Thursday, October 1, 2009


I learned a new word this week: tilbakemelding. It means “feedback”. Feedback is something I’ve been exposed to for many years, from having a supervisor red-line a research thesis to receiving criticism on my teaching style*. I roll with it, because I truly believe that criticism makes you better**.

I, like many other lecturers, use feedback as a teaching tool. I have recently been tasked with preparing a group of students for an upcoming international competition conducted in English, and I decided to use a 'trial by fire' method to whip them into shape as I didn't have much time.

I made them each stand up and give a presentation about whatever struck my fancy, and then I gave them feedback on it – I pointed out the good and the bad. But to help them gel as a team, I also asked the students to give feedback to each other. I’ve used this technique before when teaching in the US and the UK with great success. I should’ve known better in Norway.

Student 1 stands up and gives an adequate presentation. After giving him some pointers, I opened up the floor to the other students. No one budged***. So I gently nudged another student to offer some thoughts. This is how the conversation went:

Me: “Student 2, how did you think that presentation went?"
Student 2: “It was okay.”
Me: “Could you expand on that? What did you like?”
Student 2: “I like that he spoke so slowly. It made it easy to follow.”
Me: “Great! And were there any areas for improvement?”
Student 2: “Yeah, I thought he spoke too slowly. It made it hard to follow.”

And herein lies the problem with asking a Norwegian to give feedback. It’s not that they don’t have any constructive thoughts to offer, but it is very culturally uncomfortable to be seen to criticize another person. This means that there is rarely a harsh word said, but, likewise, there is rarely strong praise given.

After one of my very first lectures in Norway, one Norsk gentlemen approached me and said, “Thank you for the class. It was okay.” I was devastated. “Okay” in my book means barely adequate or could have been (markedly) better. I tried to take it on the chin and wandered back to my office feeling a bit dejected.

A few months later after another lecture, the scenario repeated itself. But this time, after receiving the ‘okay stamp of mediocrity', I decided to push it. Again, I want to do the best job I can for my students, so if there was an issue, I wanted to know about it so I could address it.

“You say you feel it was okay. What could I have done to make it better?” I asked. He looked at me, puzzled. He then explained to me that, when a Norwegian says something is ‘okay’, that’s likely the American equivalent of doing a handstand. Very understated, these Norwegians. He went on to tell me that to get told something is ‘okay’ may well be one of the nicest compliments to get from a Norwegian. This did not compute for me.

And then I discovered janteloven (Jante Law). Janteloven is a set of loose guidelines dictating proper behavior in Norwegian**** culture. According to Wikipedia, janteloven is made of up ten points:
  1. Don't think that you are special.
  2. Don't think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don't think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don't fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don't think that you know more than us.
  6. Don't think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don't think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don't laugh at us.
  9. Don't think that anyone of us cares about you.
  10. Don't think that you can teach us anything.

If that isn’t a testament to an ‘us and them’ culture, I just don’t know what is. I’m not saying it’s bad (or good), just different. I was raised in a way that was almost completely opposite to these teachings, hence why I probably have little cultural clashes about things like tilbakemelding. It also explains why the praise is muted and the criticism softened.

I can’t totally get on board with janteloven, I must say. I think there’s value in humility, but I also think there’s equal value in self-confidence and knowing your abilities. I would rather see balance than extremes.
* These ‘criticisms’ are usually masked as ‘teaching evaluations’, but students never say the nice things. It’s only the angry ones who seem to take the time to fill them out.
** That’s kind of a lie. I think criticism with the right intent makes you better. Just slagging someone off for no reason is not productive and it just makes you look like a meanie.
*** What this actually means is that everyone suddenly became very interested in a tiny speck on their desk and stared intently at it. People, please don’t think that by not making eye contact with me that I can’t see you. I know you don’t want to be called on. Which is exactly why I will call on you first.
**** And Danish, Finnish, and Swedish culture as well.