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.
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.
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?