There’s no reason to spend a lot on what you wear to work in Denmark. Danes, by nature, are not flashy dressers.
In most Danish business environments, you’ll be perfectly well dressed in a fitted pair of business trousers, dark shoes, and a solid-color sweater or dress shirt. Male or female, you’ll never go wrong with quiet colors like burgundy, dark blue, dark green, brown, or black.
Subtle good taste is the preferred style. Obvious designer labels are considered tacky, but quality cut and fabric are appreciated.
On your first day at work in Denmark, you may find a pretty bouquet of flowers on your desk to welcome you.
(This terrified a Chinese acquaintance of mine, who was accustomed to receiving flowers on her last day at work. She thought she’d been fired before she ever sat down.)
In Denmark, the bouquet is just a way to say “welcome” and to add some sunshine to an arduous day that is sure to include many handshakes and computer passwords.
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 in Denmark 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.
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.
When you first arrive in Denmark to work or look for work, the last thing you need is another monthly expense. So many foreigners “save money” by not joining a union.
And I was one of them. To be honest, joining a union never even occurred to me.
In the US, unions are either for hands-on workers – steelworkers, hotel maids – or for civil servants, like schoolteachers and cops. Knowledge workers and creative types are almost never unionized.
But that’s not true in Denmark, where engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, managers, and writers regularly join unions.
Unions can arguably be even more important for foreign employees than they are for Danes.