Greenland-isms: Life in Greenland through American Eyes

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Photo credit: Kunuk Abelsen via Visit Greenland Flickr account

Geologically, Greenland is part of North America, but subterranean tectonic plates know nothing about cultural similarities and differences! If you only visit Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, you would conclude that Greenland is more European than North American. (You can thank the Danes for that.) If you visit smaller towns and villages along the coast, particularly in North and East Greenland, you would probably say that Greenland is like no other place you have seen before, and that it has an identity all its own.

This piece focuses on the differences between Greenland and the United States because they are what I love about the country. Why travel to a foreign land just to get more of the same thing you know from back home? These differences are what hooked me from the very start, and they are what bring me back to Greenland again and again. Some are just facts of life, some are fun and silly, and some are monumental. If I had to boil it all down into a nutshell, I would say this: Greenlanders take time to enjoy life and their loved ones; they don’t let life pass them by.

You can be the judge when you visit, but here’s a list of Greenland-isms I noticed after only a short time in Greenland (in no particular order).

FACTS OF LIFE

  1. Use of the Metric System (and Celsius). This came as no surprise to me since 98.5% of the world’s countries use these systems. But the United States of America is not one of them, so Americans better study up on their metric-to-imperial and Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversions or else download a nifty conversion app, otherwise you might find yourself at a loss ordering a cold one or checking the weather!
  2. Localvore = Carnivore. A localvore is someone who wants everything they eat to be fresh, organic, and wholesome and to come from an 80 km / 50 mi radius, give or take. It’s a ‘new’ craze that started on the west coast and is slowly creeping into mainstream America. Greenlanders are the original localvores, but only because they are also carnivores. Farming is simply not possible because a permafrost Ice Sheet covers 80% of Greenland, and the terrain that is exposed is primarily rock. Meat and fish are the only local items here, save a few small farms in South Greenland experimenting with crops like potatoes, strawberries, and even beekeeping. (Just so you know, every fruit and vegetable and dry good you would ever want IS available in Greenland, but it is imported.)
  3. Use of chip-and-pin cards. All of Greenland’s credit card machines are set primarily for chip-and-pin cards. Most of them are able to accept American cards without pin codes, but some vendors and cashier clerks are more knowledgable about the process than others. To be safest, only use cards with pin codes – i.e. debit cards. If you must use credit cards, be sure to call your bank well in advance of your trip and set up a pin code for the card. Otherwise, exchange cash for Danish Kroner before your trip or visit an ATM once you arrive.

MONUMENTAL

  1. Hygge is religion. Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah) is best translated to “coziness” in English. It is the art of being totally happy and content and heart-warmed by your surroundings, whether it is curling up on the couch with your dearest and good wine, watching a film with lots of popcorn and candy, or sitting around a dinner table with your close friends and laughing until your cheeks hurt. Many Greenlanders will prefer weekend hygge while Americans will opt for going out to restaurants and bars for entertainment.
  2. Work/Home Balance & Sanctity of Holiday. My hunch is that this ‘phenomenon’ exists everywhere but the United States. There’s no other way to put it than when Greenlanders are at home, they are 100% focused on their loved ones. If I could make a Venn Diagram of work life and home life, it would just look like 2 circles with no overlap. Of course there are busy days, but they are more of an exception than a rule. Add to this 6 weeks of paid time off, 6 months of paid maternity leave, and even paid paternity leave, and you’ve got plenty of evidence that this a culture that values a healthy balance of professional and personal life. Juxtapose that to Americans who get a few weeks of holiday if they are lucky, feel guilty about it, and still answer work emails while sitting on a white sandy beach.
  3. There is a Circle of Trust. It is not uncommon to see children running around or to see babies asleep in prams outside, seemingly unattended. The uptight and xenophobic American might go as far as calling that child neglect, but really it is just a sign of small communities that feel comfortable around their fellow countrymen. It is downright refreshing, to be honest!
  4. There’s no such thing as bad weather. Is it pouring rain outside? Is there a meter (3 feet) of snow on the ground? Is it -25*C (-13*F) outside? Doesn’t matter. Maybe air traffic will get delayed, but life on the ground in Greenland doesn’t stop because of a little bad weather. People still walk their dogs, wait at the bus stop, go on runs, and carry on with life as usual.
  5. Office culture. There are so many points to note here about idea-sharing, respect, and productivity, but really it’s the tangible elements that are most different from the United States. 1) Floor plan: Greenland is fond of the open floor plan with many peoples’ desks in one room. Why have small, anti-social cubicles when you could see each other’s beautiful smiling faces?! 2) Lunch time: The occasional café lunch date is fun, but usually Greenlanders stay at their own offices to eat – but certainly not at their desks. Offices have their own full kitchens and dining rooms to eat in, and everyone sits down together like one big happy family. The larger offices even have their own canteens/cafeterias/chefs.
  6. Possessions are cared for with the utmost attention. Everything is expensive in Greenland. Everything. Single cucumbers are $5+, iPhones are $900, shoes and clothing are 2-3x the price as in the United States, and you don’t even want to think about the Internet prices. Not only are items expensive, but also they are not in endless supply. In smaller towns and villages, if something is out of stock on the shelves, it could be a week or more before the container ship comes with replenishment. Therefore, Greenlanders do understand how to care for their possessions and conserve a bit.

FUN & SILLY

  1. Coffee is religion. There are three rules. 1) No time is a bad time for coffee. 2) It only comes in strong, stronger, and strongest. 3) Anything other than french press is heresy. Also, coffee time here is not the quick Starbucks grab n’ go style like in the United States. For the record, Starbucks does not even exist in Greenland. Instead, it is a whole experience with espresso machines, fancy glassware, stylish french presses, and sealskin cozies – even at home!
  2. Licorice is also religion. Licorice tea, licorice hard candy, licorice ice cream, you name it! In all honesty, this one might be THE hardest for Americans to grasp. In the airport I once heard an American squeal, “What is it with you people and licorice!?” I laughed to myself as I silently chewed licorice gum. Lady, I admit that I, too, was once a licorice-hater, but that was before I tasted the good stuff. Now I’m hooked!
  3. Clothes dryers are not in fashion. Many people don’t even own a dryer, but even the one’s that do still prefer to hang clothes on a drying rack. And sometimes the drying rack goes outside on the terrace (or hung on the outside of the railing), even in cold temperatures!

And, finally, there are products and items that just look different:

  • Parents push babies/children in something that looks more like a flat-bed pram than a stroller with a seat.
  • Condiment bottles like ketchup, mustard, and pommes frites sauce (which Americans know as Ranch Dressing) don’t have screw tops but rather a tiny cap that never comes detached from the bottle.
  • Toilets have 1 large button split into 2 parts – a small side and a large side. You can take a wild guess what the difference is.
  • Sidewalks are not raised or colored differently. You just have to know that to the right of the light post is the sidewalk and to the left of the light post is the road. And that sometimes a car or bus will pull up on the sidewalk right behind you to pick up a passenger.
  • No tea kettles or pots of water on the stove here. The norm is to boil water (for hot drinks or for cooking) in an electric water boiler. It’s faster and cheaper.
  • Don’t look for street names on signposts in this country. Instead, they are affixed to the sides of nearby buildings. By the same token, don’t look for many traffic lights either!

So there you have it – 18 ways that Greenland is totally unique from the United States, and better for it, despite sharing the “North American” label 🙂

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One thought on “Greenland-isms: Life in Greenland through American Eyes

  1. Hey Sarah, Thanks for your perspective!

    Some food for thought: I suspect that work-life balance is a problem also outside of the USA. Though I only know Asia and Europe, which differs dramatically whether you’re N S E W.

    I remember in China that some in the service industry (hairdressers) were expected to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week. No leave. In Asia, all they do is work – Singapore, Hong Kong, you name it – work is life.

    In Australia, it depends on whether you work in the private or public sector – and even then, it depends on which branch you work in. Some government workers have 35 hour weeks, but many I know also had to work double that time with no recognition for overtime. As for the private sector it’s highly dependent on industry. If you’re in the consultancy business, a lawyer, financial accountant…. all is fair game. There was even recently a campaign by the local tourism industry to ‘take a break’ and use up your entitled holiday leave. They were talking to the workacholics out there.

    The difference is that Americans only have right to two weeks of holiday – which sucks! A friend of mine in the USA manages to get 5 weeks of holidays anyway though, because she works at an multinational firm. =) Lucky her!

    Here in Greenland, it’s definitely more relaxed, and eating time is sacred. Productivity is dependent on the worker – but the ones who work hard, work super hard, I think.

    I’m curious to know how many Greenlandic firms offer one year leave – besides Air Greenland, and the other larger firms? From what I have heard maternity leave is only six months, unless you have a great deal at a good company. How does it work in the USA?

    Well that ended up being longer than I expected…Signing off from my cubicle/office =)

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