föstudagur, mars 03, 2006


The other day I went for my first meeting with a client. I was alone this time, so when I got there I went to the reception desk, and in Icelandic introduced myself, said which firm I was representing, and the name of the man I was meeting. The receptionist got on the phone, called upstairs and said the equivalent of, "Do you know where John is? There is a foreigner here to see him."

I understood her perfectly, but I wonder if she forgot this. She could have said, "There is a man here, hold on... what was your name again?" Or, "You have a visitor from Company X here." Or any number of things. But to me what she said felt more like, "John! The foreigner is here to see you! Iceland's one foreigner, the one with the accent!"

Then today we had a presentation at work on the growing equality of the sexes in Iceland on family matters. The presenter seemed to take great pride in how family life was becoming more balanced in Iceland, and seemed to me a fair-minded man. But then at one point, to illustrate something, he said, "It's not as though we're all barbarians like in Turkey and Albania."


Blogger tsduff said...

Some folks have no clue. My sister from US is a missionary who lives in Albania with her family. What is it with being from a different country that makes one less than?

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

The comment about Albania, Turkey and barbarians is definitely a very ignorant and a racist comment. I wonder if it would have helped to pull him aside and let him know how racist it was.
In regards to the 'utlendingur' I believe that term has a slightly different meaning to it than perhaps you are thinking of. She probably would not have used it in a negative way right in front of your face unless she wished you harm.
You should ask others though, have a poll or something what people think.
The term in my mind is more to distinguish you from others, as in non judgmental. If she would have said 'bolvadur utlendingurinn' or 'helvitis utlendingurinn' that would have been derogatory.
I believe she used it as an impartial word, also there are a lot of people who are shy about speaking and interacting with 'foreigners' so they get all twisted and don't think.

The true meaning of words in one language is often very different in other languages. I experienced this all the time when I was in Holland. It is only when ones fluency becomes as good as the natives, when one truly gets the 'feel' of a word that one understands fully the meaning of a word.

But I can totally relate to the 'feeling' of xenophobia. If people here in the states could only pronounce my bloody name, or at least not butcher it when calling me on the phone. I'd rather be asked how to pronounce it than have them studder through it ten times till I say to them....well....now you've offended me...and I'm hanging up on you :p
Xenophobia is all over the world in every single corner. It stems from fear of the unknown and generally ignorance

I have to say, it's fascinating to see the things that you guys go through, because MAN I'VE BEEN THERE! :D

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

lovin the blog :) keep up the great work

Blogger JB said...


Thanks for reading, and commenting. Nothing I love like comments, they make the writing worthwhile.

TS and Sirry,

I know that racism & xenophobia are everywhere. I guess I'm commenting on it here because this is the first time I have been so deep in a new society: paying taxes, watching Idol, playing in a community orchestra, cooking hangikjöt, and encountered prejudice against me.

I did talk to several coworkers at lunch about this use of útlendingur (foreigner, literally out-lander) and they agreed that it was unnecessary and seemed insulted by it themselves. I know that words mean totally different things in every language, but it seems to me that in Iceland, the use of this word "útlendingur" is becoming less acceptable. Last year HÍ changed their foreign language course name from "Íslenska fyrir útlendinga" to "Íslenska sem annað mál", for example.

Icelandic readers, how about it? Do you use the word "útlendingur"?

Blogger Pétur said...

Hi. I've been reading your blog for months now and find it extremely interesting. I am, like most Icelanders, truly interested in hearing the experiences of foreigners living in Iceland. I guess it's mostly because it's such a new thing to us. Who would have thought someone would actually like to come and live here voluntarily! Also, I think it's generational. Icelanders under the age of 20 or so, are used to seeing and interacting with foreigners/immigrants. They probably had some foreign kids in their school classes when they were growing up etc. Those who are older than 20-25 are not so used to this. I'm 30 and when I was in school (6-19) I never ever, even once came across a foreigner. When I went downtown and saw a black man on the street, there was a 99% chance that he was from the NATO base, and 1% chance that he was actually Icelandic, and 0% chance that he spoke Icelandic.
Now we have foreigners living here in Iceland - and I think it's great - we need all the people we can get ;-) But I think that most of us are still not used to hearing someone speaking Icelandic with an accent. That's totally new to us. It used to be - either you speak Icelandic (and ARE Icelandic) - or you don't (and AREN'T). So I can understand, that someone gets a bit taken aback when he is addressed in accented Icelandic. However, that is no excuse to be impolite. I agree that the term "útlendingur" has taken on a rather negative significance - a bit like "nýbúi".

In this case there are three possibilities:
1) The receptionist was rude on purpose because she doesn't like foreigners (fortunately I believe people like that are still few and far between in Iceland).
2) The words came out of her mouth before she realized what she was saying (and probably regretted what she said).
3) She didn't realize that the words she used were inappropriate, or she just didn't care (in which case she's ignorant and unfit for her job).

I wonder if she answered you in English? Has that happened to you a lot? I lived abroad for almost 4 years, and when I tried to speak the local language - even if I made myself perfectly understandable - the person would answer me in English, because he could hear from my accent that I was foreign. I absolutely HATED that. Here I am, trying to learn a foreign language and everyone keeps answering me in English. That's so rude! Unfortunately, I've noticed that Icelanders do the exact same thing.

Blogger JB said...

Hi Pétur,

Thanks for being a "long-time, first-time" as they say in American talk-radio speak. (Short for long-time listener, first-time caller.) And thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I love how many great writers are lurking in the wings of the Iceland Report.

In this case, I had the feeling that #3 applies best, or actually more like she didn't think there was any way I'd understand her fast-paced Icelandic when she called upstairs, so that she could say what she wanted. But I did understand, unfortunately for me.

I get that switch-to-English phenomenon maybe 50% of the time here. It's getting better as my pronunciation and flow in Icelandic get better. It annoys me to no end, as you point out. Because it's not like they're switching to English to debate the merits of globalization, more like they're switching to English to say, "Here is your receipt." Og mér finnst það ásnalegt!

Blogger Einar said...

To me your experience is just another indication for that although Icelanders pride themselves of being ultromodern, ultrahip, ultracosmopolitain, ultraliberal, ultrasocial, ultraecological, ultra here and ultra there... they are still living in a small island society, which made the jump into modern times about 60 years ago... Tough to say, but you'll probably stay "the foreigner" there for a long time... Best to accept it, nothing's wrong about being different

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Racism in Iceland

I am an American citizen married to an Icelander and a resident of Reykjavik. I am half Asian female. I was harassed because of my race and sex.
This incident occurred on January 26th between the hours of 13:30-15:00. I had my back turned when I heard shouts of 'Nigger'. I turned around and was cornered by 6, 12-13 year old boys. One of them made a sexual obscene gesture at me. He thrust his pelvis at me while holding his crotch. They laughed, and then ran the direction I came from. In other words, I was followed, cornered and harassed. I have spoken to the authorities about this incident. Nothing has been done. After this incident, the harassment continued. I have asian friends who claim they are victims of racism as well. This is a problem in Iceland and it is getting worse...

Blogger JB said...

To the last commenter: this is a really terrible story. I wish Icelanders would be more aware of racial issues. I am hopeful that that awareness is coming, but I think Icelanders are still behind the curve as immigration here is perceived as relatively new (even if that's not entirely true). I really hope Iceland can embrace its non-native population (now several percentage points of us!) before things get uglier.

Blogger Kate said...

Very interesting blog.. just came across it. And interesting comments. Thanks. Very good to know that other ´útlendingur´s in Iceland have this response from Icelanders.

After one year here I am still furious every time I am ignored in company because I cannot speak good Icelandic, though I understand much of what is being said, even sometimes being talked about while standing in the room . I wish I had a magic button to make me vanish to somewhere more polite when this happens, I don´t think they´d notice anyway. Recently I moved into a new flat with my Icelandic boyfriend and the lady who is chair of the house community came to welcome us. On realising that I was from abroad she said that she supposed I spoke english, said that not to worry she spoke perfect english, then continued the rest of the conversation with my boyfriend in Icelandic and never looked at me again. I understand from listening on the fringes since I do understand that she was welcoming us, though everything about how she did it seemed to me to be welcoming my Icelandic boyfriend but telling me that I was highly unwelcome.

Many Icelanders have been very welcoming and kind and some help me with my Icelandic and include me in conversation. They seem to understand that Icelandic isn´t taught at school abroad and that I´m trying my best. This summer it seems that people have stopped speaking to me in english in a shop as soon as they see my dark hair and olive skin. I´m not sure why that wore off.

I never imagined being a foreigner would be so hard or that it would take so long (I suppose more than one year) to feel comfortably in a country. Is Iceland worse than other places? I now wonder if any of my friends from outside of Scotland ever felt this bad when they were living there, and if I ever commited the foreigners-are-invisible-to-me crime.

As a plea to any Icelandic readers, please please make eye contact with foreigners in a group conversation. Whether they understand or not, are a little shy to try speaking, making eye contact will encourage them to keep trying to integrate in your world.

Blogger Kate said...

As an after thought, any Icelanders or foreigners got any advice for me with this.. perhaps I need to bare (bear?) something in mind instead of getting angry about it..

Blogger Annie said...

Uh, I don't take any offense at being called an útlendingur. Saying that, I'd never use the term myself in the UK.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Hi, just happened to come across ur blog and found it interesting
this entry is particularly significant coz it happens quite a lot around here that you might as well just get used to it.
my first year here was practically awful, I got so disappointed coz I thought my classmates would be cheerful, welcoming and outgoing when I ended up being ignored by them. I learned the language and really tried to speak their accent as well because it seems to be as important.
See some Icelanders can get really shy when speaking to people from other especially when they notice something different. And for my experience in school, they don't 'move first' in the interaction, not if they can help it anyways.
But as I say, Icelanders are the 'extremes' of people: they're either so racist or so welcoming and friendly to foreigners, nothing in between.
but that's just me...

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

I sympathise with most of the people above. I used to live Iceland and i have gone through many of the things many of you describe.
I was spoken in English in shops and almost everywhere because I did not look much Icelandic.
People spoke about you in front of you like you did not exist. If in company of my partner, they would speak to her and completely ignore me.

One thing that I have seen lately when on holidays in Iceland that never happened to me before is about been praised about speaking Icelandic. In the bank, the police at keflavik, named if u said something on Icelandic they always have something to say like, at least you are trying to learn the language, or well done. It was meant to be a good thing but I felt it as patronising me, and felt that it was not their business.
It is little what you can do about it.

About being called Foreigner, dont feel anything wrong about it, in my many years living in England I was always the Spaniard. But I hated the word nybui...


One thing

Blogger Bryce Wesley Merkl said...

Wow, there are a lot of comments on this blog. I must say they are well-earned, congratulations.

After reading this post, I thought I'd share this Icelandic website with you that I think you'll enjoy:

Íslenska wiki browser

Blogger doctor boludo said...

I was watching a Sigur Ros, (or was it Jonsi?) video, and I noticed everyone was white, so I looked up racism in iceland, and I came to this page. First: for the white people who have been discriminated against as 'foreigner' 'other', that's not racism- It appears that Icelandic people are highly homogeneous 'racially' (white) and so treating you bad for being white would be shooting themselves in the foot! But, calling you a 'foreigner' or speaking to you in English is discriminatory if you're speaking to them in Icelandic first. As many respondents have said, this sort of 'nationalistic' 'ethnocentric' 'xenophobic' 'linguicistic' ideology is widespread, especially in the era of globalization as once isolated contexts gradually increase contact with the 'other' (different) nations. In my opinion, the reason why it's detrimental to the 'outsider' is that sometimes we're trying to assimilate with that culture/language- we're making a conscious and symbolic effort to show them that we're learning their language/culture. We want to be respected, achieve membership in their social group. And then by treating us different, they imply: don't even try it, you're that, and we're this. You are not part of this group. For the people who said get used to it, you can't change it- don't listen to them. They're foolish fools. Like you're doing on this blog, you're adding to the discourse against oppressive, hegemonic institutions' conventions. Definitely fight, with as much dignity as you can, but make sure that the person who treats you improperly thinks twice about the next time he or she does it. And then, once it happens a few times, he or she will stop! Yo, and if you think Iceland is bad as a white person, try South Korea! One of the most homogeneous/racist/nationalistic countries I've ever been to. Classic stuff, 'wow your Korean is so good!' after speaking in Korean. 'Look mom, a foreigner!' Ask in Korean- boom answer in English. Here it's because English is so commodified in the meritocracy that many Koreans want to be your best friend- long as it's in English. Tell them you want to speak in Korean, and bye-bye. And, if you think SK is bad, try Tanzania, and become a 'mzungu'! 'mzungu!! Hey, Mzungu!!!
Together we will change globalization, ironically all typing to each other in the lingua franca here, eh? peace.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

I have read the comments and all of them are really interesting. Till 10 years ago propably you had really few foreigners there. But imagine someday that you will be walking out at the street and the 90 % of the words you will be listrning they won't be icelandic. Come and tell me in 10 years from now if you would be feeling happy to see gipsy beggars at the street and muslims who will be commiting crime for nothing. A simple example....just see what happened to sweden because it happens to live in sweden. the left and the right party feels so excited to fill up this country with muslims who take everything they never give something back and they are never satisfied. It is still really early there. And what about this thing with the Poles that they were threating a guy at a gas station to leave because his presence there was making them mad? Icelanders were last pure nation but the multiculturalism have destroyed it. I dont know why you should accept so many immigrants there except of the poles. it is a fact. along side with immigration you import crime that you have not faced before. it is a fact.


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