And You Thought I Was Exaggerating: Baby Names Say Otherwise

Thought my last post about the Jante Law and cultural differences between the US and Denmark was exaggerating just a bit? Well, it wasn’t And to prove to you how essential standing out is to American culture and and fitting in is to Danish culture, I give you the perfect example: baby names.

The US is smack dab in the middle of the weirdest baby name trend in history. People are obsessed with inventing the most individual, the most unique, the most special name they possibly can. It doesn’t matter if they have to come up with a creative new spelling, combine the parents names into one mega name – Renesmee anyone? – choose some random noun or just totally make something up. They will find some way to make that child unique!

Don’t believe me? Well, the Social Security Administration just came out with its 2013 list of baby names, and thanks to this io9 article and Nameberry, we can see that among the Johns and Emmas are these gems:

83 baby girls were named Vanellope. That’s right. After that annoying little girl in Wreck it Ralph. 9 girls were named Pistol, as in gun. 6 girls were named Charlemagne, as in that king. And 6 girls were named Prezlee and 5 girls were named Temprince. (Oh my god, the horror of those last two purposeful misspellings.) And that’s not even counting the more “normal” (and more popular) names like Massyn, Londonn (yes, two n’s), and Khaleesi. (And we’re going to ignore the fact that Khaleesi is a title and not actually someone’s name for the moment.) Now, as for the boys, we have 10 Jceions (what??), 8 Tufs, 7 Psalms, 6 Forevers, 6 Powers, 6 Warriors, 5 Kaptains, 5 Subarus, and 5 Vices.

Hahaha that’s fu… Wait, you’re not joking?!

I was talking about this recently with a friend from the UK, and he was surprised that you could name someone after a company or product, as in Subaru or Mercedes. He thought that would be against copyright law. But let me tell you, you’d have to come up with a pretty crazy name for the government to actually step in and stop you from naming your child what you want. There are actual laws about what you can name your baby, but they vary from state to state and they’re pretty basic. For example, in California you can’t use accents. In Massachusetts, you can’t have a name longer than 40 characters. And it looks like naming your kids Adolf Hitler and Aryan Nation is just going too far. But apart from those small rules, the field is pretty much wide open.

In contrast, we have Denmark, which has fairly strict rules about what you can name your children. Specifically, they have the Law on Personal Names.

The century-old law was initially designed to bring order to surnames. Before the law, surnames changed with every generation: Peter Hansen would name his son Hans Petersen. Then Hans Petersen would name his son Peter Hansen. And on it went, wreaking bureaucratic havoc. The law ended that. It also made it difficult for people to change their last names, a move that was designed to appease the noble class, which feared widespread name-poaching by arrivistes, Nielsen said.

Then in the 1960s, a furor erupted over the first name Tessa, which resembled tisse, which means to urinate in Danish. Distressed over the lack of direction in the law, the Danish government expanded the statute to grapple with first names. Now the law is as long as an average size book. (via the New York Times)

This law now includes an approved list of names. It’s pretty long, but if you want to name your baby something that isn’t on that list you have to get it approved. And apparently, that can take years. According to that same article in the New York Times from 2004:

But those wishing to deviate from the official list must seek permission at their local parish church, where all newborns’ names are registered. A request for an unapproved name triggers a review at Copenhagen University’s Names Investigation Department and at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which has the ultimate authority. The law applies only if one of the parents is Danish.

Many parents do not realize how difficult it can be to get a name approved by the government. About 1,100 names are reviewed every year, and 15 percent to 20 percent are rejected, mostly for odd spellings.

I believe that this law has now been relaxed a tiny bit since that article was written because the current names on this list aren’t just your typical Jens and Mette. You do see some crazier ones like: Awesome, Cobra, Dreng (which means “boy” in Danish), Og (meaning “and”), Cirkel, and so on. But importantly, there’s still a pre-approved list and doing anything off of that list, doing anything different, can be really hard.

If someone tried to institute a pre-approved baby name list in the US I’m pretty sure they’d be riots in the streets. If there’s one thing Americans get feisty about it’s other people trying to tell them what they can and can’t do.

I’ll leave you now with one more baby gif because, let’s face it, they’re awesome:

Not Renesmee! Anything but Renesmee!


A Little Statistic for You, or, Danish Independence

I feel like I’ve been running out of things to post over here in Denmark. Perhaps you’ve noticed by my lack of posts recently. I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve learned and experienced most of the big differences between my culture and Danish culture (and those differences aren’t really that big to begin with). And I guess I haven’t been able to make the jump to more personal topics yet. So, until I can figure out what I’m going to write about next, I thought I’d bring you the first in a few interesting statistical differences between Denmark and the US that I’ve run into lately.

Today’s statistic is about young people living with their parents. If you’re American, you’ve no doubt heard of the boomerang generation, those 20 somethings that are graduating college, having trouble finding a job, and moving back in with mom and dad. Maybe you’re part of that generation. I know I am. I lived with my parents for a few months after college while we figured out if Brian was going to get a job outside of St. Louis and just what exactly was going to happen next. We also moved back – at the ripe old age of 28 – right before moving overseas. We had to live somewhere after our house sold!

I ran across a story in metroxpress, the free daily newspaper here in Aarhus, that was talking about this phenomenon. I was quite intrigued that this trend may also be happening in Denmark. Until, that is, I looked at the table included with the article. I’ve reproduced it here, so you can get the full experience:

Young People Living with Their Parents

Yep. Denmark’s experiencing a huge wave of young people moving home… (May I also just mention that that is 1.8% of a population of 5.59 million.) So, yeah, the difference between Denmark and the US is HUGE.

I find this statistic so interesting because it points to big cultural differences between the countries listed in the table. Some of those with high percentages are going through serious economic trouble right now, but some of them are countries where it’s culturally acceptable and indeed normal to live with your parents well into adulthood.

In Denmark, the very low percentage points to two things. One, their economy has remained relatively stable throughout this recent global recession. However, it’s widely accepted that it’s difficult right now to find a job and that it’s something that may take a few months. So what else could account for this low percentage? I think it’s probably the importance of independence in Danish culture.

In Denmark, children often go to daycare as young as 6 months. A stay-at-home mom isn’t really a thing here, at least not past her one year of maternity leave. So from an early age, kids are learning independence from their parents. By the time they’re 10 (or maybe even younger), kids are getting themselves home from school, taking the bus all around town by themselves. And it is not unusual in Denmark for young people to move out on their own as young as 16, though probably a more common age is 17 or 18 when they are starting university. And we’ve been told that once one does move out one doesn’t expect much help from the parents. You’re basically on your own. (However, this is belied a little bit by the fact that many parents purchase city apartments for their children to live in while they attend university. Since they don’t have to pay tuition for the education, they buy the apartment instead.)

The US does have that whole “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” thing, but it also is lacking many of the social systems that Denmark has to help these kids after they graduate from college and can’t find a job, or to help you and your family if the main breadwinner looses their job, etc. In the US, many times people have no options but to move back home.

Ah statistics. So illuminating. So nerdy.

(By the way, is anyone else surprised by Germany’s relatively high stat of 17.3%? I wonder what’s going on there…)

For the Love of Prams

I’ve put off posting about the difference between the US and Denmark in terms of babies and parenting because I don’t have any first hand experience with it in either country. But I just can’t put it off anymore because of something I just read. But there’s multiple parts to it, so bear with me to the end.

First, I don’t see many strollers here. I also don’t see many parents carrying their babies in those slings or carriers on their bodies. Instead, all I see are what is called a barnevogn, literally a “child wagon.” They look like this and are essentially really pimped out, modern prams:

A typical Danish barnvogn.

A typical Danish barnevogn.

They’re like small beds on wheels! I’ve been told that the Danes feel that children’s backs aren’t strong enough to support themselves in a sitting position until they’re of a certain age. (Makes since, given that they can’t hold their heads up till however many months old.) So that’s why they use the flat bottomed prams instead of strollers, to support their backs.

Let me also draw your attention to all the stuff on the outside, the hood and the obviously high tech waterproofing zip-up thing that basically cocoons the baby into the pram. This is for the rainy, windy, and chilly Danish weather, so you can take your baby out in all seasons. The Danes believe that the fresh air is bracing and good for one’s health – even, or maybe especially, the cold, these are the same people who go vinterbadnign or wither bathing – and so they take their babies outside as often as they can. They even make sure the babies get to sleep outside a little each day, in all types of weather, but that’s a post for another time.

{My initial reaction to these prams is that it’s a shame that the baby’s so bundled up and covered that they can’t see anything but the underside of the pram’s hood, but that’s another post for another day.}

What is most different about these prams from other cultures involves the Danish sense of trust. Because what the Danes will do, especially in nice weather, is leave their baby in the pram outside while they run inside a small boutique or go into a cafe to have a coffee.

Yes, they actually do this. I’ve seen it. Here’s a not very good picture of the phenomenon.

Pram Outside

I feel wary of taking pictures of other people’s children, so all I could get was the back of the pram.

You can see pictures – with babies actually shown in the prams – and read more about it on this blog post. In fact, there’s a famous story of a Danish woman who did this in New York in the 90’s and got her child temporarily taken away on charges of neglect, causing a huge intercultural kerfuffle.

Let me reiterate that this practice is good parenting to the Danes. Denmark is a tribe. They trust that no one will take off with their baby, and no one does. So the baby gets to stay outside, happy and healthy in the fresh air while the parent runs inside for a minute, usually keeping an eye on the pram through the window. And I’m in no way saying that there’s anything wrong with this practice. I think it’s nice that there’s this much trust in Denmark. It’s just usually one of the most shocking cultural differences about parenting in Denmark.

But now let me take the shock one step further. Are you ready for it? Can you handle it?

I just read about something called a “baby bio,” a movie in a theater where moms can go with their babies and make as much noise as they want without bothering anyone because the movie is for moms and babies.

Picture from what looks like a very cool newbie moms website: Click through for link.

Picture from what looks like a very cool newbie moms website: Click through for link.

Right, no big deal, I hear you saying. They have the same things in the US.

Here’s the Danish twist, and I quote:

“The sound is muffled and the light turned down which makes it possible to bring your baby into the cinema or you can leave them outside in a pram if they are sleeping. Your babies will be watched by employees at the cinema and each pram will get a number, so if your baby wakes up the number will be called in the cinema.”

Did you catch that? Are you also imagining rows of black prams with giant marathon-like numbers safety pinned to the outsides, the babies all crying and waving their arms in the air while the movie staff blithely ignores them and goes on popping popcorn? I love how the passive voice in that second sentence makes the watching of the baby sound so blasé.

So, welcome to Denmark, where parenting is much more laid back and much less full of anxiety. No helicopter parents here, that’s for sure.


If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, here are a couple of good links:

Danish Commercials

When Brian and I moved into our new apartment, we got access to Danish TV. This means that we get access to a whole world of Danish commercials. And I have discovered that I love watching Danish commercials. It gives me a whole insight into Danish culture.

For instance, I learned from a bank commercial that Danish parents, who are very busy since naturally they both work full-time, still take the time to do yoga and make their own bread after work.

Then there are commercials like the one below, from Kia, that I just find hilarious for some unknown reason. This one makes me laugh every time. Watch it and enjoy. Wait for the end because that’s the best part by far.

When You Just Can’t Get Enough

So, I’m sorry to keep posting about how to understand the Danes, but I just find it all so interesting!

Thanks to hey you, AU!, I found my way onto the website of Kay Xander Mellish, an American who has lived in Copenhagen for the past 12 or so years and who writes about their culture from an expat perspective.

One of the first stories I read, of course, has to do with Danish manners. Read the full story here – and believe me, Brian and I will be taking notes – but I thought this part was particularly interesting given our conversation on here about Danish manners and formalities:

There is no word for “please” in Danish. Polite children are taught to say, “Må jeg bede om…” when requesting something, which translates to “May I beg for…”

You can also ask politely if people would “be sweet” and do things you would like them to do. When requesting that, say, your upstairs neighbor remove his giant oak dining table from the hallway where you bang your shins on it every day, you can say, “Vil du ikke være sød og…” or “Would you not be sweet and…”. Putting anything in the negative form makes it more polite in Danish.

Kay – if I’m being properly Danish and only using first names – also has a website about how to live in Denmark called, appropriately, How to Live in Denmark, with articles and podcasts. Check it out. I know I will be.

Welcome new students…now go home foreigners: figuring out the rare Dane species

What perfect timing. hey you, AU! – a very funny and helpful blog for the international students at Aarhus University – calms all the new students’ fears about those reserved Danes: “once you get one of the rare Dane species to start talking, it’s hard to shut them up! They’re just super shy. And the thing is – the shyness often comes off as that they are cold, unwelcoming people. But now we all know better. We foreigners are on to you, Danes! And we’re going to melt your cold disguises with our international love whether you like it or not! “

hey you, AU!

It’s time for another pre-semester entry. In anticipation of all the new international students who will be arriving in Denmark over the coming weeks, I thought I’d share an interesting map I came across the other day (and also received by other former international students who had studied in Denmark and have now gone on to other, more friendlier countries). The map came from a webpage called “40 maps they didn’t teach you in school” and showed all sorts of silliness… maps about how to say beer in different languages around the world, maps about driving orientation, etc, etc, etc. There was one map that hit specifically close to home though and was about the attitude of the population towards foreign visitors. Here, take a look…

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The Weird Danes, or, Understanding Your Host

"Cultural Understanding: Get Closer to the Weird Danes" seminar given by Danish anthropologist Dennis Nørmark.

“Cultural Understanding: Get Closer to the Weird Danes” seminar given by Danish anthropologist Dennis Nørmark.

— 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.