One thing I learnt pretty quickly after moving to Iceland six years ago, was that most Icelanders are everything but shy when it comes to physical contact.
Actually, they’re shy about very few things, but that’s an entirely different story.
Anyhow, I first noticed that Icelanders aren’t afraid of being touched or touching complete strangers when going out in Reykjavík.
People here tend to elbow their way through the crowd and push when trying to get service at the bar and have absolutely no regard for the people around them—that’s a fact. I’ve been pushed around in clubs back home in Germany, too, but that was no comparison to Iceland. When working at the bar many foreign customers comment on how physical Icelanders get. Perhaps that’s just where the Viking heritage comes to light.
But while pushing and elbowing is rather unpleasant, there are also other, nicer examples of physicalness.
Icelanders love to hug and touch others, even if they are complete strangers.
I’ve seen it a thousand times at the bar, when a drunk Icelander and a drunk tourist bond it’s always the Icelander who starts hugging first, who starts putting his arm around the other’s shoulders or who plants a wet kiss on the other’s cheek. Not everybody likes that kind of touchy-feely behavior, especially between two males.
I’ve witnessed many times a male foreigner jump back in discomfort or anger when hugged or kissed by an Icelandic male. “Hey dude, don’t touch me” is the phrase usually used.
Icelandic touchy-feelyness (usually) has nothing to do with trying to hit on everybody, people here are just affectionate and aren’t held back by some kind of weird, twisted morals.
A man hugging another man is not considered wrong or inappropriate. From my experience, when two guys at a party kiss or make out just for fun, nobody here screams “this is gay” but shout encouragement instead. I love that.
Also when it comes to hold babies, Icelanders don’t shy away. I didn’t know this kind of fearlessness when it comes to holding someone else’s newborn. Where I’m from, parents of small babies are very choosy and careful whom they let hold their offspring, they have to really trust you. Also, not everybody wants to hold a newborn because they are so delicate.
Here in Iceland it’s not like that. A French friend of mine, who lives in Iceland and who just recently had a baby herself, joked the other day that everybody here would just hand you their baby. And it’s kind of true.
And miraculously, the person who gets the child handed over, knows exactly what to do. How to soothe the babe when it’s crying, how to hold its tiny body and head, how to cradle the child in a comfortable position and so on. Even, if the person has no children themselves. It’s like Icelanders are born with a natural talent for that.
I remember when an Icelandic friend of mine made me hold her firstborn son who was only a few weeks old back then. I just stood there like an idiot and clumsily held the boy. I was a bit afraid of holding the child because I wasn’t used to it. But it also felt great because the parents obviously had no doubts about me being capable of holding their son safely.
I think it’s wonderful that Icelanders have no fear of contact—in most cases at least. It makes for a cordial, affectionate togetherness, very different to what I used to know.
And after over six years in Iceland, I’ve been cured of my fear of holding babies.
Katharina Hauptmann – firstname.lastname@example.org