Published February 14, 2011
One of the things visitors to Iceland, especially those venturing from southern climates, often comment upon is that Icelanders seem very hard to approach. That is, until the clock strikes twelve at midnight on a Friday or Saturday and everyone starts speaking very loudly and largely incoherently at the same time, as if everything that has been kept in during the week must be let out at once. Surely, this is due to the climate (well, it’s actually not that bad these days), the darkness and so on. This may be true, but history probably has something to do with it as well.
Many social historians in larger countries suggest that ‘friendship’ as we know it only came about in the 18th century, with the emergence of a middle class and city culture. Before then, people had little need for friendship in the modern sense. This is largely corroborated by the Sagas. Family is here of the utmost importance. People make friends, but then they are incorporated into the family structure. The most obvious example is the institution of Fóstbræður (“Foster-brothers”), one of the strongest bonds that can exist between two men. To initiate such a thing, men must first mix their bodily fluids. This is done by digging a hole in the ground, opening up yours and your partner’s veins, spilling the results into said hole, and then mixing it all together. This gives both parties all the rights of family towards one another and has, sadly, been discontinued.
FRIENDSHIP AND SOBRIETY
In a rural farming society such as existed in Iceland up until the 20th century, one had little need for paying social calls on the neighbours, there usually being no neighbourhood to speak of. Instead, Icelanders held occasional feasts which went on for days, the guests then being sent away bearing precious gifts from the host. Your social standing depended on the opulence of your feasts (or, failing this, on where you sat at a feast), and an invitation came with responsibility. If you accepted, got your food and drink and your going away present, you owed a favour in return to your host.
Since city culture here is relatively new, one might surmise that the idea of casual friendship might be too. Icelanders tend to enter into strong friendships, loyal to the point of stupidity at times, and bonds to friends and family usually trump any connection people might feel to society at large. This has its benefits, obviously, but it can also lead to the sort of crony corruption evidenced during the recent economic boom. It can also explain why people don’t really feel comfortable in the company of strangers, at least not while sober.
THE FACEBOOK ERA
If casual friendships among men are comparatively rare, they are even rarer among men and women. Largely, you see them sitting in groups according to gender, until that all-important hour of midnight strikes and they start to mix, usually with an obvious purpose in mind.
These things only change over generations, but technology has come to our aid. Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga games (the ones you see on Facebook), says that with the advent of the telephone, the number of people you frequently interacted with rose to 125. Whether this applies to Iceland or not, Icelanders certainly have kept up with new phone technologies and embraced the mobile phone with its text feature almost as fervently as the formerly silent Finns did. In the Facebook era, says Pincus, we now have regular contact with around 500 people apiece. Small wonder then that the Icelandic nation has more or less logged on its entirety. It’s a way to keep in touch without having to be drunk all the time…