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?
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.
The How to Live in Denmark project was recently featured on DR.dk, the website of Denmark’s national broadcaster DR.
The journalist chose to focus on love and romance in Denmark. Here are a few translated excerpts:
Having lived in Denmark for 15 years, Mellish has noticed that there are special rules for love here.
“Many of the dating mechanisms that work in the rest of the world don’t work here in Denmark. No one knows who should take the initiative. Women can’t figure out if a man is ‘Danish passive’ or just not interested.”
“Danish men are ‘nice boys’ that won’t go after a girl who doesn’t want them. There’s very little mystery and a woman simply cannot expect a Danish man to seduce her.”
Instead, Mellish has found, romance is facilitated with large amounts of alcohol consumed in the evenings.
“In Denmark, it’s easy to find sex, but hard to find love. People drink a lot of alcohol and go home with someone they don’t know well, and then figure out the day after if they want to get together for coffee.”
Cheating on one’s romantic partner is also common, Mellish says.
“I see a lot of infidelity, and I believe that’s because in Denmark, everything is so secure. There’s no war at the moment, people are financially protected by the welfare state, but you can still be unfaithful! That’s still dangerous! In Denmark, people are so open about sex that there is very little ‘forbidden fruit.’ But forbidden fruit is one of the things that makes sex sexy!”
Photo: Roman Boed via Creative Commons
I get a lot of mail from readers of this site, but a lot of the mail I get is on one particular topic.
Here’s one from this week, from Teddy in Ghana: I WANT TO KNOW IF DANES WOMEN WILL DATE A GHANAIAN MAN. I AM VERY MUCH INTERESTED. And one from last month, from Alex: “Hi, I’d like to know if Danish girls would date a bi-racial Brazilian guy.” And one from late last year: “I’m a gay African American male who would like to date a Dane. Any advice?”
Basically, a lot of the mail I get is from men, wanting to know how they can get some action in Denmark.
I can understand this. Danes are very beautiful. And I can tell you now, most of them will not immediately reject you because you have a different skin color. I know of several babies of mixed heritage here in Denmark.
While I can’t offer any personal insights on gay dating in Denmark, I can tell you that male-female dating in Denmark is hard, even for the Danes, and it will probably be hard for you too.
Usual tactics won’t work
That’s because the process that works in much of the rest of the Western world doesn’t work in Denmark. In most parts of the world, a man will see a woman he likes, and he’ll approach her. He’ll try to start a conversation. Maybe he’ll ask if he can buy her a coffee, or some other type of drink. If they’re in a nightclub, he might ask her if she’d like to dance, or maybe go outside and get some fresh air.
These tactics will get you nowhere in Denmark. In fact, they will get you rejected, and then you’ll worry that that you’re being rejected because you’re a foreigner. No. Danes are not good with strangers, any type of stranger. Generally, they don’t talk to strangers. They talk to their friends.
I’ll tell you how to get around this in a minute.
Don’t tell her how much money you make
But first, let me tell you another thing that will get you rejected. I’ll call it Manhattan behavior, because it was the way people dated when I lived in New York City. Men would tell a lady how much money they made, and how much money they were going to make, how much power and influence they had, and how expensive their watch was.
This will get you nowhere in Denmark. First of all, if you have money in Denmark, the government’s going to take it all away. The tax department will have your number, real fast.
Second of all, Denmark is a very non-hierarchal society, very flat structure. I think it’s fair enough to say most women will prefer a man with a steady job, but saying you have a top management position just means that you have to spend a lot of time working and not as much time with your family and friends. That’s not very Danish.
Show off your good works
So instead, if you want to impress a Danish woman, talk about how your work benefits society at large, particularly how it benefits people who don’t have a lot of resources.
For example, there are a lot of foreign engineers in Denmark. Don’t tell a girl, as I have seen done, yeah, I’m an engineer, it’s pretty boring. No, say, I’m an engineer, and I’m helping people in developing nations access clean water.
Hmmm…pretty good. Another way to impress a Danish women is showing how your work benefits the environment. I’m a petroleum engineer. My job is to rethink drilling to minimize the danger to the environment.
Hmmm…sounds great. Creative industries, like design, and digital media, and video, are also popular in Denmark. Whatever you do, frame it in a way to show how it’s helping people. I really suggest guys prepare a little speech to this extent before they start to meet women in Denmark. 2 or 3 sentences, that’s all it takes.
As a matter of fact, if you’re hoping to meet women in Denmark, do a little preparation beforehand.
For example, check out how the local guys your age have their hair cut, and what they’re wearing. I’ve seen foreign guys in nightclubs with tight business shirts and shiny business shoes on, and they’re getting nowhere. Do some reconnaissance first, maybe do some shopping. Danes are casual, but not sloppy.
And light on the cologne, guys. It’s actually not necessary at all, but if you insist, use a very, very light touch.
Meet the guys first
Now, as I promised, back to how to meet women in the first place. Danes, as I mentioned, aren’t very good with strangers. They talk to their friends.
What you need to do is come into their circle of friends. I suggest talking to one of the guys in the group. Talk to him about sports, the deejay, how he knows the host if you’re at a house party. And after a few minutes of chatting with him, you can ask him if who that girl in the brown jacket is, and if she’s here with a boyfriend. If she’s available, now you know the lady’s name, and she’s seen you with someone in her group, so you’re a complete stranger any more.
Go over and introduce yourself, and say you hear that she’s a petroleum engineer, whose job is to rethink drilling to minimize the danger to the environment. And that’s fascinating, because you really care about the environment. And I think you can take it from there.
This is somewhat how the Danes do it themselves, except that there’s a lot of alcohol involved.
Basically, Danes go through all the same steps, but they’re very shy, so they do it while drinking a bottle of wine, or sometimes a bottle of vodka. If alcohol vanished from the Earth, so would romance in Denmark.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2020
I saw a movie this week. It was the latest in long-running series called Father of Four. The series has been running since the Fifties. As the kids grow up, they just replace them with new actors.
Anyway, in this episode, there was a romance. The oldest sister, who’s about 20, meets a handsome young man with a guitar. What struck me watching the movie was that the male romantic lead was visibly shorter than the female lead. I’d say at least a couple of centimeters shorter, maybe an inch.
Now, in Hollywood, they’d have that guy standing on a box, to look taller, or have the actress standing in a hole, to look shorter. In the Danish film, there was no attempt to hide it. They had them walk side by side through a meadow. I had to admit, I couldn’t focus on the love scene. I kept thinking. He’s really short, or maybe she’s really tall.
Not the dominant figure
In Hollywood – or Bollywood – movies, the male actor is taller because he’s supposed to be in charge, the dominant figure. But that’s not true in Danish romance. The man is NOT in charge.
This means a lot if you’re a foreign woman dating a Danish man. He is a not a Frenchman who will pursue you to the ends of the earth. He doesn’t send flowers, he doesn’t buy chocolates. He doesn’t take you in his arms and kiss you until you’re breathless. If you are a romance novelist, the Danish man is not your dream man.
If you’re a feminist, a Danish man IS your dream man. He will cook and help with the housework. He will take being a father seriously. He’ll spend time with the kids. He’ll take your opinion seriously. He doesn’t force himself on you. In fact, you may have to force yourself on him. But if you do, he’ll usually be really grateful.
Danish women carry their own packages
Why are Danish men like this? I’ve asked my Danish male friends, and they say they’re reacting to Danish women. Danish women, they say, like to do things for themselves. They don’t want some clown opening the door for them, or helping them carry packages. They can carry their own packages. My Danish male friends say that after offering to be chivalrous a couple of times and getting turned down in a nasty manner, they don’t want to do that any more.
So, the Danish male approach is largely passive. They wait to see if the woman is interested. I get a lot of mail from non-Danish women trying to figure out if the Danish man they’re dating is interested in them. He’s really happy when I call him, but he never calls me.
I honestly don’t know what to tell them. I mean, I come from a culture where men whistle at beautiful women they don’t know walking down the street.
When I first moved to Denmark, I thought I’d stopped hearing whistles because I’d aged out of the whistle target group. But I’ve since established that beautiful young women don’t get whistled at either. Danish men do not want to offend women.
Sometimes err on the soft side
Now, I’m a modern woman, and I like a lot of things about these modern men. But they can occasionally err a bit on the soft side.
For example, a few weeks ago, we had a big storm in Denmark, and it knocked down some large trees. Before the local government came to collect them, some people were sawing off bits for free firewood, or to make furniture, or other arts and crafts project.
On our street, there was a very large tree down, and as I was walking by that Saturday, I saw a young couple trying to take part of it home. The small, slender young woman was sawing away at this big tree with an old-fashioned manual saw, while her boyfriend was just standing there, smiling, with his hands in his pockets.
Now, I don’t know what was going on.
Maybe he had a back injury – he was about 25, so maybe had a very youthful back injury. Maybe he was a professional hand model and couldn’t risk his fingernails on a messy metal saw. Or maybe he was a big wimp who was willing to let his girlfriend saw a giant tree stump while he stood there, acting like a giant tree stump. Who knows?
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2020
Dating in Denmark is hard, even for the Danes, and it will probably be hard for you too.
That’s because the dating process that works in much of the rest of the Western world doesn’t work in Denmark. In most parts of the world, a man will see a woman he likes, and he’ll approach her. He’ll try to start a conversation. Maybe he’ll ask if he can buy her a coffee, or some other type of drink. If they’re in a nightclub, he might ask her if she’d like to dance, or maybe go outside and get some fresh air.
This essay is from a series I wrote shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
Americans can’t be prissy, can they? After all, we invented Las Vegas.
So why am I so shocked at the debauchery of a Danish corporate Christmas party?
It’s not the drinking that shocks me – God knows, Danish people do that all year – or even the sex. I think it’s the proximity of work and sex. In a land with few limits, Americans draw a firm line between work and sex, based on the (rather prissy) notion that no one should have to put up with sexual come-ons or even sexual talk in order to keep a job, and that anyone who does should be compensated with a hefty legal settlement. All I can think about at a Danish Christmas party is how much an American lawyer could earn off the proceedings. One stalk of corporate mistletoe, I am sure, would generate more than enough business for him to redecorate his office with the high-priced furniture at Illums Bolighus and his wife with silver from George Jensen.
Call a lawyer
This American concept of sexual harassment has been difficult to explain to my Danish male co-workers, who like to tell saucy jokes in the office, and whose hands have occasionally ended up attached to my hair, shoulders, and bottom until I threaten to call an American lawyer. For them, I offer this easy-to-follow rule: Anything I might want to discuss with, say, Danish heartthrob Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in a jacuzzi over two flutes of champagne, I do not want to discuss with you, married father of four, over six pages of computer printouts on letterhead. Anything I might want to do with Nikolaj by candlelight, I do not want to do with you by fluorescent light. It’s that simple.
The overfamiliarity between co-workers is just one of the reasons Christmas partys are difficult for foreigners. The structure of the party, the long tables and the fixed seats, is a challenge in itself. At American parties, the format is loose and everybody mingles, which allows one to break free of a bore with a number of convenient excuses, such as Hey! Isn’t that my plastic surgeon over there? I must say hi. At a Danish Christmas party, you sit at a seat assigned to you by luck of the draw or cruel party planners and are expected to chat for seven hours.
Snaps, a Viking tradition
What do Danish people say to each other for seven hours at those tables? Of course, I know what two close friends say to each other, but what about people who have nothing in common but a copy machine? All of a sudden, those dull people from the back of the office, those people you’ve avoided all year, are your companions in fate for the evening. This is where snaps comes in. I feel confident that the tradition of heavy schnapps drinking at Christmas parties can be traced to a Viking forced to sit next to the dull guy from the back oars he’d been avoiding all year. Schnapps must be the only way to get through Hour 3 of hearing about a stranger’s pets, office feuds or summer-house redecoration.
Snaps is also just the beginning of an enjoyable program of Danish food. Question: do foreigners like Danish food? Answer: Is there a fast food chain with “Golden Ds” serving “Dyrelaegen’s Natmal” (pork paste and raw gelatin) to customers all over the world? Of course, the Christmas party has its own delicacies, most of which, taken off the table and reassembled like a puzzle, would form a large, live, and angry pig. Except, of course, for the parts which are herring. When you are a foreigner, Danish people thrill to making you try everything, the odder the better, and watching your reaction when you discover that there is an extra layer of pork paste underneath the bacon and mushrooms. If other foreigners are reading this, the secret is to take small bites of everything and smile a lot. When fellow partygoers are distracted, you can soak up the alcohol in your stomach with bread and butter.
After the almond has been found in the ris a la mande and the snaps topped off with wine and aquavit, the Viking drinking songs begin. Drinking songs seem to be the only modern remnant of Viking culture, except for the way Danish people behave in the bike lanes at rush hour, where they will use their bells with all the ferocity of an ax if you don’t move into the right lane fast enough. At any rate, everyone but you will know all the words to these songs, and enjoy singing them enough not to notice you are sitting against the back wall looking confused. For foreigners, it is time to go to the loo and pretend to wash your hands for about an hour.
By the time you get back, the deejay will be playing. This is a mixed blessing, since from what I can tell, there is a paragraph in the Danish constitution that requires Danish deejays to play George Michael every five songs. But loud music means that you no longer have to pretend to talk to the people next to you, and, freed from your chair, you can shift around and talk to the people you actually like. A few courageous souls start the dancing, mostly women, along a few sad men in elf hats who don’t realize that apart from a bow tie, no garment cuts your score potential more than an elf hat. Every once in a while the deejay plays an old Danish Eurovision song contest entry, and then it becomes easy to tell the locals from the foreigners again. The Danes are the ones on their feet in ecstatic remembrance, while the foreigners are sitting down looking bewildered, wondering when George Michael will come back.
By this point in the evening, those people who plan to score have chosen their target, and perhaps even their location. This, in particular, has always confused me – I mean, I’ve certainly dated people I’ve met in the office, but I’ve always dated, and slept with them, outside the office as opposed to within it. But Christmas party stories are always rife with tales about ping-pong tables, bathroom stalls and the boss’s desk. Some people leave together, but even at home and in bed, I have to wonder how much fun this drunken sex can possibly be. How much sexual technique can these snaps-soaked middle managers have to offer? For the women, it must be about as erotic as having the statue of Bishop Absaolm fall on top of you.
The real challenge of the company Christmas party is the first day back at work afterwards, when you are required to take the middle managers’ opinions on sales strategy and corporate downsizing seriously again. You’ll get little help from the managers themselves, who will be avoiding your eyes, knowing perfectly well that you saw them dancing in their shorts and elf hat to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go just a few days before. Years ago, before my very first Christmas party, I was told that people would go wild at the party but then forget the whole thing the next day. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Somehow, nobody ever does.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2020
This essay is from a series I wrote in co-operation with the Danish tabloid BT in 2003, shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
When one of the right-wing nut-cases from the Danish People’s Party recently went on a rant about how most foreigners in Denmark were criminals, my friends and I were furious. Here we were, foreigners, and we were clearly not getting our cut of the criminal millions being made on the streets of Copenhagen. All we did was go to work every day and pay Danish taxes. We figured we had better get started.
After considering a variety of profitable crimes, we decided on a male prostitution ring, with the idea that our workers could do internal projects on slow nights. But our male escorts would not provide sex: that was too easy to get in Denmark.
Instead, they would offer romance. Specially imported from Mediterranean countries, these Romeos would bring flowers, write poetry, and say things like “Your eyes are like the ocean.” In short, they would do things that Danish men wouldn’t consider even if it would give the local Copenhagen team an instant victory over the German national squad.
Longing looks and sweet words
Foreign men play a curious role in the world of Danish romance, since they can sometimes make a Danish woman realize exactly what she is missing: those longing looks, those sweet words, that masculine worship that makes her feel so wonderfully female. A man in Madrid once told me that Danish girls on vacation were easy. Well, no wonder. Nobody’s said anything nice to them in years.
Take a deep breath, everybody, but in the world outside of Denmark, florists are not just for buying a centerpiece for Aunt Bente’s Sunday lunch. They are for sending roses to your wife or girlfriend, and in France, to your mistress too. In foreign lands, men buy women jewelry and furs to win their favors: they open doors and carry furniture. Some even earn a lot of money and pay all of the household expenses.
Sometimes Danish women capture these men alive and bring them back to Denmark, where the government punishes them by making them sit through infinite Danish courses and refusing to allow the couple to live in sublet apartments. I suspect that the new restrictions on marriage to foreigners are just Danish People’s party founder Pia Kiersgaard’s sour grapes about ending up with a Danish husband.
Longing looks and sweet words
Of course, there are already a large variety of foreign men available right here in Denmark. Many are tall, dark, and handsome, many are Muslim, and many are lovely people – one of my closest friends in Denmark now has a Pakistani boyfriend who treats her like a queen.
That said, one of the sad lessons of a multicultural society is that fools come in every color. I’m ashamed to agree with the Danish People’s Party about anything, but there are, unfortunately, some “new Danes” who cannot understand the difference between an ordinary blonde girl on the street and the blond bimbo they saw soaping her plastic breasts online. Some of them see Danish girlfriends as temps until their future Mrs. Muslim right comes along. I’ve fallen for this one myself; it took me a while to figure out why the sweet Muslim surgeon I was dating would never introduce me to his friends, and always wanted to sit at the very back of cafes.
I have met these embarrassments-to-Allah; I have occasionally removed their hands from my inner thigh on the dance floor at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse. (In one particular case, I handled the situation New York fashion, firmly grasping the gentleman’s hand and bending it back so far I almost broke his finger. He won’t try that again.) Anyway, these jerks do more than cause bad karma between “new Danes” and standard Danes. They get in the way of truly nice immigrant guys getting laid.
Kissing courses in France
Maybe, instead of importing romantic manpower, we could train Danish men to do better. Instead of those scuba courses they’re so fond of, Danish guys could be sent on kissing courses to France, or seduction courses in Italy. Since I like a man who stands up for himself, even when confronted with lunatics carrying lethal weapons, I might even suggest “misguided macho” courses in the USA.
In return, Danish men could provide exchange courses in the things they do well: housecleaning, meal preparation, child care. Forget Danish foreign aid – this is what would really win Denmark a place in the hearts of the world’s women. And, darling Pia, it just might cut the immigration rate. Plenty of men will choose another destination when they find out that in Denmark, they must help do the dishes.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2020