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“It’s a rich man’s world”

15 March 2011

This is an old story, from our early days in Norway, so apologies if you have heard it before. I tell it whenever someone asks me about the differences between the U.S. and Norway.

After four months here Aidan and I started to look for an affordable car and found two of interest at a place called Re-Bil in Eidsvåg, about ten minutes outside of downtown Bergen. Re-Bil sold used cars, but we had our courage up; we felt ready to tackle hassling and slick dealsters in a foreign country. We had even arranged babysitting to lessen the stress of the whole ordeal.

Re-Bil did not look imposing. It was little more than the size of a 7-Eleven. Three cars were parked inside, the rest parked in an impossible sliding block puzzle on the small lot outside.

We had a strategy – as everyone does when approaching a used car lot. We kept our eyes down, reading the stickers on the cars with intensity, too involved to pay attention to an encroachment by a used car salesman. We would simply glance at him, say, “Thanks, we’re just looking,” and fix our eyes right back on the cars. The “ignore strategy.”

Our strategy had been in place for about five minutes, but no personnel were yet in sight. Were they even open? Allowing ourselves to glance up and survey the parking lot might give someone inside a signal, but we were willing to risk it. I sidled over to the glass doors to check opening times, my eyes glued downwards.Yes, they were indeed open.

We could take another walk around the small lot. Peer into a few more vehicles. But something here was slightly odd. Were we being ignored? Or was their strategy much more sinister? A hidden room with a CCTV and someone dressed in black watching us, ready to shout, “Go! Go!” to his team member at our moment of greatest vulnerability.

After a good ten minutes it became apparent that no one knew we were there, so we decided to go inside. Where it was equally desolate. And very quiet. No salesman seemed to be engaged on the phone in an important deal – was he in the toilet? We had no Plan B. Plan A was to avoid salesman until no longer possible. Plan B we seemed to devise simultaneously on the spot: make noise and get some attention.

In a raised voice I said, “What do you think of this one here?” and pointed emphatically at the Suzuki Baleno. But no one came.

Aidan began opening and shutting doors. “Yes, this one looks good,” he said with more gusto than normal. Still no one.

I dared to open the driver’s seat and get in the car. Surely this would, if nothing else, bring someone out telling me this was not allowed?

Nope.

By this time Aidan and I had begun smirking and shrugging at one another. How exactly did this buying a car process work?

We spotted a corridor off to the left and approached it cautiously. Beyond was an office and there, seated at his desk, was a man in his fifties reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette.

“Hei!” we called to him. He neither stopped smoking nor put down his paper.

An awkward silence ensued. It seemed entirely too obvious to say, “We are here to look at cars,” but that is what I said.

Confirming that, yes, I had just stated the obvious, the man responded: “Okay,” and continued smoking.

In a burst of courage I tried an even more direct approach: “We are interested in either the Suzuki or the Hyundai station wagon.”

“Fine,” he said, and put out his cigarette as he stood up. Ah-ha! Now we were getting somewhere!

He followed us back to the tiny showroom and stood with his back against the wall while Aidan and I walked back to the Hyundai and repeated our entire script:

(open door) “I like this big trunk.”

(close door) “Ummm… ”

(sitting down) “These back seats are comfortable.”

(nodding vigorously) “Yes.”

I have no idea what the salesman thought, but we were getting bored with our theatrics.

Aidan faced the salesman and went straight for it: “Which is better, this one or the Hyundai?”

This got his attention and he strolled over to within two feet of us.

“It is up to you,” he said matter-of-factly, though somewhat puzzled.

Well of course it was up to us, but … Only afterwards did it occur to me that I did not know how to make a decision to purchase something as big as a car without a sales pitch. Which car had a better engine? Which had better gas mileage? Did we want the car with the better speakers, or the cup holders in the back seat? But most importantly, which did the salesman think would make us the happiest?

There are certainly no guarantees for any of the above questions, yet in the U.S., even with my heavy skepticism about people “just trying to sell me stuff,” I still want to have the product marketed to me so that I can understand, or at least defend, the reasons I bought it. You give me your sales pitch, I will decide which of the things you have said are important to me, and then I will buy it. But first you have to convince me that I really do want this car that I think I want.

This man, however, was not playing the game right. He was not trying to sell us anything and we were confused. Disoriented. Unable to proceed.

We must have looked puzzled to him as well, so he walked over to the sticker on the window and very kindly said, “You see here, this one has 85,000 km on it. That is not bad. The Hyundai, I think has around 80,000?”

“Yes,” said Aidan.

“Yes, that is not bad. And the gas mileage on this one is good. Good for the Hyundai, too.”

He proceeded to read out all of the information available on the window stickers, and we understood that everything about the two cars was in fact “okay” or “not bad” or “fine.”

This reading out involved a great deal of head-nodding, “umm”-ing, and too many philosophical pauses for my comfort. I started to feel as though I were watching a silent movie that was going to play for three more hours.

Aidan must have sensed this, too, and decided it was time to interject with another direct question: “What kind of deal could you give us if we pay in cash?”

And then, the most unimaginable thing happened: the salesman burst out into a hearty chortle, shattering the quietness of our conversation.

Still smiling he folded his arms and said, “I do not know. But I will think about this for you,” and returned to his office.

Aidan and I looked to each other for a reaction, unsure of whether we should be embarrassed. On exactly what basis had he found our question funny? We didn’t even know if we were to have followed him into his office, stand there and wait, or simply leave.

“Hallo?” we heard from the office.

Right, then.

He was seated behind his desk and motioned us to the two chairs in front of him. Yes, he could give us a 5% discount for paying in cash if that is what we wanted to do. Clearly it made no difference to him either way.

This odd experience has now become commonplace to us. When Aidan showed a loan manager a lower interest rate from another bank the response was: “Yes, they can give you a better rate. You should get the loan from them.”

Although we are no longer shocked by the different approach to “sales,” we still find it amusing to analyze. These types of situations simply would not happen in the U.S. (with the exception of the angry or lazy worker trying to ruin his boss’ company). But why?

Technically Norway has a mixed economy (socialist and capitalist), but the government still owns over 50% of businesses. And while the government does not own car dealerships, it does exercise great involvement in ensuring that the distribution of wealth is as equal as possible through a strong social welfare system.

Norwegians, on the whole, are not trying to be the best, the richest, the most famous because they do not need to be in a rat race to have a good life. Norway ranks as the second wealthiest country in the world in terms of monetary value (behind Kuwait), but Norwegians prefer to define their wealth in terms of

–       time spent with family (a 37-hour work week, mandatory five weeks of vacation per year, plus one year paid parental leave after the birth of a child);

–       time spent taking care of one’s personal well-being (in the form of fully paid sick leave, or paid time off for physical training and/or therapy);

–       financial security (unemployment pay is around 73% of one’s previous income and is given for up to two years);

–       low-cost health care for all (children, the elderly, pregnant mothers are free)

… I could go on, but what I am getting to is that no one sitting behind a desk is better or worse off for selling us this or that car, or for turning away a customer so that he can have a better loan elsewhere. There is no rat race. Norwegians already have a good life, primarily because they recognize the need for a balance between home and work. To work a 60-hour week would diminish their wealth, not increase it. Norway is consistently ranked first in the world for highest standard of living.

So, to my dear friend Anne who says I complain too much about Norway! 🙂  : this is one thing that I love about Norway.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    15 March 2011 17:30

    Another great piece to read Jena, and at last a glimpse of hope! 🙂

    • jenaconti permalink
      15 March 2011 18:27

      Now that it is still daylight at nearly 7 pm I promise all blogs will be overbearingly positive from here on out! (or at least until October)

  2. 18 April 2011 11:23

    Jena:
    Enjoying your blog! Thanks for posting on mine. It’s nice to find another American-married-to-American living in Norway blogger (who’s not in the oil industry). Your posts are making me laugh: I can identify so much!

    We actually just bought a house (blog to follow soon), and we are looking forward to moving in during the summer and hopefully meeting neighbors. We have heard that we’ve caused quite the buzz in the neighborhood, having bought a home that an elderly couple owned, and we’re bringing in young blood and a daughter. Should be interesting!

    • jenaconti permalink
      19 April 2011 19:40

      Congrats on finding a house! I can’t wait to hear about your neighbors! 🙂

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