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House-Sitting in Northern Europe: A Cross-Cultural Guide to Specific Considerations for House-Sitting in Scandinavia and Nordic Europe

Welcome to Nomador's Cultural Differences & House-sitting series. In each article, we discuss how cultural differences within various countries can impact our members’ house-sitting experiences around the world, and provide practical advice for navigating cultural uniqueness as a house-sitter. If you aren’t already familiar with this series, you can learn more in the introduction, the first five country guides about France, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Australia, and our two regional guides to Asia and Latin America.

This is the ninth post in the series, and is a regional guide about the cultural factors that might impact your house-sitting experiences in nordic Europe. We’ll cover cultural differences across Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland, as well as different societal norms that shape the house-sitting market - and your house-sitting experience - in these countries.

Red Cabins Flam Norway - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

An Overview of the House-Sitting Community in Nordic Europe

A few years ago, spending a week exploring Reykjavik, a weekend café hopping in Stockholm, or a few nights chasing the northern lights in Norway was the exception, not the norm, when it came to house-sitting opportunities. These days, that’s all changed, as house-sitting assignments in nordic Europe pop-up more and more frequently. I’ve personally had the pleasure of house-sitting in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and know first-hand that house-sitting makes a wonderful (and affordable) way to visit this notoriously expensive region.

The nordic countries provide a range of opportunities for house-sitters, with a mix of expatriate and local homeowners seeking help. Just as global trends have increased the popularity of house-sitting in other regions around the world, so have they shaped the house-sitting market in these northern European countries. When combined with the cultural and socio-economic factors unique to this region, a clear picture emerges of a region ripe for house-sitting growth and opportunities.

Some of the factors shaping the nordic house-sitting market include:

Nordic Europeans love their pets. In fact, Norway tops the global list in terms of monthly spending on dog food. Sweden is close behind in fourth place, with spending on dogs and cats generating approximately 8,000 jobs in Sweden. In Iceland’s capital, the legacy of a 1924 law that prohibited keeping dogs as pets in the capital lives on...while that law is no longer on the books, cats still rule Reykjavik's pet population!

Add to this, nordic European pet owners seem to have fully embraced the ‘pet humanization’ trend, and treat pets as members of the family in need of the high-quality care house and pet-sitters can provide.

Nordic Europeans are near the top of the list in terms of annual leave and travel. Overall, the nordic countries have generous annual leave/vacation policies. When factoring in public holidays and paid leave days, Danes, Finns, and Icelanders get a minimum of 36 days off work per year, Norwegians 27, and Swedes 34. nordic Europeans seem to spend a lot of that time off travelling, and are some of the most frequent travelers in the world. Of course, when they’re away, they need someone to look after their homes and pets.

Nordic Europeans have a cultural legacy of being tech-savvy innovators. Generally forward-thinking as societies and cultures, this willingness to embrace new ways of doing things has translated into rapid growth for sharing economy and peer-to-peer models. Stockholm, for example, became one of Uber’s fastest growing markets upon release of the service in the Swedish capital. Norway is leading the way in creating regulatory models that embrace new sharing economy businesses. And the nordic countries are creating their own home-grown solutions based on these new models.

 

Oslo Bar Code Area - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

Cultural and Social Factors Shaping House-Sitting Experiences in Nordic Europe

A simple scan of Nomador’s current opportunities board shows that nordic Europeans are gradually becoming active members of the house-sitting community. Now the question becomes, what are the unique cultural and social aspects of the nordic countries that might impact members’ house-sitting experiences in these countries?

Before diving in, it’s worth noting that it’s difficult to talk about national or regional culture without some generalization. National culture plays an important role in shaping our worldviews and behaviours, but it’s only one part of a larger picture: our identification with subcultures related to ethnicity, religion, gender, age, political views, and interests also shape who we are, as do our personalities, careers, family situation and more. Further, national cultures are always in flux, and go through periods of upheaval and change that, over time, shift standards and norms.

Throughout this series, we’ve done our best to emphasize national culture as a concept that applies to the behaviours, habits, and norms of most of the people, most of the time. We mean for this series to provide a framework for helping you before and during your house-sitting experiences, rather than a set of rules that are set in stone.

With that in mind, here are some of the cultural and societal factors that might impact your house-sitting experiences within nordic Europe.

Cultural Theories to Understand Nordic Europe

In the mid-20th century, academics began developing systems and theories to measure and compare different national cultures. Many of those theories are still used today, providing a helpful framework in understanding how people from different countries act and think, especially when compared to those from other countries.

Masculinity-Femininity.
One of cross-cultural researcher Geert Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions, Masculinity-Femininity measures the degree to which a culture is assertive, achievement-oriented, and beholden to distinct gender roles (masculine), versus cooperative and nurturing with overlapping gender roles (feminine).

The nordic countries generally score low on Hofstede’s masculinity index, with the most “masculine” country (Finland) still falling quite low on the scale at 26/100, compared to Australia (61), the USA (62), and the UK (66). Canada (52) and France (43) fall somewhere in the middle of this dimension.

While the term masculinity-femininity is controversial, the concept is quite helpful to understanding national culture. Concepts that might illuminate a masculine culture include no pain, no gain; work hard, play hard; idolization of type A and achievement-focused personalities; and measuring one’s sense of accomplishment based on career success and financial achievement.

In feminine cultures, which the nordic European countries largely are, gender roles are more fluid. Men and women are equally responsible for financial and family success, and quality of life and lifestyle are valued as much, if not more than, financial success. If live to work encapsulates cultures that skew masculine, work to live does the same for feminine cultures.

How Might The Masculinity-Femininity Cultural Dimension Affect House-Sitters?
When it comes to house-sitting in countries that score low on the masculinity dimension, expect to find households in which housework and child-rearing are split relatively equally between men and women. Single men wishing to house-sit alone, or single-male parents house-sitting with children, won’t be met with the same innate suspicion as they might be in countries with more traditional and stringent gender roles. Similarly, solo female travel is not considered strange or dangerous to the same extent it would be in more traditional societies, and solo female house-sitters are likely to be welcomed as well. Finally, the nordic countries are generally very LGBT friendly, for Nomador’s LGBT members interested in house-sitting as a couple.

Power Distance.
Another well-used theory from Geert Hofstede, Power Distance reflects a culture’s acceptance of unequal power distribution in society. In high power distance countries, hierarchy is rigid, professional communication is formal, and people expect those with power to enjoy special privileges those without power will not. Low Power Distance countries are the opposite: people are presumed to be equal, regardless of their socio-economic or career status; hierarchies are relatively flat; and professional communication is less formal.

Most Anglophone and nordic European countries rank low on Power Distance, with the United States ranking the highest of the bunch at 40/100, compared to 18/100 for Denmark. In comparison, France scores relatively high on Power Distance, at 68/100.

How Might The Power Distance Cultural Dimension Affect House-Sitters?
In terms of house-sitting experiences, Nomador members from English-speaking countries are likely to find nordic homeowners’ casual approach to communication familiar. As one American former expat in Oslo and Bergen explains, communication in Norway is, “super informal.”

While Nomador’s Anglophone members may be at ease with the standard of casual communication across the nordics, French members may find nordic homeowners to be overly familiar and easy-going compared to what they’re used to.

When contacting a homeowner in this region, we suggest sticking to the following guidelines:

  • Address homeowners by their first name, rather than family name and title. It’s worth noting here that Icelanders don’t have family names, and even refer to the country’s Prime Minister by first name!
  • Many people from this region have two first names (i.e. Anne Mette). If a homeowner lists two first names on a profile, be sure to use both when addressing them. And if you’re not sure if the two names listed are both first names, it’s worth doing a quick Google search to confirm.

Uncertainty Avoidance.
Uncertainty Avoidance measures how comfortable members of a culture are with uncertainty, and whether they actively try to minimise uncertainty through their communications and actions. It gives insight into how a culture would answer this question: Should we try to control the future, or should we just let it happen?

As with the Power Distance dimension, French culture (86/100) differs greatly from the Anglophone (35 to 59/100) and Scandinavian (23 to 59/100) countries when it comes to Uncertainty Avoidance, suggesting the average French member has a lower tolerance for uncertainty than the average Anglo or nordic member.

How Might The Uncertainty Avoidance Cultural Dimension Affect House-Sitters?
When it comes to house-sitting, Uncertainty Avoidance may show up in terms of the details shared within house-sitter and homeowner communications. Those with a low uncertainty tolerance are more likely to seek out and need detailed information about the house-sit, travel plans, and pet(s) than those with a high tolerance for uncertainty.

When it comes to house-sitting in a culture with different Uncertainty Avoidance (UA) expectations, be aware of the following:

  • Prior to a house-sit, high UA cultures may expect discussions to be scheduled well in advance, with a precise time, date and method of communication. Conversely, those from low UA cultures may be happy to arrange last minute conversations that are more casual
  • Homeowners from low UA cultures (such as nordic Europe) are more likely to be flexible about a house-sitter’s travel plans and arrival/departure dates, tolerating some last minuteness and ambiguity in travel details. Conversely, providing exact travel details about your arrival and departure (including flight numbers and details) may be seen as overkill. Stick to general information, unless otherwise asked.
  • While we always recommend checking with homeowners how and how often they’d like to receive status updates during a house-sit, nordic European homeowners are likely to be flexible and relaxed about how often you’re in touch.

 

Geiranger Fjord View Norway - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

Socioeconomic Factors Impacting House-Sitting in Nordic Europe

In addition to cultural dimensions that can help shape the house-sitting experience in nordic Europe, it’s worth considering some of the social and economic factors that make house-sitting in this region unique.

Cost
While it’s not part of national culture per se, we’d be remiss to not bring up the expense of living and travelling in Scandinavia and the nordic countries. Of course, house-sitting makes visiting expensive destinations much more affordable. Even so, it’s worth being realistic about costs before committing to a house-sit in the nordic countries.

There are a number of resources on the Internet to plan your trip budget. You can also join the Scandinavia and Nordics Travel group on Facebook, where you can get advice from locals and other travellers about your budget.

Cost is also worth discussing in terms of veterinary care, and what to do in the event of a health emergency for any animals you’re looking after. If you’re concerned about costs, it’s worth having a frank conversation with the homeowner before they leave, so you’re able to make decisions in the event you face an emergency and the homeowner is unavailable. In the past, we’ve had homeowners notify the vet they’ll be away and will settle any bills upon their return. You could also ask the homeowner to leave credit card or pet insurance information on file at the vet.

Pet Friendliness
As with any house-sitting assignment that involves pets, it’s important to speak with the homeowner about rules and norms specific to the city and country you’re house-sitting in. In nordic Europe, for example, central and southern Europeans may be surprised to learn dogs can’t join their owners (or pet sitters) in restaurants, as is common in other parts of the continent. Similarly, there are significant regulations across the region, and it’s important you’re aware of them at the start of each assignment:

  • Ask the homeowner about off-leash and on-leash laws. Throughout this region, rules vary, and sometimes they vary by season. In Helsinki, for example, dogs must always be kept on leashes in public areas, although there are more than 80 dog parks in the city, some of which are off-leash. In Stockholm, rules vary by time of year. It’s best to clarify the rules with the homeowner.
  • Dogs in Restaurants. If you’re house-sitting a dog that you’d like to bring with you to a restaurant or café, check with the homeowner for recommendations and to ensure the dog is able to behave. The Scandinavian and nordic countries are not as tolerant to dogs in restaurants as you’ll find in Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin, so it’s best to ask for specific dog-friendly recommendations, or do a bit of research first.
  • Liability and Insurance. Depending on the country, owners are liable for incidents and injuries their animals cause. Be sure to check with the homeowner whether they have liability insurance just in case, and ask if the animal has had any incidents in the past. These countries place a high emphasis on collective well-being, meaning pet owners are responsible for considering the comfort of those who don’t have pets, too.

Weather & Daylight
The nordic countries are famous for their endless summers, dark winters, and cold, snowy weather during parts of the year. It’s worth being realistic about this, especially for longer-term house-sits.

You’ll find many homes in the nordic countries are equipped with window roll-shutters and blackout curtains to help block out the endless daylight experienced during the height of summer. If you’re concerned, bring a sleep mask as well, to ensure you have a dark sleeping environment.

In winter, the opposite is true. When my husband and I house-sat in Stockholm over Christmas a few years ago, we never got used the sun fading away in the middle of the day, setting completely around 3pm. If you plan to do a lot of exploring during your house-sit (or before or after), it’s worth considering how much daylight you’ll have to do so.

If you’re in a community that’s more remote, it’s also worth asking about transportation and road access in the winter, especially if you plan on taking day trips at any point during your house-sit or are concerned about emergencies. While many of the nordic countries have excellent transportation networks, they do also have to face inclement weather. Ask the homeowner what you can expect if you plan on being there during the winter, and what to pack to stay safe.

Final Thoughts

With spectacular natural scenery, wonderful art, design, and architecture, and forward-thinking cities that seem to be a blueprint for the future, it’s easy to understand why the nordic European countries are on many people’s travel bucket lists. Whether you want to head north of the Arctic Circle to chase the aurora borealis or boutique hop in Helsinki, you’re likely to have a fantastic time in this region of the world, no matter where you go. Speaking from personal experience, the nordic countries are a wonderful choice for house-sitting, allowing you to connect with local culture and experience day-to-day life, without experiencing as much pain in the wallet as those on a more typical tourist itinerary.


Katie Matthews
Wandertooth.com

Living as full-time travelers for three years, Katie Matthews and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, recently settling in Budapest to focus on their business creating travel-themed adult colouring books and writing their travel blog, wandertooth.com.  Katie is also a co-founder of the Scandinavia and nordics Travel Facebook Group, a community for travelers planning a trip to the region. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communications.

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