A side effect of living near a university in Sweden this time of year is that for a few weeks it feels like living in a Dr. Seuss cartoon. Let me explain.
Mid-Late August means classes start back up, which means new students, which means “Nollning” takes place: a ten day “orientation.” The direct meaning translation of “Nollning” is “Hazing” but it’s not exactly done the same way. Sure, it’s an “initiation” or “rite of passage” of new students, but there isn’t the same negative connotation to it like in the U.S. At least, not anymore, or as much as before – over the years most schools in Sweden have been making an effort to make it a more positive and fun experience.
The word “Hazing” in North America is associated to physical or sexual harassment, abuse, and humiliation to become an accepted member of a sorority or a fraternity, which is often illegal and not associated to the school. In the worst spectrum of hazing can range from being kidnapped to being beaten, being abandoned to being forced to commit a crime. Swedish “Nollning” on the other hand means “Zeroing” because students are at the “zero” level: they have yet to start year 1 of college, they are new and don’t have friends. The idea of nollning doesn’t have the same cringe-factor as hazing, unless you consider singing and dancing competitions to be particularly cruel. There is of course a lot of being yelled at and doing somewhat embarrassing things, but from what I’ve read and seen it seems a lot more open and fun. Sure, sometimes some people take it too far like anywhere else, but the intentions are not as malicious.
Instead of being initiated into a sorority or a fraternity, Swedish students are being welcomed into the program they are studying. Nollning is an accepted tradition of the school culture in Sweden, even recognizing it as a student event: Check out photos and info HERE and HERE. Schools are organized with the official events and activities of nollning, making sure everything is safe by organizing student union pub nights, providing low % alcohol, and making sure there is crisis training in case of emergencies.
In North America “hazing” is optional in the sense that the majority of students don’t care about being part of something extra like a sorority or fraternity, and not all of them have such rough hazing rituals. Nollning is something that many (About half) new Swedish students choose do to be a socially accepted part of the program, to have fun, make friends, and party before school begins.
In Halmstad this means seeing students walk around in overalls of all different colors, each color representing a major: Engineering, IT, Mathematics, Humanities, etc. You’ll usually spot them walking in large groups, like a flock of birds. The overalls are written on or covered with patches. Where does the Dr. Seuss part come in? It’s the colorful and huge wigs, crazy sunglasses, weird masks, animal hats, and the funny voices they have to use to talk with (Sounds like a robotic voice). It’s a bit surreal around here for a while. There are activities and games that they play together, or competitions against other “teams” (other colors or programs) so that they become a community before school starts. If you miss Nollning it might be a little bit harder for you to make friends in your classes, having missed the “head start” bonding.
There are “Zeros” (New Students) and Leaders (Second year students who lead the nollning) The leaders are the ones who speak with the robotic voices and wear the colorful overall outfits/masks/Wigs to hide their true identity from the zeros during the Nollning, which is revealed on the last day. Meanwhile the “zeros” wear colorful shirts, necklaces and headbands with their names written across so that everyone gets to know each other. Originally I thought it would be the opposite, since making new students dress in silly costumes seems like something under the idea of “hazing”, but it’s the other way around.
Video of some Nollning activities in Halmstad (No sound, sorry):
Having only observed Nollning from afar, if anyone would like to enlighten me a little more on the topic, feel free to share! I can’t figure out why some people have strips of different colors at the bottom of their overalls, for example. Have you seen any Nollning activities?