I get a lot of email at How to Live in Denmark from people looking for jobs in Denmark, and I can spot definite patterns based on nationality.
Indians and Pakistanis, for example, tend to send me mails full of numbers and data: “I have 6 years of I.T. experience and an Msc in Chemical Engineering. What is my expected first-year salary and what will be my living standard based on that salary?”
Left-wing Americans like to pour our their frustrations at the capitalist excesses of their home country, and then ask how quickly they will be eligible for Danish social services like free college tuition. (One single mom from the U.S. had three children she was looking forward to educating at the Danish taxpayers’ expense).
Correspondents from Eastern Europe want to know if they really have to learn Danish, no doubt because in addition to their native language they’ve already had to learn English (which they generally speak well) and sometimes Russian or German.
Whenever I hear that Denmark is the happiest country in the world, I think of Donald Duck.
Donald Duck is extremely popular in Denmark, as he is in all Nordic countries. He is much more popular than Mickey Mouse. He even has his own Danish name – Anders And. Which means, basically, Anders the Duck.
I don’t know how much you know about Disney characters, but Donald Duck – or Anders Duck – is kind of a second-class citizen. While Mickey Mouse is the perfect gentleman, outgoing and take charge, the face of Disney, Donald is lazy. He likes to come up with clever ways to avoid work, or avoid any exercise whatsoever. He’s often short-tempered, and jealous of Mickey.
Donald Duck is an underdog, and Danes identify with the underdog. They identify with the idea of low expectations, and then being pleasantly surprised when things turn out well.
This is the secret to Danish happiness. While Americans might identify with bright, happy Mickey, there’s a lot of room for disappointment if your bright, happy plans don’t work out the way you hoped they would.
I’ve been living in Denmark so long that I sometimes forget what it’s like not to live in Denmark. Specifically, I forget that in most countries, adult men and women don’t want to walk around in an elf hat, even at Christmastime.
Wherever alcohol is served
In Denmark, the red and white elf hat is part of any Christmas activity where alcohol is served, and even a few where when alcohol isn’t served. Children occasionally wear the elf hats, which are called Nissehue in Danish. At my daughter’s school pageant, the girls wear long white gowns and carry candles for the Santa Lucia procession, and the boys wear elf hats.
But you’re more likely to see an elf hat on an adult, quite possibly on your boss or your professor or somebody else you’re supposed to respect. Wearing an elf hat as a grown-up in Denmark is the way to show you’ve got a sense of humor about yourself, that you’re up for a party, that you see the fun in Christmas. Or, that you can see any fun in life at all after four weeks of nonstop grey skies and rain during Danish November.
Elf hats will be out in force during Danish corporate Christmas parties. You’ll see them on the dance floor, and quite possibly see two of them making out in the printer room. Danish corporate Christmas parties get pretty wild, which why furniture movers say their big season is December and January. One half of a couple misbehaves at the Christmas party, and the movers are there the next weekend.
French people don’t want to wear the elf hat
Anyway, elf hats got me in trouble a few years ago when I was trying to make a corporate video at Carlsberg, showing how our Danish division worked together with our French colleagues to make a special Christmas beer.
The Danish team, including the executives, all wanted to be festive and wear elf hats. So I asked the French team if they would too.
Let’s just say the French people did NOT want to wear the elf hat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen angrier French people in my life.
Danish Christmas calendar on TV
But elf hats are not the only signs Danish Christmas is on the way. There are braided hearts, for example. Braided hearts are the little red-and-white paper ornaments that look like tic-tac-toe patterns. You’re supposed to braid them together with your friends, at braiding heart afternoons, and then use them to decorate your home, or your tree.
Another sign is the Christmas Calendar on Danish TV. The Christmas calendar is a heartwarming show with a new episode every day during the Christmas season, which all your Danish colleagues will watch and be talking about.
I have never watched one, and this disturbs the Danes around me, because it’s supposed to be a communal experience. Other mothers at school have questioned whether or not my daughter was being properly raised if she couldn’t watch the Christmas calendar on TV.
A lot of Danish companies do ‘Julekalender’, too, with different bargains on every day of the season. If you have the time and energy to keep up with more than one of these calendars, congratulations – you are having a quiet holiday season.
Bring all your money to the Danish post office
One more Christmas experience you may be having is a little letter from the Danish post office, telling you that friends and family from abroad have sent you a Christmas present.
The little letter will say that if the present is worth more than 80 crowns, you need to pay 25% Danish value-added taxes on it, plus a DK150 administrative fee, and some cases 2.5% customs as well.
You could have avoided this by having your family buy online from somewhere in the E.U., like Amazon.co.uk, but now it’s too late. Unless you want Grandma’s hand-knit sweater to be returned to her, marked ‘rejected’, you’ve going to have to go pick up the package and pay.
Depending on where you live, you may get the chance to go pick up the package at a convenient location at a warehouse on the outskirts of town. You and your money will follow the signs down a dusty concrete staircase to some odd office in the basement to find a wizened old postal clerk…and there’s a good chance he’ll be wearing an elf hat.
As number of refugees in Denmark continues to rise, the Danish business newspaper Børsen asked Kay Xander Mellish how she thought they could best survive and thrive in their new country of residence.
In this business-oriented piece, Kay suggests that some of the new residents could make life better for both Danes and themselves by creating new shops and services, as previous Muslim immigrants to Denmark had done.
“Not long ago in Denmark – certainly within the memories of many adults today – shops closed Saturday afternoon and didn’t open again until Monday morning. If you were unfortunate enough to run out of milk on a Saturday evening, you had to borrow from a neighbor or figure out a way to cook Sunday dinner without it.
“The first large group of Muslim immigrants to Denmark changed this. In the early 1970’s, they started kiosks that were open on evenings and weekends, when Danish-owned shops were closed. The kiosks were very popular, and still exist today, even though supermarkets are open late. Those immigrants created something that wasn’t there before: they made the lives of Danes better. Now even the most hard-hearted Dane who talks of sending immigrants home can’t help but secretly think of the local Muslim-owned kiosks. What would we do without them?”
Join us this Friday, November 20, in Lyngby for the ‘How to Live in Denmark Game Show.’
We’ll be playing the game show at 5pm at the Scandic Eremitage, Klampenborgvej 230, Lyngby, which is just a 5-minute walk from the Lyngby S-train stop.
Admission is free, and you can win a copy of the “How to Live in Denmark” book.
We’ll be playing ‘How To Live in Denmark Jeopardy’ plus a version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” and maybe have a few surprises as well.
Come join us! (You can sign up here if you want to be guaranteed a seat.)
If you represent a corporate or business group and would like to have Kay make a presentation at your location, please get in touch via this site’s contact form for more information.
How To Live in Denmark intercultural events are designed to make international employees feel more comfortable in Denmark, help them understand the Danish mindset, and give them something to chat about with their Danish colleagues besides just ‘shop talk.’
As part of their series “Hvad er Danskhed” (What is Danishness?) Copenhagen-based Raadio24syv asked Kay Xander Mellish: What is Danishness to you?
Speaking the heavily-accented Danish it has taken her 15 years to learn, Kay tells how she came to Denmark (and how her first employers went bankrupt, leaving her alone in Denmark with a great deal of furniture), and why it can be difficult for foreigners to make Danish friends.
Listen here: http://www.radio24syv.dk/programmer/ak-24syv/12452246/37:10/ak-24syv-16-11-2015-1 (or try this link.)
Asked what it’s like to work in a Danish environment, Kay says the culture of constant equality can be good, but can also present some challenges. For example, when meeting a group of Danish businesspeople, it can be difficult to tell who the boss is, and who will be the one to give a final “yes” or “no” to a project. Because of the culture of consensus, no one wants to admit to being the boss, because that would suggest a lack of equality.
She also discusses the connection between Danish drinking habits and childhood candy habits, how she broke the Danish rule of “correct” bread when making her daughter’s school lunch, and what aspects of Danish culture she thinks it’s most important to focus on on the future.
Kay’s 11-year-old daughter Georgia also appears on the show, explaining why her mother is “different” than her Danish classmates’ mothers.
The 12 days of Christmas is an old French Christmas song. But those 12 days have nothing on the Danes, who have more than two months of Christmas, and would probably have it last all the way to spring if they could get away with it.
Little cookies in shops
If you’re here in Denmark right now, you probably saw the Christmas wrapping paper hit the shelves at Netto a couple of weeks ago. That, and the first of the gingerbread Christmas cookies. You’ll notice that a lot of Danish shops put out little dishes of brown Christmas cookies that look like overgrown M&Ms. Pepper nuts, they’re called.
You’re invited to take one, they’re free and they are very tasty. That said, you might not be thinking about all the other little fingers that have touched those cookies. I recommend buying your own pepper nuts and enjoying them at home.
Christmas beer bikinis
Anyway, the official start of the holiday is this week, November 6, when Tuborg rolls out its annual Christmas beer. It’s released at precisely 20:59, and everybody hangs out in bars waiting for it, some specially dressed in blue Christmas beer hats, Christmas beer neckties, or even Christmas beer bikinis.
Christmas beer tastes a lot like regular beer, a little bit sweeter, and a lot stronger. This is why a man I once knew, who was a bit of a wolf, told me that Christmas beer day was the best day of the year to ‘score’ with married women. The beer is very strong.
I used to work at Carlsberg, which owns Tuborg, and I can tell you that the company had highly conflicted feelings about J-dag, which is what Christmas beer day is called. On one hand, it makes a hash of their corporate position promoting responsible drinking. On the other hand, they do sell an incredible amount of beer on that day.
Heartbreak, fights, and dangerous adventures
So, if you’re a party person, J-day is not to be missed. If you’re a more quiet person, J-day is a good day to be home, with the curtains drawn, and earplugs. If you’re a Danish policeman, you’ll be on duty that evening, sorting out all the heartbreak, fights and dangerous adventures caused by Christmas beer. If you’re a Danish taxi driver, you’ll be cleaning up your cab several times.
This is the start of two months of Christmas in Denmark. There will be lots of parties, and lots of drinking, all the way through to January. And if you’re new to Denmark, here’s a tip: Don’t invite your friends to get together during the Christmas season. Don’t plan a Christmas party, at least not one that includes Danes. You friends are fully booked, particularly in December, with Christmas work events and Christmas family events and Christmas club events that were planned in August.
Throw a party in January, when everybody’s miserable and broke. Then everyone you know will show up, even if all you serve is takeout pizza and leftover Christmas beer.
My Danish friends who are about to spend some time in the U.S. often ask me for advice about surviving American culture, and I give them all the same two tips.
First, in the U.S. it’s a good idea to be polite to police officers. Danish cops often come from the countryside and have funny rural accents and since Danes generally don’t like hierarchy and authority anyway, they have no problem being sarcastic and a little smart-ass with a police officer.
That doesn’t work in the States. That Highway Patrol lady with the mirrored sunglasses who has just caught you speeding down Route 66 is unlikely to have much of a sense of humor. If she pulls you over, say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” a lot and keep your hands in view at all times so she can see you’re not reaching for a gun.
That’s the first tip. The second tip is that, should you go to a bar, it can happen that a stranger or two will offer to buy you a drink. If the stranger is of the opposite gender, or same gender depending on the bar, that person is interested in you. Let them buy you a drink. And chat with them while you drink it. If there’s no chemistry, when the drink is finished, you can both go your separate ways.
That’s a little shocking for Danes. Buying a drink for someone is a big deal in Denmark, a place where a loving couple who go out for a romantic candlelight dinner often split the bill. For Danes, buying someone a drink is like buying them a birthday present. Many Danes are not comfortable with a stranger making that level of commitment.
I get a little local newspaper in my mailbox every week, and this week – in between the usual stories about which local project has been able to squeeze the biggest subsidy out of the Copenhagen city government – there was an article about the Miss Denmark pageant.
Two teenagers from the neighborhood, one an ethnic Dane and one of Middle Eastern descent, had been selected to represent us in the pageant.
Now that surprised me. I’ve lived here for 15 years, and I’d ever even heard of the Miss Denmark pageant. Denmark is usually not the sort of place where women in bathing suits walk around while fully-dressed men debate their merits.
And quite frankly, most Danes are less interested in the beauty of people than the beauty of things.
A multi-cultural workplace can be vital and exciting, with many talents and perspectives. But it also creates challenges when foreigners try to fit into a workplace culture that Danes take for granted.
Why, foreigners wonder, do Danes introduce themselves by simply stating their name, instead of explaining their position and job function? Why does the big boss ride a bike to work when he could certainly afford a car? And why does he help clear the table after our weekly ‘morgenbrød’? Isn’t that the cleaning lady’s job?
Danes may also have work to do when it comes to understanding their foreign colleagues: Why doesn’t he seek everybody’s input before he begins a project? they may wonder. Or: Why won’t she look me in the eye? The presentation Working with Danes / Working with Non-Danes helps both sides examine their own assumptions and move towards a happier working environment.
Kay Xander Mellish arrived in Denmark 15 years ago. A trained journalist and a former member of the communications staff at Danske Bank, Carlsberg Breweries and Saxo Bank, Kay runs her own communications consulting business in Copenhagen, Denmark. She is behind the podcast series ‘How to Live in Denmark’ and is the author of the book ‘How to Live in Denmark‘, available in English and Chinese.
Book Kay for your group
If you represent a corporate or community group and would like to have Kay make a presentation at your location, please get in touch via this site’s contact form for more information. Or read more about Kay’s other events.