first staring blankly into his phone, and then strategically glancing over his shoulder, conveniently crafting a blind spot exactly where I stood. I would have said hello, but I wanted to see how long he could keep it up. Ten minutes, it turns out.
I have turned this encounter over in my mind for many months. I am not scary. I am not (usually) mean. Why would a person so vigorously avoid a simple “hi” and chat for a few minutes? He probably wanted some peace and quiet and didn’t know me all that well, but I am convinced that this is a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon. I have since noticed that Icelanders will cross the street to avoid someone they know coming from the opposite direction, preferring to nod in acknowledgement of one another’s presence from a safe distance. Icelanders avoid the “stop-and-chat” like a toddler avoids broccoli. And like broccoli, the stop-and-chat might not be appealing at first, but it is healthy, and helps everything else move along a lot more smoothly.
Hverra manna ertu?
If the stop-and-chat with an acquaintance is distasteful, then stirring up some gab with random strangers is lightyears away from the snug little navel-gazing comfort zone of Icelandic existence. My working theory for why Icelanders avoid speaking to strangers is pretty simple: they don’t want to commit to getting to know one another. In such a small place, it is highly likely that any random person you see is connected to you in some way, which inevitably leads to variations on the same conversation I have heard over and over again at parties where Icelanders are actually expected to speak to people they don’t already know. The main aim of this conversation is to weed out the ways in which you might be connected to the other person. When two Icelandic strangers meet, it always goes something like this:
“So, where did you grow up?” “I am from Kópavogur, but I went to stay with my grandparents in the North when I was a kid.” “Oh? Where in the North.” “They lived on a farm just outside Dalvík.” “Great, I have family there. We lived nearby when I was a teenager. When were you born?” “I’m a 1980 model.” “Ok, so you were a year behind my brother in school. Do you remember a tall chubby redhead kid named Bubbi? Everybody called him Bubbi Bolli” “Oh! That was your brother! He is hilarious! What is he up to now?” Aaaand, scene.
As someone who did not grow up in Iceland, I do not participate in these exchanges. I sit back and listen to different iterations of the same cross-examination, and smile when the connection is finally established. It always is. If this is where Icelanders expect small talk to take them, it is no wonder they don’t invest the effort in speaking with strangers. In a small place, such a conversation is like diving into the rabbit hole of your life experience, and waiting for you on the other side is a new acquaintance you may feel obliged to cross the street to avoid stop-and-chatting to for the rest of your life. I am not sure I would want to make that kind of investment either.
Nice weather we’re having today, eh?
There is one topic of small-talk-with-strangers conversation at which Icelanders excel: weather. Weather is a conversational safe space. It plays such an important role in daily life here, that literal ice is often the default ice-breaker for social interaction. If it is sunny, windy, rainy, snowy, icy, still, cloudy, light, dark, or (as often happens in Iceland) all of these in quick succession, an Icelandic stranger is more than happy to point it out to you. In these scenarios, you are expected to parrot what the other person says, and if possible, come up with a quick anecdote to illustrate your understanding of the situation. “Yes! It is very icy today. I nearly slipped this morning.” Under no circumstances should you reply, “I am sick of listening to talk about the weather. I know it is shitty/beautiful/rotten/gorgeous, I live here, too! Can’t you try a sliver of creativity?” I remind myself that though weather-talk is maddening, at least it is a step in the right direction. Nod, smile, and affirm, “Jæja.”
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers
It is not until I visit the US that I remember how rewarding small talk can feel. I watch my dad chat with a lady holding a baby in line at a restaurant, and within three minutes we learn she is in town visiting her family (it is the first time they have met the little one) and he proudly introduces his grandkids, also visiting from far away. Or, I am sitting at a bus stop and the old woman next to me tells me she likes my jacket, and that she had one like it when she was young, but they just don’t seem to make nice clothes that last anymore. Or I am picking out flowers for the kitchen table and the woman next to me comments that these orange ones are just so lovely. She got some last week, and they last much longer than this other kind. I thank her and buy the orange ones.
Small talk isn’t intrusive. It isn’t personal. It’s not a lifetime commitment. It is a recognition that we are all in this wild and crazy business of life together, and we might as well talk about it and cheer one another up a bit.