“So Ole Says to Lena”

Ethnic Stereotypes and Norwegian American Identity

ole and lena color

Odd S. Lovoll
Northfield, Minn.

I recall vividly my arrival in Seattle from Norway in 1946 as a boy of 11. We settled in Ballard and became integrated into the Norwegian-American social environment there; it consisted mainly of immigrants who had arrived before the war—the old timers—and the many like us who were newcomers.

We encountered among the old timers a strange brand of Norwegian, a mixture of English and Norwegian, colored by the Sunnmøre or North Norwegian dialects of most of our friends.

Of course, after learning English, we of the younger generation found this hybrid language comical and made fun of it. Prominent Norwegian-American linguist Einar Haugen has this example, which is constructed and perhaps not likely, but illustrates the situation: “Han Ola, som lever kross raaden, hadde bæd løkk igaar, så dæ var funny, han itte lusa livet sit.”

In this bilingual setting a special brand of entertainment based on language variations emerged, the so-called ethnic dialect humor, which flourished from the second half of the nineteenth century and until the end of the 1920s.

Jokes are a vital form of folklore. Folklorists have described Ole and Lena jokes as a staple of Midwestern culture. They are no longer directed at a bilingual audience, as the dialect stories were; the Ole and Lena jokes have migrated to the Pacific coast but are absent from the Norwegian-American cultural environment in the East. An example of their presence in the Pacific Northwest is the following: “How do they thin out the Norwegian population in Seattle? They just throw a handful of coins out on the freeway.”

This particular joke makes fun of an assumed stinginess among Norwegians, and also stupidity, the latter being the most widespread of ethnic jokes among all ethnic groups.

Lois Leveen in her fine article about ethnic humor “Only When I Laugh: Textual Dynamics of Ethnic Jokes,” printed in the winter 1996 issue of Melus, tells of a dinner party that engaged in a joke cycle where each person contributed the answer specific to their ethnic group to the joking question of what constitutes sexual foreplay. The interesting result, as related by Leveen, was that all the responses were decidedly American ethnic rather than relating directly to homeland images. Some examples:

• The Italian-American guest: “Yo, Baby, get ovah heah.” It might bring to mind, as Leveen says, “Flatbush rather than Florence.”

• The Irish-American guest: “Well, you know the Irish form of foreplay—a six-pack.” A more acceptable response for a Dubliner might have been a pint of Guinness.

• The Jewish-American guest: “And then there’s the Jewish form of foreplay—two hours of begging.” This relates to the stereotype of frigid Jewish women.

The point to be made is that all the guests identified with an ethnic heritage that is inseparably linked to American nationalism. Although founded on derogatory stereotypes, as Leveen explains, the jokes served as an expression of pride in one’s ethnicity and an example of the desire to share that with individuals from other backgrounds.

How may we then relate this idea to the Norwegian-American experience?

Norwegian Americans, as well as other ethnic groups, in telling jokes about themselves are not by any means making fun of their heritage. It is important to bear in mind that it is the stereotypes that are consistently seen as laughable, and the person who believes stereotypes to be accurate and truthful.

Jokes about stupidity are legion: “A TV network is planning a two-hour special. A Norwegian will attempt to count to 100.”

Or they don’t wash: “How do you hide money from a Norwegian? Place it under a soap.”

A great number deal with sex, often combining stupidity with a sexual topic: “The Norwegian appeared with five other men in a rape case police line-up. As the victim entered the room, the Norwegian blurted, ‘Yep . . . that’s her!’”

Ole and Lena are sitting down. They each have a rocking chair by this time, their fiftieth wedding anniversary, of course. And they are sitting down rocking. And pretty soon Lena gets up, and she walks over, and she kicks him in the shins. And Ole says to Lena: “Lena, why did you do that to me?”

Lena says: “That, Ole, is for fifty years of being a poor lover.”

So he sat there and rocked awhile. And pretty soon, he gets up, and he walks over and kicks her in the shins.

Lena says: “Why did you do that to me?”

Ole says: “That, Lena, is for knowing the difference.”

Many of the Ole and Lena exchanges deal with sexual accounting, a popular situation being reminiscences on this topic after fifty years of marriage. The conversation deals in some instances with Lena’s infidelity, at other times with her frigidity, and frequently with Ole’s performance, or most likely his lack thereof. Many are rather crude. I had great difficulty in finding one that I would feel comfortable relating. The above joke is a tame example of the genre.

Jokes about ethnic food, often combined with other ethnic shortcomings, are also common. A final joke dealing with this issue:

“A Norwegian was going to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the gate and says, ‘Well it’s going to create a problem here if I let you in.’

“And the Norwegian says, ‘Well, how in the world could that be?’

“‘Well,’ he says. ‘I’ll be darned if I’m going to start making lutefisk and stink up heaven for one Norwegian.’”

All the above ethnic jokes caricature Norwegian Americans. By telling such deprecating jokes on his or her own group, the Norwegian-American individual is not accepting his ethnic identity as the object of ridicule. Quite to the contrary, humor becomes a vehicle to assert a positive ethnic identity. As Lois Leveen explains, by carrying stereotypes to the extreme, humor reveals how ridiculous these extremes are, and makes “both the stereotype and its proponents the true butt of the joke.”

By ridiculing the Norwegian-American stereotype, Norwegian Americans affirm their own perceived ethnic merits, which naturally would not ever be the object of biased ridicule. See, we are not like this. It has also been theorized that ethnic humor and self-irony in the early years of immigration represented a means of gaining acceptance by the host society through creating a collective identity and thereby entering “a community of laughter” with the established culture.

In any event, we should be reminded of the unwritten law in ethnic humor that jokes are told only on one’s own group. This politically correct practice obviously tends to establish and promote ethnic boundaries. Later-generation Norwegian Americans are invited into an ethnic fellowship through humor and disparaging remarks about ethnic stereotypes. Ask the question of a fellow Norwegian American: “Have you heard the latest Ole and Lena joke?”

Have you?

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 25, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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