Stories about life in Denmark

Politeness in Denmark: Some thoughts on Danish etiquette

“Is there politeness in Denmark?”

That was the question I was recently invited on a national TV show to discuss.

The implication was that I was supposed to say that Danes were not at all polite, because effusive praise and cheerful agreement make for a rather dull TV show.

But Danes are not impolite. They have their own version of courteous behaviour, which is based on reinforcing aspects of their culture that they care about.

Chivalry died so feminism could live
Gender equality, for example. Gone are the days when a gentleman would pull out a chair for a lady or walk on the outside of the sidewalk to protect her from mud and rogue horses.

Chivalry died so feminism could live. No one expects the modern Danish man to take off his costly high-performance all-weather rain jacket and put it over a puddle so a lady can walk across without dampening her feet.

She has her own costly high-performance all-weather rain jacket, and probably some spiffy high-performance waterproof boots to match.

Gender equality is why it is considered polite in Denmark for couples to split the bill on first dates. It is courteous to make the lady pay for her own hamburger. This shows that a Danish man respects her autonomy and earning power.

It’s also why some Danish women enjoy dating non-Danish men.

A gender divide on the bus
I find there still is a gender divide when it comes to giving up your seat for the elderly on public transport, however. Old ladies are quite pleased when you give up your seat for them – in fact, they often demand it.

Older men, by contrast, can get rather huffy when you offer your seat, because they like to think of themselves as still quite vital and handsome, in a Sean Connery kind of way.

I have learned to avoid offering men seats unless they are using a cane or wearing a long, 1960s style dark raincoat, the universal sign of a man who is extremely old and owns it.

Respecting people’s time
Another important part of contemporary Danish etiquette is respecting people’s time.

Everyone in Denmark is extremely busy or likes to think that they are. That’s why turning up to appointments on time is so important. Not just in a business context, but in a social context.

I’ll never forget the time I planned a 7pm dinner party on a chilly winter night. I happened to look out the window at 6:55 and was surprised to see all of my guests sitting in their cars, with the heat running, ready to push my doorbell at precisely 7pm but not a minute before.

This social punctuality is a shock for many internationals, whose own version of politeness is to be “fashionably late”. Even in New York City, where I lived before moving to Denmark, an 8pm start time suggests that you should turn up at 845 or so.

If you turn up at 8pm for that New York appointment, you will encounter a host or hostess with wet hair, wearing sweats, still folding the napkins and putting them on the table.

Turn up at 845 in Denmark, by contrast, and you will get a burned dinner and a boiling mad host.

Booking in advance
Another part of Danish social etiquette is booking your engagements very far in advance. Internationals always gasp when I tell them that mid-October is already far too late to invite your Danish friends to a Christmas party.

And once booked, an appointment is a nearly sacred obligation. Even if the date is months in advance, you simply turn up at that date and time without ever needing to reconfirm.

You don’t cancel unless you’re sick, you have a family emergency, or there is some kind of natural disaster like a hurricane.

It’s considered very poor form to cancel just because you got a better offer, or because your team just made the playoffs and the game is on TV, or worst of all that you are simply too busy. This would rudely suggest that you are busier than the person you cancelled on, or at least think you are.

When time management goes out the window
Of course, once you sit down at a Danish dinner table, time management goes out the window.

You’re expected to spend hours talking, eating a bit, drinking a lot, and talking some more. Being in the moment and enjoying the other guests’ company is hygge.

And prioritizing friends and family for a short time above the cares and stresses of all the other stuff you need to get done is the highest form of Danish politeness.

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on October 9, 2019.

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

In the Media

Tips for Working with Americans in Børsen

In a recent edition of the Danish business newspaper Børsen, Kay Xander Mellish offered seven “Tips for Working with Americans“.

“I hear it again and again when I speak to my clients who deal with American colleagues, customers and suppliers: We thought the cultures were pretty much alike, but they’re not,” Kay writes in Danish.

“The US is a high-risk, high-reward culture that can seem both exhilarating and cruel to a Dane raised on social cohesion, trust, and safety. And American business culture reflects both the excitement and energy and unforgiving nature of American life.”

Tips for working with Americans
In the Børsen article, Kay offers several tips from her new book Working with Americans: Tips for Danes.

Act enthusiastic.The cool, controlled behaviour and flat speaking voice that signify a mature adult in Denmark can be misinterpreted by Americans as disinterest or even boredom. Americans live life with an exclamation point. If you want Americans to get excited about your product, you will need to act as enthusiastic as they do.

Think big. Danes sometimes make the mistake of “thinking small” when going into a negotiation and focusing only on the potential deal at hand. But their American counterparts may not want to limit themselves. They may think bigger, bigger, bigger. In American business as American life, you can always go much lower or much higher, in price or in scope. Be prepared for upselling if the opportunity presents itself.

Give positive feedback. Danes often take the approach that “We hired you to do a job, you’re doing it, and we’ll let you know if there is a problem.” But Americans raised on a culture of constant positive reinforcement often perceive this as “You only call us when something goes wrong.” Keep your US employees and suppliers happy by adopting the habit of regular appreciation for everything that goes right.

Avoid sarcasm and Danish humor. Humor is always tough to export, and the Danish conviction that everyone should be able to make fun of themselves can clash with American sensitivities in a politically correct age. Sarcasm is another risk – the Americans probably won’t understand it and it could get you branded as a negative person, one of the worst things to be in American eyes.

Set specific targets and outline assignments. Danish employees like a feeling of independence, of being given a project outline and trusted to finish it well and on time. American employees are accustomed to clearer instructions and goals. Some may find the Danish approach refreshing, but most will find it nebulous and confusing. Americans also expect more monitoring. If you’re not watching them, some employees will take the opportunity to goof off.

US customers expect high availability. If you’re dealing with a US customer or business partner, don’t count on them to be understanding when you take an extended Danish-style summer vacation and they can’t reach you. In the US, the customer is king and convenience is queen, so if you make access to you or your product too difficult, competitors may see an opening. Limited “telephone times” like in Denmark don’t work; you need to be available at any time within working hours, and sometimes outside them.

Hiearchy is a part of the meritocratic culture. One aspect of American life Danes don’t always understand is how hard it is to make to the top, even for people who come from a relatively privileged background. Once a man or a woman has become a boss, they want the respect and the power that comes with that position. They like their titles, and they’ll often make decisions on their own, without seeking consensus from their team.

Before you go, study the differences
The most important thing to remember is that even though the US and Denmark have a lot in common – like a lack of patience with formalities, and the love of a good deal – the business cultures are very different. Study those differences and plan how you’ll handle them before you go.

Read the original article in Danish.

Image mashup credit: Kay Xander Mellish 2019

In the Media

Kay on Go’ Aften Danmark Live

How to Live in Denmark’s Kay Xander Mellish recently visited the Danish national TV program Go’ Aften Danmark to discuss politeness in Denmark.

Kay joined two other expats to respond to the hosts’ challenge: how can Danes be more polite.

One of the other expats encouraged Danes to be more outgoing; another suggested using more kind words, such as please.

Kay’s input was that Danes could perhaps avoid English-language profanity around native speakers.

You can see the entire interview on TV2Play.

Photo credit: Kay Xander Mellish 2019

Stories about life in Denmark

Nudity in Denmark: The naked truth

The relaxed approach to nudity in Denmark can be a surprise for many newcomers.

It’s something they’re often confronted with at the local swimming hall, where a very large and strong attendant insists that they take off their entire swimsuit and shower thoroughly before going into the pool.

Stripping off in front of strangers is new for a lot of internationals, and some try to place it a larger context of Danish morality.

It hasn’t been entirely forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography in 1967. Some people still think of Denmark as a place where there is easy sex available and a generous display of naked boobs and butts.

Continue Reading

Stories about life in Denmark

Making Danish friends: A few strategies based on experience

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.