Stories about life in Denmark

Making Danish friends: A few strategies based on experience

Note: I’ll be speaking on this topic at Copenhagen International Day on September 21, 2019. Tickets are free – sign up here.

If you’re newly arrived in Denmark, making Danish friends is not easy – in fact, surveys show that one of the main reasons internationals end up leaving is the difficulty of building a network.

The irony is that Danes are actually very good at friendship. Their friendships are strong, reliable, and deep-rooted. Friends can count on each other.

But because Danes take friendships so seriously, they like to keep their number of friendships under control. They don’t want to take on more friends than they can keep their deep commitment to.

The statement “I just don’t have room for any more friends” sounds perfectly sensible to Danes, and utterly stunning to foreigners.

Danes from other parts of Denmark
When internationals ask me how they can make Danish friends, I have one primary piece of advice.

It is: find a Dane who did not grow up in the part of Denmark where you live now.

If you’re living in Copenhagen, find someone who grew up in Ringkøbing or Esbjerg. If you’re in Aalborg, find someone who grew up in Odense or Køge.

Because when you find a Dane who grew up someplace else, you’ll find someone who is also looking to establish a new network of friends.

Trying to make friends with someone who grew up in the town where you live is hopeless. They’re always busy with family and old school friends.

Want to plan a get-together on the weekend? Nah, it’s granny’s 80th birthday party, it’s their nephew’s confirmation, their old school friend’s bachelorette party. It goes on and on.

You’re not prejudiced
When you choose a Dane whose family and friends are far away, I tell them, you’ll find someone who has more time and more interest in finding new friends.

Many Danes have told me they were very lonely after moving to a new part of Denmark.

And as an international, you don’t have any of the prejudices about people from other parts of the country (Farmer butt from Jylland! Copenhagen snob! Incomprehensible Sonderjylland accent! Amager boy!) that Danes themselves struggle with.

(Having been here more than 10 years and speaking fluent Danish, I still can’t really distinguish between regional accents. But they seem to matter a lot to some Danish people.)

Danes who have lived overseas
Another group of Danes who are open to friendship with internationals are Danes who have just arrived home after living overseas.

Someone who has been living in San Francisco, Singapore, or South Africa may find Denmark uncomfortably small.

They often miss the excitement and diversity of their overseas posting, and really like the idea of hanging out with people who can cook a rijsttafel or a braaibroodjie.

They’re also more likely to understand that the concept of friendship can be stretched to include both deep-rooted commitment and casual get-togethers every couple of weeks to go for a run or see a movie.

People who have lived abroad may also be more comfortable with spontaneity: a dinner at home really can be last-minute, and you really don’t need table decorations or candles.

Join an association?
Ask Danes what they think foreigners should do if they want to make Danish friends and you almost always get the same answer: join an association!

That’s how Danes make friends, they explain.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, many associations are centered around sports. What are you supposed to do if you’re a weedy computer engineer who spent his teenage years in a basement? Or a woman who wears traditional clothing that makes it difficult to run around?

Secondly, most associations conduct their events (and their parties) in Danish. Do they really want to add a foreigner to the team who will force them to speak English over their after-game beers? If so, that foreigner had better be a damn good player.

Choirs and board games
Instead I usually recommend choirs, particularly ones that are singing in a foreign language anyway. Danes love to sing, and if you’re singing American gospel songs it hardly matters if you’re doing it with a Danish or Indian accent.

Another good option is sort of cafés that have board games and groups of locals who are always looking for a third or fourth player. The keyword is “bratspil” – board games. (Here’s one in Copenhagen.)

And there’s always taking a course or class. This can be tricky if the course is held in Danish – I once made the mistake of trying to take a belly-dancing class when I didn’t speak the language, and the head belly-dancer was quite cross with me – but some courses are held in English.

And some, like language courses, make not being able to speak Danish a positive. Take an Italian course and all the Danes will be forced to speak to you in Italian. Fun stuff.

At any rate, look for a course that requires a lot of group work. Many courses list the phone number of the teacher, and it’s considered perfectly fine to telephone in advance and ask about the structure of the course and get a sense of how you might fit in.

Patience and planning
Making Danish friends will take a fair amount of patience and planning.

Anyone over age 25 – or younger people who have partners or children – generally plans his or her schedule well in advance. It’s unusual to be able to ask someone on Thursday if they want to do something over the weekend and get an affirmative answer.

(Holiday planning is even worse. If you want people to attend your Christmas party, better send out invites in August.)

But with patience and persistence, you too can have a wonderful Danish friend.

The stages of Danish friendship
Pay attention to the stages of Danish friendship: hanging out at a group activity leads to a specific plan to meet up and do something, which might mean an invite to a casual party, plus more getting together and hanging out.

Things can continue at this level for awhile until you receive an invite to dinner at your Danish counterpart’s home, which can be a big deal. You now have a seat at their metaphorical friendship table.

The ultimate friendship prize is an invite to a Dane’s “round birthday” party. This mean’s you’re thought of as a true friend. Remember to bring an expensive present to celebrate.

Hear all our How to Live in Denmark podcasts on Spotify and on Apple Podcasts (iTunes).

Stories about life in Denmark

What I say when I’m welcoming newcomers to Denmark

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on August 27, 2019.

Fall is one of my favorite times of year, because it is time for one of my favorite types of speaking engagement – introducing Denmark to some of the smart, motivated young people arriving from around the world to study at Danish universities.

The university people have wisely decided that another foreigner might be best suited to explain some of the quirks of Danish culture when welcoming newcomers to Denmark.

So since the publication of my first book, How to Live in Denmark, I’ve been speaking regularly to audiences of new arrivals, and I probably learn as much from them as they learn from me.

What Danes are most proud of
One of the things I’ve learned is that the aspects of Danish culture that the Danes are most proud of can be troublesome for newcomers.

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Stories about life in Denmark

US and Denmark: The enthusiasm gap

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on July 30, 2019.

While I love living in Denmark, I also enjoy returning to my home town in the US on vacation. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is suburb of Milwaukee, a likeable but unglamorous city.

It’s wonderful to see family and friends and reconnect with American culture.

Such big cars! You see families out to pick up groceries in massive Ford trucks, each of its four wheels the size of a Christiania bike.

Such big supermarkets! You’ll have no problem achieving your 10,000 steps per day as you walk for miles past the gigantic exhibits of fresh fruits and vegetables arranged artistically by size and color, the acres of canned goods and breakfast cereals and ethnic foods, the in-store restaurants with hot soup and fresh pizza, and end with the vast selection of flowers by the cash register.

So many different types of Americans, from so many countries of origin. And despite a few incidents exaggerated in the media, they generally get along pretty well.

But the biggest difference is enthusiasm. Americans of all kinds are generally upbeat and enthusiastic, at least in public. This is, after all, the place that made a cheerleading a form of competitive athletics.

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In the Media

Tips for Danes Working With Americans on DR Radio P1

“Today I have in the studio Kay Xander Mellish, and she’s here to talk about her new book, Tips for Danes Working With Americans”, announced host Tore Leifer on DR’s Radio P1 the other day.

It’s always enjoyable to visit the DR studios on Amager – so enjoyable that I didn’t mind that Tore had misunderstood the name of the book, which is actually Working With Americans: Tips for Danes.

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Stories about life in Denmark

Tips for Danes visiting the USA: What I tell my Danish friends travelling to America

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on July 3, 2019.

As summer vacation season begins and some of my Danish friends and business contacts tell me they are heading to the US on holiday, I’m always pleased but also a little nervous. Oh, dear, I think to myself, I hope they have a good time, and get to see the good side of America and not the bad.

And I try to give them a few tips for Danes visiting the USA.

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Books, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Working with Americans: Tips for Danes – Get the book!

Working with Americans: Tips for Danes, my new book, is now available!

Many Danes work for companies that are US-owned or have US divisions. Others deal with American colleagues on the telephone or online every day. Some even travel to the US to meet customers, suppliers or colleagues.

Because Danes speak great English and are exposed to so much American TV, movies, and radio, they tend to think that they have a handle on the American culture and way of doing business.

As the great American composer George Gershwin once wrote, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Working with Americans: Tips for Danes covers aspects like:

  • What should you expect in meetings and negotiations with Americans?
  • How can you make small talk with your American colleagues – and which topics should you avoid?
  • What do American employees really want from a manager?
  • Why do your US customers expect you to be available all the time?
  • Why won’t American employees go outside their job descriptions?

How to buy the book
You can buy the paperback book from Saxo.com, Amazon.com, or direct from our webshop. You can also order it from any bookshop using the ISBN 978-874-301-0111.

Contact me directly if you’re interested in a bulk order for your team. The book can also be branded with your company’s logo on request.

If you’d prefer an eBook, you can download it from Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play.

A companion volume, Working With Danes: Tips for Americans, will be published in 2020.

Visit our Books about Denmark page for information about all our books, including How to Work in Denmark: Tips for finding a job, succeeding at work, and understanding your Danish boss; How to Live in Denmark: An entertaining guide for foreigners and their Danish friends; and Top 35 Mistakes Danes Make in English.

Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Summer vacation in Denmark: The agony and the ecstasy

Planning your summer vacation in Denmark is like playing the lottery. You could hit it lucky, with golden days and long, warm evenings, when you can sit with friends in the soft light and drink hyldeblomst cocktails.

Or you could get grey day after grey day, interspersed with a little rain whenever it is least convenient. The weather could be chilly, leaving your cute new summer clothes to sit disappointed in your closet while you wear your boring long trousers again and again.

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In the Media

My first vote in Denmark, Part 5: Lars and Me

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on election day, June 5, 2019.

If you’re fairly new to Denmark, as I am, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen seems like he has always been there, like bike paths and rainy summer weather.

I do have a faint memory of the other Rasmussen prime ministers, Poul Nyrup and Anders Fogh, plus the tax and fashion scandals surrounding Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but for most of my time following politics Lars has been in charge.

Now as I vote for the first time for the Folketing, it seems odd to form an opinion on something I have taken for granted. But I since have not found another candidate I am enthusiastic about, it’s something I must do.

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In the Media

My first vote in Denmark, Part 4: Yes, Radikale Venstre *should* be my party – there’s just one problem

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on May 18, 2019. The next installment will run on June 5, 2019.

“You should be a Radikale Venstre voter,” one of my Danish friends told me. “They’re a multi-cultural party, but they’re also business oriented and practical.”

Since I’m still looking for a party to offer my first vote in Denmark, I spent a rainy Copenhagen morning last week reading through the Radikale Venstre website, newly designed with the bright yellow and pink colors of a Filur Is popsicle. I’ve never had to wear sunglasses to look at a website before, but the Radikale Venstre site brought me pretty close.

I was pleased to find some ideas I agreed with. For example, RV wants to simplify the rules for Danes who bring a spouse to Denmark. Instead of the tangle of rules that now greets lovers, the Danish half of the couple will simply be required to support the new spouse for five years. This seems like a solid test of dedication: I’m not married myself yet, perhaps because I have not met a man whose bills I am willing to pay for five years.

And I liked Radikale Venstre’s suggestion that people who are born in Denmark, grow up in Denmark, have no criminal record and pass the state school final exam should have the right to become citizens on their 18th birthday. It seems to me that nearly two decades of Danish culture and language immersion should be enough to pound Jantelov and selvironi into their heads.

When I was taking my own Danish language and citizenship exam, there were a lot of 18-year-olds in the testing room. Born in Denmark, raised in Denmark, they emitted the usual teenage grimaces and sighs as they took a test in something they already knew perfectly well and had been tested on dozens of times.

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In the Media

My first time voting in Denmark, Part 3: Red, Green, and Enhedslisten

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on May 8, 2019. The next installment will run on May 21, 2019.

As a resident of Copenhagen Northwest, I hear a lot about Enhedslisten. In fact, there are some people in my neighbourhood that would like me to hear only about Enhedslisten, since during the last election local hooligans ripped down all of the election signs for all the conservative parties and the Social Democrats, leaving just SF and Enhedslisten posters dangling from telephone poles and fluttering in the wind on the S-train platforms.

But I had never seriously looked into Enhedslisten before, despite my closest Danish friend having voted for them for years.

Weren’t they the former communists who didn’t believe in private property? Why would anyone who owned anything vote for them? And since I don’t own a house and don’t own a car, would I get half of somebody else’s house and half of somebody else’s car if Enhedslisten came into power?

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