I was at a high-level networking meeting the other day. Not on purpose, but because they originally asked me to be their speaker, and then decided they wanted somebody else to be their speaker instead and were too embarrassed to un-invite me.
So there I was in a vast room of men (and it was mostly men) wearing pretty much the uniform of the male Danish executive: blue business suit, pale shirt open at the collar, a few neckties – not many – and pointy leather shoes.
And they were all wandering around the room like children lost in a department store at Christmastime looking for their parents. They were all there to network and meet each other, but they didn’t quite know who to network with. So they mostly ended up talking to people they already knew. They did not expand their networks.
When you work in a Danish office, you’ll often find yourself invited to impromptu in-office social events with your Danish colleagues. Somebody’s birthday, someone’s having a baby, somebody has been with the company for 10 years, someone is going on vacation the next day. And they almost all involve cake.
Cake is very important in Denmark. Cake builds bridges. Cake makes friends. And when there’s cake on offer, as a foreigner, it’s a good idea to show up and accept it.
When I first started working in a Danish office, I made a big mistake. I said no to cake. Continue Reading
My apologies that I haven’t been blogging for the past couple of months – I’ve taken some time off to promote my book Top 35 Mistakes Danes Make in English, which you can get on Amazon or Saxo.com, or at any Danish bookstore.
But taking time off is a very important part of Danish life – in fact, some people would say it is one of the best parts of Danish life.
The best example, of course, is the famous Danish summer vacation. When I first began working in Denmark, people used to start saying around April or May, “So – are you taking three or four?”
What they meant was, are you taking three or four weeks off for your summer vacation?
If you’ve been asked for a job interview at a Danish company, congratulations. Danish companies don’t like to waste time, so they wouldn’t be setting aside time to meet you if they didn’t think there was a solid chance they might hire you.
Job interviewing in Denmark is a difficult balance, because the Jantelov makes all forms of bragging or self-promotion distasteful to the Danes. You’ve got to convince the person interviewing you that you’re skilled and capable without sounding like a used car salesman.
What I tell potential hires to do is prepare by reviewing their working history and coming up with three good stories about projects they’ve worked on – two in which you did well and succeeded, and one that went very badly, but where you learned some important professional lessons.
By admitting to have made some mistakes in your work life or have been less than perfect on the job, you’ll give yourself a lot more credibility with Danish companies, where the default motto is “Work hard, but don’t take yourself too seriously.”
I’ve applied for jobs in Denmark and been hired; I’ve also been the person doing the hiring and sorting through applications.
Here’s the truth: It’s really no fun on either side. On the applicant side, you can feel like a beggar, desperate for someone to recognize and reward your talent. It wears on your confidence, particularly in a long hiring process, which is common in Denmark even for Danes.
And on hiring side, you’re facing a huge stack of applications, mostly from people who know nothing about the company, nothing about the job, and are sending you a standardized letter or cv that gives no indication about why they’re a good fit.
For example, when I was hiring for a copyediting position at a financial company in Copenhagen, I got a letter in flawless English from an Eastern European woman who was a display artist at IKEA. She put together the sofas and pillows to give the imitation living rooms a chic and homey atmosphere. It’s noble work, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the job we had advertised, and she’d given no indication of how her skills would transfer.
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 out 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.
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.