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Stereotypes and Myths Posted by on Jul 21, 2012 in Icelandic culture, Uncategorized

When you read about Iceland or talk to Icelanders you often get a picturesque view, compounded by the fact that most things about Iceland easily available stem from the Icelandic tourist board. Many things about Iceland are only in Icelandic, or aren’t mentioned at all, and most Icelanders don’t know what it’s like from a non-native perspective. From all of these things stereotypes are born. In this post I’m only going to talk about the ones that people may know of without ever having read about Iceland on purpose, but feel free to talk about ones not mentioned in the comments.

Icelanders are all inbred and they have health problems! Every Icelander knows each other because they’re related!
– No. Iceland has always had its share of immigrants (and children born from only temporary residents) just like most other countries. The idea that one Icelander is bound to know every other one they pass on the street is also not true, the rate of this is actually just the same as in any small town in any country (Reykjavik is a town by most standards, not a city). Much of this is probably because many Icelanders seem to stay in one place for long periods of time, so you don’t often hear of families moving to different towns every couple years. On top of that it seems common for young Icelanders to switch jobs often, so they get to know a lot of people they otherwise wouldn’t because they change company a lot.

Are Icelanders all tall and blonde?
– Most people actually are compared to in America, although many don’t have pure blonde hair and instead have a sort of very light mix of colours (seeming extremely light brown-blonde, for example). You can probably liken it to the amount of children in the US who are blonde as toddlers and then change hair colours with age. Of course, some dye their hair darker colours and some bleach theirs lighter, but the main idea is that the majority don’t have the single-tone of bleached blonde that you’re probably used to and instead it’s a more natural blonde-red or blonde-brown. The women are often as tall as American men, but they also wear high-heels, seeming even taller. Keep in mind that Iceland has its share of adopted children and second-generation immigrants just as everywhere else.

The sun never sets in summer!
– Partially true. In some areas of Iceland I’m sure it doesn’t set, but in Reykjavík it sets for a very short amount of time (the length depending on what part of summer it is). In the longest days of the year, it looks like it’s about to completely set and then it starts rising again. It’s easy to miss, especially if you go to bed at a normal time.

Is everyone an artist?
– Again, many people are. Most commonly in my experience young people seem to be musicians or physical artists such as painters and sculptors, and the older people are the ones who write books. This doesn’t mean that it’s their profession or that they’re any good however. I’ve heard it explained as “Iceland is so boring that there’s little to do, so everyone makes art”.

Is everyone fluent in English?
– No. Most people have decent English, and especially if you’re a tourist in the capital you should have no problems – you’ll at least be able to understand each other in short meetings even if you only speak English. The problems start when you’re a resident or end up meeting people in different contexts and from different places. I’ve met people of all ages who were fluent, but I’ve also met people of all ages who knew almost zero English. I’ve met some people who understood English passably but didn’t speak it well enough to reply, in which case if I hadn’t understood Icelandic it would have been a problem. However, especially in the capital which is a huge tourist destination (so people get lots of practice) they seem to be better at English.

If you live in Iceland you come to realize that many people’s English is not as good as you once thought. This is because you end up talking with a lot more people about a lot more varied topics, instead of topics they’re used to and instead of for a short amount of time. At the same time you learn common types of “Icelandic-English” mistakes, and your Icelandic improves, and so it becomes less and less of a problem. I’ve met adults who didn’t even know numbers in English, and I’ve met kids who spoke mostly completely wrong English mixed in with a little correct English, but these people you most likely will meet only once in a while and probably not at all if you’re a tourist.

Aside from this, some immigrants who moved to Iceland when older (thus missing English education in gradeschool) might not know English, and may only know Icelandic and/or other languages.

Is Iceland cold?
– The wind is cold, and the wind can be extremely strong, so that affects temperatures and makes things feel a lot colder. To me Reykjavík is no different temperature-wise from my home area (Seattle) and you definitely don’t need skiing gear to get around in the winter. The snow in the grass gets about calf-deep at best, and it’s more packed down or melted on the side-walks and streets. The coldest areas are wide, open spaces due to the wind, and the most troublesome thing is hail coupled with strong wind. I haven’t been far out of the capital so I don’t know what it’s like in Akureyri (“The capital of the North”) for example.

Does the hot water smell like sulphur (rotten eggs)? Does it get extremely hot?
– It smells a little, but pretty much only in the capital (the areas that get their hot water directly from the ground like Reykjavík are limited) and it depends on the age of your pipes. Even at its worst it’s nothing like walking into a geyser, so there is nothing to worry about. Tourists often exaggerate the smell but I never found it strong to begin with, and over time you get used to it. As for temperature, the water can easily burn you if you let it get too hot (you can also burn yourself on the metal of the faucet) but it’s only a problem if you’re absent-minded and forget to also turn the cold water on. If you have this kind of geothermal hot water, it’s practically instant and unlimited.

Icelandic is useless and you can’t use it for anything!
– Semi-true. Of course Icelandic is useful in Iceland, but there are also places in Canada (and elsewhere, although I can’t name them) known for having Icelandic communities. There was even at least one published newspaper entirely in Icelandic (save for the ads by local companies) for many decades in Canada. There are a lot of Icelandic blogs, websites, and forums online but it seems pretty separate from the English internet (meaning they have their own sites, they don’t tend to have Icelandic blogs on an English blog site as much, for example). More and more sites for watching Icelandic tv, ordering Icelandic ebooks, and various other things are appearing although currently very few are available to people without an Icelandic social security number and bank account.

Icelandic is extremely useful when learning Faroese, and to a much lesser extent it’s a little useful when learning German and Scandinavian. For example, the case system works the same in German and a lot of vocabulary is shared with Scandinavian. Although it’s nothing like learning Japanese or English in terms of the variety of things or amount of native speakers available to practice with, with Icelandic you have the small benefit that what you’re translating is probably never going to be translated into English (unless it’s something for tourists). For example, you can guess that no one is going to be translating detailed things about Icelandic shoes in the time before rubber soles, or specific instructions for making traditional foods – people just don’t think that anyone would care, or they’re too uninterested/lazy to do it, and so nothing about it is ever translated even though it could be useful to some researchers and enthusiasts. Despite what some think Google translate is often so bad you can’t understand the results, unless it’s a simple text.

Iceland is cheap due to the economic collapse!
– Largely depends on what you’re talking about, as tourism has increased prices as well and by now they’ve started to recover. Education is extremely cheap, eating out is extremely expensive, and any imported goods are also expensive (most things are imported). Books are expensive as well (this goes double if you’re trying to buy books online, as shipping outside of Iceland is also expensive). Even used items tend to be more expensive than they should, as there isn’t a culture of buying used things in Iceland so they don’t seem to understand the idea sometimes. On the other hand local food  is usually very inexpensive in the grocery store, even if that means you don’t have much variety to choose from, and even if the same food is extremely expensive in restaurants. Flights with IcelandAir are cheap even if you’re not flying to Iceland itself, and there are often free events at least in Reykjavik that you can go to. Heating in Reykjavik is so cheap it’s practically free because it’s usually done by piping hot water through the house and into the heaters where you can control it, but overall rent isn’t cheap if you want a flat in good condition or a non-shared flat.

You can get a job in Iceland while not knowing Icelandic!
– In most cases, no. You’ll most likely be told that you can work at cafés, babysitting, at a kindergarten, in construction, slaughtering sheep, and in fish factories. The first four are possible if you have Icelandic friends or current employees who can convince the boss to hire you, or possibly if you have a sob story and experience. Even though many immigrants get work in construction, this is through a network of friends and friends-of-friends who are good references and who teach/translate for the newcomers (plus they have lots of experience – typically these people travel from country to country doing construction work and send money back home to their families).

It’s said that you used to be able to get jobs as an English speaker much more easily before the collapse, but if so it’s not the case anymore. You may also find that some daycares are so desperate they’ll hire anyone (even daycares and kindergartens often want fluent Icelandic speakers and licensed childcare workers, as well as sometimes degree-holding teachers), but you’ll be paid almost nothing and you’ll often get ill from being around sick toddlers all the time. Babysitting, construction and sheep slaughtering aren’t steady, regular jobs and possibly fish factory work isn’t either. Sheep slaughtering in particular is only available in certain areas of the country and at certain times of the year. I’ve heard that getting work in fish factories these days is difficult and they don’t pay what they used to (which used to be a lot), but I haven’t met anyone who’s recently worked in them so I don’t know for sure.

You can however get jobs in Iceland, without Icelandic and without friends, if you are a pharmacist, musician (as in an orchestra – however finding open, paid work is probably tough), or software programmer. Some people found jobs in their home countries that then let them transfer to sister branches/companies in Iceland, including waitresses and bartenders. Software programming seems to be the safest bet for both getting a job and transferring from a company in your home country to Iceland. You can also work as an au pair, but that isn’t a job that gives you a normal work permit or counts towards the time needed to become a citizen.

The bottom line is most jobs are acquired through a network of friends, and even if you have more experience and speak more languages you might get turned down at the last minute for someone’s sister who is a lot less qualified. Even if you do know Icelandic, they may turn you down because you don’t speak it well enough.

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About the Author:sequoia

I try to write about two-thirds of the blog topics on cultural aspects and one-third on the language, because there's much more out there already on the language compared to daily life information. I try to stay away from touristy things because there's more of that out there than anything else on Iceland, and I feel like talking about that stuff gives you the wrong impression of Iceland.


Comments:

  1. Benjamin:

    Thanks for this post !
    About software programming jobs, do you know companies which have branches in Iceland ?

    • sequoia:

      @Benjamin I’m not sure, but I’ll ask around and see if someone I know knows something (although I know a lot of people in programming, probably no one knows about in Iceland). I did know two guys who worked for EVE Online and they didn’t speak Icelandic, but had just started learning once they came to Iceland. I’ve heard it’s not just Iceland, but ex. you can also come to Sweden through software programming even if you don’t speak Swedish. So if you can’t find anything specifically about Iceland there may be something for another Nordic country that at least gives tips about it. The other people I met, I didn’t ask about where they specifically worked at. I’ve heard more often about Icelanders coming to other countries through jobs than I have about the opposite.

      I also heard of one girl who came through her tour guide work in Germany, but she said you had to be an actual tour guide (and go to tour guide school for a couple years) first, that it’s not a job you can easily get and once in Iceland you need to learn Icelandic and eventually go to an Icelandic tour guide school. She also said in Iceland to be a guide you have to know Icelandic even if you’re not allowed to give tours in Icelandic because all the time you have to contact Icelandic companies to schedule ex. hotel stays, restaurant visits, and bus trips for the tour packages, contact Icelandic rescue teams for lost people, things like that.

      I know some Universities also have “staff exchange programs”, for example the University of Iceland and the University of Washington sometimes switch some teachers and teach classes on each others’ campuses, so some people can move there that way (although I don’t know how long you can stay).

      • Benjamin:

        @sequoia Thank you for your answer. I work in software programming and I’d like one day to live in nordic countries (and especially in Iceland). And doing it by working in a international company with offices there seems the best way to achieve it. Anyway, before that I’m living vicariously through this blog and by learning little bits of Icelandic.


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