Many Danes meet their future spouses at work. Yet there are also strict laws in Denmark against sexual harassment.
Where do you draw a line between harassment and two adults developing tender feelings for each other?
In an anti-authoritarian country like Denmark, being a boss is a precarious (social) position. Danish bosses don’t like to flaunt their authority.
In fact, when you enter a room of Danes, it is often difficult to tell which one is the boss. The social cues that point to a big cheese in other cultures – the flashy watch, the oversize office, the glamorous yet servile executive assistant – are considered poor taste in egalitarian Denmark.
I’ve never seen a country that loves its flag as much as Denmark does – and that’s a big statement, coming from an American. But foreigners who come to Denmark can’t help but notice that the Danish flag is everywhere.
People love to fly Danish flags over their summer houses – the bigger the better. Christmas trees are decorated with little Danish flags. Cucumbers in the supermarket have Danish flags on the label to show they’re grown in Denmark. Whenever a member of the Danish royal family has a birthday, two little Danish flags are stuck on the front of every Copenhagen bus.
The Danish flag is closely associated with Danish birthdays. If you have a birthday when you’re working in a Danish office, one of your colleagues is likely to put a Danish flag on your desk. It means – happy birthday! You may see a birthday cake with tiny Danish flags stuck into it, or the Danish flag recreated in red frosting.
And if you’re invited to a party by a Danish friend – any kind of party – you may find paper Danish flags stuck into the ground to guide you to the right house.
The Danish flag is not really a statement of nationalism. It’s a statement of joy.
I’ve never seen anyone say anything negative about the Danish flag – until a couple of weeks ago.
On-the-job benefits in Denmark come in three categories: the kind every Danish worker gets, the kind everyone at your company gets, and the kind only top dogs at your company get.
When you talk with a future employer, there’s not all that much room for negotiation, unless you’re coming in at a very high level or have a highly sought-after specialty.
In most cases, as American kindergarteners say, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Fortunately, job benefits in Denmark tend to be generous.
If you live in Denmark or follow the Danish media, you’ll know there’s been a lot of talk of gangsters over the past week. One Danish gang is trying to expand at the expense of another gang, and this summer there have been about 25 shootings in Copenhagen, generally in the northern neighborhoods – my neighborhood.
Somebody was shot outside my supermarket, somebody else was shot outside the school near my house, and a couple of people have been shot just walking down the street.
Most of the victims are other gangsters, but a few have been unlucky civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time. All have been young men, and the Copenhagen police went so far as to suggest that young men stop wearing knit hats. Knit hats can be a gang sign.
I should point out that this summer in Denmark has been so cold that wearing a knit hat in August can actually seem like a good idea.
If you’re coming from abroad to work in Denmark, you may be bringing along your spouse. That can be great – it’s nice to have someone to shiver through the Danish summer with.
But unhappy spouses are one of the main reasons that people who come to work in Denmark end up leaving.
Denmark is not an easy place to make friends, given that Danish culture tends toward “respecting your privacy” by not striking up conversations with strangers.
It can also be tough for spouses to get jobs in Denmark, particularly well-educated spouses seeking jobs at their level of expertise.
(Editor’s note: This was my very first podcast, back in the summer of 2013. It’s also the first chapter in my new book, How to Live in Denmark: 2017 Edition.)
When I first arrived in Denmark during the summer – summer 2000, for those who are counting – one of the things I immediately liked about it was that there was no air conditioning. I had spent the past ten years working in tower blocks in Manhattan, where you are hit by an icy blast of air as you enter on a sunny June day, and with an oven-like blanket of heat when you exit.
In Copenhagen, the summer air is the same inside as it is outside, except perhaps a bit stuffier, what with Danish ventilation technology being somewhat less advanced than Danish heating technology.
That summer of 2000 was a good education in Danish summers, since the sunny weather never actually turned up. In June, it was rainy and cold, and people told me it would probably get better in July.
In July, the weather was also poor, but the Danes told me you could generally count on August.
August came, grey and drizzling, and people started extolling the general glory of September.
And so on. I believe there was some sunshine around Christmas of that year.
Despite the unreliability of summer, there are some well-known Danish summer signifiers. One of them is sommersild, which translates to ‘summer herring.’ There is indeed a lunchtime casserole called summer herring, but that’s not what I’m talking about now.
‘Summer herring’ is a Danish media term for a feature in which attractive young women on the beach or at a local park are photographed wearing not very much clothing as part of a news story.
The news story is generally pretty thin: this year, I have seen summer herring presented with the shocking news that ice cream bars cost more in corner stores than in supermarkets. This was illustrated by some close-up photos of the ice cream bars and girls in bikini tops enjoying them.
You could certainly get angry about this objectification of women. Alternately, you could spare some sympathy for Danish men, whose observation of the female form is limited to padded jacket and fleece-watching for eleven months of every year. (In 2000, all 12 months of the year.)
There is also a male version of ‘summer herring.’ It’s called strandløver, or ‘beach lions,’ usually muscular blond types, although muscular immigrants are also represented. Beach lions don’t appear in the media quite as much, and they don’t test out ice cream bars, except maybe in publications directed at an all-male audience.
Anyway, even if the weather is bad during the summer, I still always enjoy a trip to Tivoli, the 150-year-old amusement park in downtown Copenhagen.
Tivoli has it all – roller coasters, rock bands, pretty gardens, and most of all great people-watching.
If I’m still in Denmark as an old lady, I plan to get a season pass and spend all day sitting on a bench watching the awkward teenaged lovers, joyful families, panicked single dads, and pretty children with their parents’ telephone numbers written on their arms in case they wander off. The restaurants in Tivoli are wildly overpriced, but you can bring your own food and have a picnic.
The fruit in Denmark is very good during the summer – fresh red strawberries in June, cherries in July, and wild blackberries in August. Even in downtown Copenhagen, you can still sometimes pick blackberries off the bushes by the subway tracks.
Eat them with crème fraiche, or as a companion to koldskål, the curious buttermilk dish that appears next to the milk cartons in Danish supermarkets the summer.
And, as always with Danish summers, I suggest you run outside as soon as you see the sun shining. You never know how long it’s going to last. There’s always the chance you might not see it until next year – or, in the case of the summer of 2000, not even then.
Photo Credit: Denmark’s Royal Library, photographer Svend Türck, via Creative Commons
If you enjoy my thoughts about Denmark and Danish life, you may be interested in following me on Quora, the question-and-answer site, where I write a lot about Denmark and other topics. You can also comment on my answers or ask questions of your own on Quora.
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The 2017 update of Kay Xander Mellish’s classic book “How To Live in Denmark” is finally here – with 8 new chapters, including “How I Finally Learned Danish”, “Danes and Singing”, “Danish Birthdays”, “Salaam and Goddag: Denmark for Muslims”, and “Cat Bites and Dental Vacations: The Ups and Downs of the Danish Health Care System.”
A print paperback will be in stores soon, or you can order direct and we’ll send the book anywhere in the world.
Why an update?
Kay says: “It’s been three years since I published the initial version of the book, and I realized that a few chapters had become outdated. One suggested that there was very little cybercrime in Denmark, something that has certainly changed since 2014: almost all the Danish government ministries have been hacked.
“I also thought it was important to talk about both the fashion for all things Danish that has emerged over the past couple of years, as well as the increasingly harsh tone the Danish government has taken against every kind of foreigner.”
Book Kay for your group
Kay is also a popular public speaker. If you represent a corporate or community group and would like to have Kay make a presentation about arriving in Denmark at your location, please get in touch via this site’s contact form for more information. Or read more about Kay’s other events.
When I do How to Live in Denmark presentations, I generally ask for just a few simple items – a screen, a remote, and a glass of water.
On a recent gig, I was provided with everything except the water. And since I had met several of the company’s employees when I arrived – handshakes with Mette, Søren, Nikolaj – I asked one of them to kindly get me a glass of water. I asked Nikolaj.
Nikolaj smiled, walked off, and brought me back a glass of water.
It was only after the presentation was finished and I was home making connections on LinkedIn that I found out that Nikolaj was Senior Vice President for Europe, with more than 650 people working for him and a salary that must have been in the 3 million-kroner-a-year zone.
But Nikolaj had never mentioned his title to me, because that’s just not done in Denmark.