How much do you know about Icelanders? Apparently, some people around the globe think Icelanders live in igloos. Others believe they’re all related (this is mostly not true).
But what do you know of their day-to-day lives? How do Icelandic people interact? What do they eat and wear? What traditions do they honor and what holidays do they celebrate? You’ll find the answers to these questions and more in this article.
What are Icelanders like?
We will share a few observations about Icelanders and their personality traits. This won’t detract from your personal experience; it will enhance it, as you’ll have some basic ideas going in.
Icelandic people still carry remnants of the Viking culture that they are descended from. Although Icelandic culture possesses some traditional Western culture elements, there are major differences within the Iceland population.
Firstly, we’ll cover some stereotypes you may have heard of. Some of them have a loose basis in truth, and some bear no resemblance at all to actual Icelandic facts.
• All Icelanders are related
It’s mostly not correct to say all Icelanders are related, but it depends on your definition. If two Icelanders from the same town go back four or five generations, they may have a common ancestor.
There is a website, the database of the Íslendingabók, where you can type in your name and another person’s name to see your ancestral connection. Although the local gene pool is small, many Icelanders have one parent from another country, such as Denmark or Norway.
It would be more accurate to say that all Icelanders are socially connected. If you select two random Icelanders, they’ll probably be linked by no more than two people in between.
• Icelandic people are impolite
Some may regard Icelandic people as cold or blunt, but it is more a liking for being direct. In England, polite words are held in high regard; to omit using “please” and “thank you” is a big deal. In Iceland, the word for please is rarely used, so tone indicates a polite request rather than a specific term.
Keep in mind that Icelandic cultural etiquette may be very different from your own country's. Although it might seem impolite to you, it’s normal for Icelanders.
• Icelandic people live in igloos
Icelanders do not and, to our knowledge, have never lived in igloos. This was more characteristic of Greenlanders, but Nordic settlers built turf houses when they first settled in Iceland.
Although the island contains over a hundred glaciers, they only make up about a tenth of the land. In addition, animals don’t live on the ice here like they do in the arctic circle. Food would be too scarce, so the natives have always stayed close to the ocean.
• Icelandic people believe elves exist
Most Icelanders do not behave as if they believe in the existence of elves; they just don’t deny the possibility. Not wishing to state categorically whether they exist or not is a way of respecting their cultural heritage.
Plans to build highways and buildings have indeed been altered to avoid elf homes, but this is probably more out of respect for culturally significant sites.
Why don't you book your Iceland car rental and ask Icelanders yourself if there have been any actual elf sightings!?
(Fairly) Accurate Generalizations About Icelanders
• Icelanders love ice cream
No matter the time of day, the weather, or the season, many Icelanders love eating ice cream. It could be the middle of winter in the throes of a snowstorm, and an ice cream will still be an option. That’s why there are so many ice cream shops in the capital and all over Iceland.
Valdi’s is a particularly popular spot, located near to the harbor. All of the fresh ice cream eaten in the country is made from Icelandic dairy.
• Icelanders love hot pools
One of Icelanders' most popular social activities is visiting a hot pool. And why wouldn’t they, with as much naturally heated geothermal water as they could want and fairly cold temperatures?
There are seven public pools in Reykjavík, all containing naturally heated water. They’re affordable too, with a visit costing only ISK 1060 ($8.19), and you can stay as long as you like. Most of them are open until 10 pm every day and many locals gather in them after a day’s work.
As with ice cream, the season and weather don’t matter; these pools are filled with Icelanders all year round.
• Icelanders love wool clothing
With the abundance of sheep in Iceland, wool has always been an easily-accessible material for clothing. Not to mention the fact that sheep wool is a good insulator and naturally water-resistant. These characteristics make it perfect to wear in Icelandic weather, which is generally relatively mild and wet.
Almost all Icelanders will own a wool jumper, or Lopapeysa, which has become a national symbol. These jumpers have a standard pattern of colorful, decorative rings around the neck and shoulders.
• Icelanders love the outdoors
The majority of Icelandic people love to go hiking, camping and exploring around their country. Perhaps they’re aware of how fortunate they are to live somewhere with so many incredible natural settings.
When Iceland’s newest volcano, Fagradalsfjall, erupted in March 2021, the valley was packed with locals visiting the flow for weeks. This is even more impressive since in the beginning there weren’t established hiking trails and reaching the volcano wasn’t easy. Both the elderly and small children hiked up through the desolate landscape, relishing the challenge.
• Icelanders are very relaxed
Although the locals are undoubtedly hard-working, they also have a relaxed approach to life. A commonly used phrase here is "þetta reddast" which means something like "it will all work out okay".
As a result of this attitude, many Icelanders don’t worry too much about impending deadlines or what might go wrong. They trust the process and that they will figure everything out before it’s too late. This takes getting used to if you like structure, advanced planning and punctuality.
• Icelanders are very proud
There is a strong element of national pride here, particularly revealed in the support for sports teams. Icelanders are also very protective of their language, knowing the risk it is under with so few speakers. They make their utmost effort to avoid allowing foreign words to enter into the lexicon; so they recycle old words instead.
Icelanders do not allow their small population to stop them from succeeding on the world stage. Bands, composers, singers, CrossFit athletes, authors and professional fighters with Icelandic origins have all risen to worldwide acclaim.
Did you know that the members of Kaleo, a world famous rock band, are from Iceland? Did you know that multiple World CrossFit Games titles are held by Icelandic women? There are many more famous Icelandic people who you’ll have heard of, such as Björk, or the astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason.
Understanding the Icelandic people
Although these generalizations can be widely applied, Icelanders, like all people, are extremely diverse. In addition, Iceland has experienced migrations from all over the world, just like every other country. These immigrants brought with them aspects of their own cultures, enriching the Icelandic nation with their arrival.
If you also wish to experience Icelandic culture first-hand, hire a rental car and see for yourself what you can discover about the people from the Land of Fire and Ice!
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.