Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Being tough

Mentioned in the comments following Tim‘s post "Irony-Free Zone" was the theory that people in warm climates show their feeling more readily than those living in cooler environments. This got me thinking and looking towards the culture I belong to, that of Iceland. The country's geographical alignment is at latitude of 65°N, or just below the Arctic Circle, so we have an acceptable claim to cold, despite being a bit warmer than both the name and location suggests.

Regarding use of the word “cool”, isolation has kept Icelandic pretty intact from the time of the Viking settlements. It is a Germanic language that has kept inflection in its repertoire and is thus not far off from Latin grammatically. It is worth mentioning that English used to work in the same way and some of it still remains in the language, for example in the case of pronouns: I & me; this is similar to Icelandic which contains a few more: ég, mig, mér & mín. During a period between 1700 and 1800 increased interaction with the Danish began to alter the language somewhat and a movement to cleanse it was established and foreign words were systematically removed and replaced. Still today we adhere strictly to the language’s adaptation, adding words when so required by technical evolution and other concepts that call for an increased vocabulary. The new words need to fit the grammar and be subject to inflection, often being evolved from other older words, language recycling in a way. “Cool” does not really fit the bill.

However things are a changing. The younger generation increasingly adapts slang from English, so “cool” or “kúl” has now entered the scene, unlike in sweeter Thailand. This word has actually almost eked out the previous slang term used for decades by kids and teenagers to mean something excellent, namely “töff” derived from and sounding exactly like the English term “tough”. Not acceptable language wise but when did that stop slang? Now the use of this word “töff” brings me to the result of my observation mentioned above. Since the first settler set foot on Icelandic soil it has been considered worthy here to be tough. Not cool but tough. There is a big difference, “tough” implies hardiness and durability, not necessarily the latest fashion, artistry, worldly goods or wealth - although none of these are exactly frowned upon by those who fall under the definition. The term “töff” has over time swallowed other characteristics than resilience, and could now be used to for a phenomenon that is in a way “cool-plus”. To better explain, “töff” would never be used to describe someone with an empty artsy-fartsy demeanour, there has got to be some value, some sustenance to that worthy of this term. For example, if used to describe earrings, these must be both good looking and useable – not heavy enough to pull the earlobes down to the shoulders.

Despite my difficulty in getting to the point, you have probably already realised that there is considerable merit to the theory regarding openness and climate. If being “tough” is the ultimate goal then there is obviously no room for crying or wearing your heart on your shoulder. To be “töff” you need to be a bit detached and shrug off life’s downturns, although it is OK to be thrilled during its upswings. In a way, most emotions, if not the happy kind, are to be kept under wraps. Of course this is not written anywhere, there is no feeling law or regulation to refer to when in doubt - it is just the way it is somehow. It is not as if people here are less kind or sympathetic, not at all. Every time there is a crisis, people here do whatever they can to help out: as an example we have numerous, incredible rescue teams whose volunteer members go on difficult search and rescue operations into the remote areas of the country in search of lost travellers or hunters. This usually occurs in horrible weather, and the missions last for hours on end. Being “töff” these men and women never, ever mention to the media how hard it was or how cold their toes were, they either provide a short sound-bite saying how lucky the people rescued were or how well the same persons handled themselves, or decline to comment when a life is lost.

When I was in Greenland I learned that the native Greenlanders do not argue as it is not in their traditions. There are no harsh words in the language, nor are there words to scold or humiliate. The reason – traditionally these people used to live in tents over the wintertime, cramped as could be to enjoy the warmth of each other. In such close confinement it is not ideal to argue much, especially not if storming outside to escape heated discussions would most likely mean sure death. This might possibly provide an inkling of an explanation as to the varying expression of emotions between climate zones. When I asked how they disciplined their children I was told that the way to show displeasure was silence. Made sense to me, as I preferred my father’s occasional bursts of upset to my mother’s silent treatments when I did something wrong growing up. (Not to be misunderstood - my parents were and are great).

Being a bit emotionally stunted is probably more difficult than being outwardly honest regarding your feelings. Here being emotional is put on par with being hysterical and you grow up keeping your feelings in check. As an example, I am not sure whether I handle critism or compliments better/worse and would most of all like to do without both, which is quite a common trait here. When passing people out walking the ordinary reaction is that both find something extremely interesting to gaze upon, always in a direction that averts the gaze from the person approaching. This way you do not have to say good day and go through the horror of that person not accepting the greeting. I remember the first time I was greeted by a kiss on the cheek (by a French Canadian) – I felt awful as I thought the guy was coming onto me and subsequently steered clear of him. When I found out this was customary in his part of the woods it was too late – this person was by then long out of my life and had probably forgotten the aloof Icelandic woman he took classes with. This closed demeanour also makes it very difficult when people pass away as hardly anyone knows what to say and thus avoid contact with the grieving. Many widows and widowers complain about the isolation this causes them - but yet this conduct stays with us.

One thing that this tyoeset does have going for it though is that Icelanders are not enthusiastic about corporate motivational seminars. We do not leave the office in groups and gather at a hotel to be coached in catching our co-workers when they fall backward as part of some trust building hoo-ha. Where I work there have actually been attempts at team building and so on, conducted in relation to a merger – next week we are for example to attend lessons in handing out compliments as we really failed this aspect miserably in some company survey. The thought of this time consuming venture annoys some, one of the oldest employees was venting his displeasure and mentioned he need no such coaching, he had just the day before complimented me on some help I had provided on a project he was working on. Now this came as a surprise to me as I had received no compliment from him and told him so. Turned out the compliment had been an e-mail saying “Thanks for your help”. Life would be difficult for him in Thailand.

Anyway, two last things spring to mind, one a friend of my husband who was so "töff" that he refused anaesthesia whenever visiting the dentist, as pain was for chickens. At one point he needed a root canal and ended up having to have the shot – not because the level of pain was beyond his toughness factor but because no dentist wanted to work on the tooth without it. The other is the endless birth photos and videos that are paraded around by Icelandic mothers, usually followed by stories regarding how difficult the birth was – the more horrible the better, namely the closer the mother was to being ripped into two halves the more “töff” the mother. At parting, I am no fan of pregnancy or giving birth and find the experience a bit awful, although well worth it. Birds have it figured out and I would probably have more offspring if I could have laid an egg, placed it in the microwave on low for 9 months, continued doing what I wanted to do until finally removing it painlessly from the oven once the alarm went off and it had hatched.

Come to think about it - in my mind eggs are the ultimate “töff”.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Thank you for an interesting language lesson. My first language is Danish so I knew, of course, that Icelandic is one of the few Nordic languages I cannot just read. Funny that you have borrowed tough like the Norwegians as we don´t. We use cool a lot though.

  2. Hi Dorte - maybe it is that sneaky latitude, Denmark is south of Iceland and Norway. I do not find the Danish to be very ironic though, they always seem very "ligeglad".

  3. Oh, many Danes ARE ligeglade, but I prefer the ironic species. In Jutland understatements are popular, but you can also meet something approaching British humour, perhaps especially in educated circles.

  4. Hi again Dorte - my absolute favorite TV show is from Denmark, called Klovn, I don't know if you have seen it or heard of it but it is hilarious, makes fun of the things usually considered off bounds, it is even difficult to type a list examples. It is amazing exactly because of this semi-horrid humor and I really recommend it to one and all. I completely agree regading good Danish humour, it is perfect.

  5. Yrsa - The people from Iceland and the people from Ireland share more than virtually the same name for the countries. My grandparents were born in Ireland and I was raised by a mother who believed firmly that all emotions should be kept underwraps. Any display of emotion was weakness. I don't remember my grandfather well but I do know that he was effusive; everyone who entered his home was greeted as if they had been gone for years and he was sincere in his warmth. I don't know how warm he was with his own children. My mother didn't mirror his manner and she believed that even being too joyful was unseemly.

    The upper crust Yankees, who hated the Irish moving into Boston, referred to them as being so without dignity that they kept a "pig in the parlor." In fact, most in Ireland couldn't own a pig and, if they did, they kept it in the parlor (although the typical hovel only had one room) to keep the pig from being stolen and for added warmth. The luxury of space, for the poor, is a product of warm weather. Ireland has something in common with Greenland, too.

    "I am not sure whether I handle critism or compliments better/worse and would most of all like to do without both, which is quite a common trait here." And another trait very common to the Irish. Criticism doesn't go down well with anyone but the Irish are masters at getting it in. Parents had an obligation to criticize, to help their children face their shortcomings so criticism was always framed as being for our own good. Compliments never happened; that would make us vain.

    Those who dwell in warm countries seem more effusive in their gestures. Those of us who adapted to the cold had to keep their hands covered and their arms close to their bodies to conserve heat. Even gender is a mystery when people are wrapped in wool from head to foot.

    I've been thinking, in reference to Tim's post, that perhaps it is the sun rather than the temperature that makes the difference. The sun brings life and it brings people to life. Like moths, we are drawn to the light so as people mingle and interact they become increasingly engaged with one another and involved with one another's lives. This is not always a good thing but I think it is the more natural thing. And it has the great benefit of turning day to day life into theater.


  6. Hi Beth - sorry for the delayed reply. The Irish and the Icelandic people are closely related. Some geneology survey that was made showed that what we were told as kids, i.e. that the Vikings stopped by on their way to Iceland to pick up (steal) women in Ireland as they were so beutiful has a whole lot of merit. It is believed that is is because of these women that the Icelandic people became literate and poetic long before this was the common thing in Scandinavia. Red hair is quite common here which is also said to be a result of this mixing.

    Your comment regarding compliments, them making children vain, seems to have been handed down with the reading lessons and the red hair - it is exactly the same here although times are a changing and I try to compliment my children when they deserve it. Neither are particularly vain.

    bye for now