— Warning: this post is text-heavy —
Brian and I attended a lecture last night called “Cultural Understanding: Get Closer to the Weird Danes” given by Danish anthropologist Dennis Nørmark. It was put on by one of the expat communities here – International Community – and was the first international event Brian and I have attended. Nørmark was a wonderful speaker – great comedic timing – and had some really interesting things to say about the Danes.
From a foreigner’s or expat’s point of view, the Danes can at first seem a little cold, unfriendly, and rude.* Already, I’ve read many accounts of expats coming to Denmark and struggling to feel seen in Danish society. (For an example, read this article from The Copenhagen Post.) The first thing anyone who is seriously considering moving to Denmark hears – after the obligatory “that’s the happiest place in the world!” comment – is that it can be very hard to break into the Danish society and actually make some Danish friends.
People feel this way because they come to Denmark and suddenly no one looks them in the eye or smiles at them while walking on the street. Suddenly no one is holding doors open for them, but letting them slam in their face. Suddenly, people bump into them at the grocery store without ever saying “excuse me” or “sorry.”
At the surface level, this behavior can seem rude and in direct contrast with the fact that Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country in the world. One wonders, if these people are so happy, why aren’t they friendlier?**
Brian and I have run into this a little bit, although we have not interpreted it as rudeness, per se. I’m totally fine with not making eye contact while walking down a street. I’m also 100% fine with people sitting as far away as possible from other people when getting on a bus. It’s what I would do anyway. I do not usually want to talk to complete strangers while waiting for a bus. All of this I would find awkward, as do the Danes, apparently.
However, we did find it a little strange that no one smiles at each other ever, even if you’re the only two people on the street and the Dane you’re passing has a rambunctious 3 year old who’s running around making airplane noises. And it really blows my mind that no one says “excuse me” at the grocery store.
Nørmark argued that there are cultural explanations for this behavior. For one, it is not rudeness but rather a kind of negative politeness. (See this article for a more in-depth explanation of negative politeness.) The Danes are a reserved people, and two of their main values are a respect for privacy and independence/autonomy. So it is more polite to not walk over and help someone who is struggling with a large suitcase than it is to just walk up without being asked and assume that they need your help. The Danish assume that if you need help you will ask for it. If you don’t ask, they’re not going to volunteer advice that you may not want or need. That would be rude.
Ahhh, I hear you saying. Now this is all starting to make sense.
As for the polite formalities, these are not part of Daish culture because the Danes value a low level of power difference between members of society. Democracy is a way of life for them, and in a democracy everyone in equal. Formalities of any kind start to resemble the “please, sir, may I have some more” of Victorian England. This is so ingrained in Danish society that they use the same word – undskyld – to mean “excuse me” and “oh, I’m so very very sorry.” Also, they do not even have a word for “please.” For real. This also totally blows my mind.
I have been surprised to learn that Americans are known as being super polite. I didn’t realize this before I became an expat. You think that the stereotype of the American is brash, loud, and indiscreet. But I guess that’s the British view of America. The Danes think we are entirely too polite, along with being too outgoing and friendly. Politeness may be one of the habits that will be hardest for me to break. It’s just nice to be nice! But I guess I have no choice if there’s not a word for please.
Some other interesting facts about the Danish:
- Another one of their primary values is honesty. They value honesty over even courtesy. So sometimes they come off as blunt (again seeming rude), but this is only because they are trying to be honest. On the upside, if a Dane says they will do something then they will carry through and do it. Brian and I have already experienced this cultural trait, and it is refreshing. But as a foreigner in Denmark – especially as an American – you must remember not to say yes when really you mean no. Do not promise someone that you will get together sometime out of courtesy’s sake if you do not really want to hang out with that person!
- The Danes are a tribe. They have lost every war they have fought in the last 400 years (or so, I’m guesstimating here), along with more and more territory with every defeat, until they have become the small, culturally similar country that they are today. As a result, there is a very low level of diversity in the Danish society, and they value that cultural sameness. The up side to this is that they have an inherent trust for everyone they meet. Indeed this can go to such an extreme that it is difficult for some foreigners to understand. There is a famous story of a Danish woman in New York who left her baby outside a restaurant in its pram and was arrested for neglect. In Denmark, babies are always left outside in their prams. Brian and I have already seen this a million times. The Danes just trust that no one is going to steal them.
But also as a result of their tribe mentality, the Danes do not tolerate differences well. They dislike it if you stand out from the crowd too much. This fact can be a little hard to grasp for a foreigner, especially coming from the US and a culture that celebrates uniqueness. This mentality is reflected in the expectation that all foreigners should assimilate to the Danish way of life. For example, see this article which tells of the uproar that was caused when one housing board – with a majority of Muslim members – voted against having a holiday Christmas tree. The event provoked this quote from Konservative MP Tom Behnke: “It is deeply troubling that our integration efforts have failed so badly that Danish traditions are removed and replaced by Muslim traditions the moment there is a Muslim majority…This is an example of a lack of respect for Danish traditions and culture.” This was quite shocking for me to read as tolerance of and respect for cultural differences is widely preached in the US, at least in my circles. Needless to say, this outlook is causing Denmark some trouble with the recent wave of immigrants and refugees, many of who are from cultures so different that it is difficult to assimilate.
- Going along with their value of autonomy is a lack of social shame. In Denmark, you are allowed to make mistakes and take risks without fearing social reprisal. They have the lowest level of gelotophobia, the fear that people will laugh at them, in the world. This is helped by the fact that they do not take themselves very seriously and often laugh at themselves.
- The Danes learn from a very early age to question everything, especially authority. If you tell them not to do something, they will immediately go and do that thing, just to try it for themselves.
- The Danes are a highly monochromic society. They expect punctuality and they schedule everything. Nørmark recommended to expats that if you are having trouble socializing with the Danish, try scheduling social activities in advance. Under no circumstances should you just show up at someone’s house unannounced. Apparently, parents don’t even do that with their children.
Together, this all equals an “arms length” society. Nørmark also called it a “coconut society.” It takes a while to break into the Danish world. Danes are reserved and even a bit socially shy. They will wait for you to make the first move, not wanting to bother you or to intrude. However, once you do get in, you will never have met a friendly people. Nørmark called this the “ketchup effect.” You try and try with no result and then suddenly, an excess of niceness, advice, and friendliness.
So, take this for what it is, a broad generalization of a people meant to help those foreign to it understand it a little better. The thing to remember is that even though Denmark might seem very similar to other Western cultures on the surface (which sure makes expatriating to Denmark easy), there are small differences in the combination of their values and norms that can sneak up and surprise you. But that’s just the fun of being an expat!
*This was not our first impression, perhaps because Brian and I are both a little more reserved than your average American. Also, we were lucky to have Brian’s work contacts as a built in network.
**Indeed, this is perhaps becoming a problem for Denmark, as noted by these articles from The Copenhagen Post here and here. Some Danes are saying that this culture prevents global talent from coming and staying in Denmark.