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For a foreigner, life among the Danes can have its challenges. This podcast looks at the humorous aspects of living in Denmark as foreigner, whether as an immigrant, expatriate, student or simply a visitor from abroad. Kay Xander Mellish lives in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

What to do for Christmas in Denmark when you’re on your own

We’ve talked on the podcast about what to do if you’re spending your Christmas holiday with family and friends – but what if you’re not? What if you’re an international who is alone in Denmark during the holiday season?

This is a topic that is near to my heart, because it was what happened to me when I first arrived in Denmark. It wasn’t Christmastime, it was spring, when the Danish holidays come one after the other.

I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t speak the language, and back then all the stores were closed on holidays. I had to live off hot dogs from the hot dog wagons. So I know what it’s like.

These days supermarkets are open for at least limited hours during the holidays, but not much else is, particularly on the big three days – December 24, 25, and 26. On December 24, the buses even stop running for a few hours so the drivers can be with their families.

So, if you’re alone for Christmas in Denmark, what do you do?

Plan a project in advance

Well, the first thing to do is prepare in advance. Basically, there is not much going on in Denmark between December 23, which is when the stores close after Christmas shopping, and Jan 2, when the normal work week resumes. That’s about 10 days.

So, it’s good to prepare a project. A big box set is good. I recommend the Danish TV series Matador, which is about a rivalry between two families. Danes will tell you that it totally explains Danish culture and thinking.

Other big projects are good too, like cleaning off your computer, or getting your taxes in order. One of the Danes’ favorite ways to shield their income from taxes is making contributions to a pension fund, and the window closes sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, on the last banking day of the year.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Gift Giving in Denmark: Package games, almond gifts, and why it’s OK to exchange whatever you get

Like so many other aspects of life in Denmark, gift giving in the holiday season comes with dozens of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations.

Should you give a gift to your boss? What about your colleagues? Will you and your Danish friends exchange gifts? And why does almost every store in Denmark ask if you want a “gift sticker” when you buy something?

Here are a few basic tips about gift giving in Denmark.

Gift giving isn’t the most important thing
First of all, it’s important to emphasize that gift giving is not the most important thing about the holiday season in Denmark. Food is the most important thing, from the roast pork to the caramelised potatoes to the shredded red cabbage to the buttery Christmas cookies.

Alcohol is probably the second-most important.

And neither one is any good without the hygge of being together with your family at Christmas dinner, or your colleagues at the work Christmas lunch, or your football friends at your team holiday party.

Gift giving runs a distant fourth, so don’t get too worried about not choosing the perfect gift. That’s what the “gift sticker” is for – it means the recipient will be able to take your carefully-chosen gift back to the store and exchange it for something they’d like better.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Autumn in Denmark: The slow fading of the light

Autumn in Denmark actually starts in mid-August, when the kids go back to school. Danish kids have a very short holiday – usually only about 6 weeks. By late August, you can definitely feel a little fall crispness in the air. By September the leaves start to turn color, and by the end of October many of the trees are already bare for the winter.

But what really defines fall in Denmark is the slow fading of the light.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Danish humour: Dry, dark, and weird

 
Danish humor is a tricky thing for many foreigners. Danes compete with the Brits for world leaders in dry humor and sarcasm, but it can be hard for foreigners to figure out what’s a joke and what’s not.

In Denmark, if you drop the ball at work, drop your lunch entrée down the front of your business shirt, or make a fool of yourself for any other reason, you’re supposed to be able to laugh at your own bumbling.

In fact, the Danes have a tradition called the kvajebajer (failure beer) or kvajekage (failure cake.)
The person who makes a big mistake offers this beer or cake to others as a way of playfully admitting that he or she failed to live up to expectations.

One of my LinkedIn contacts, for example, worked for a company that failed to meet an important delivery date by two days. When it finally delivered the product, it also delivered a brightly-colored “failure cake”, which everyone took a few moments of the workday to enjoy.

Not all Danish humor is funny

Making fun of yourself can be fun and light-hearted, but Danish humor is not always so gentle.

Danish humor

Unik, the spokesman for a chain of cosmetics shops, says “I don’t shop here.” Classic Danish humor.

When directed at others, Danish humor is a perennial source of confusion for foreigners, and it can be a source of misunderstanding and discomfort in the office.

The basis of Danish humor is keeping people’s egos in line by cutting down anyone who thinks himself better than others. At its best, it’s self-deprecating, good-natured and playful, but it can also be dry, dark, and weird, and occasionally passive-aggressive and cruel. It is rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

For example, I was in a meeting held at one of the renovated 18th-century buildings beloved by the Danish creative class. We were upstairs in a room that had been converted from an attic. Thick wooden beams held up the slanting walls.

One of the meeting participants reached down to plug in her computer and, sitting up too quickly, bashed her head against the thick beam. There was a loud “thunk” as her skull hit the heavy wood, and an uncomfortable moment as she clutched her aching head.

Then someone in the room broke the silence. “No damage done,” he said cheerfully. “Not much in there anyway.”

She was Danish – she thought it was funny. Someone else might not have.

Sarcasm is seen as a sign of intelligence

For Danes, biting sarcasm is seen as proof of intelligence, confidence and wit. Foreigners already dealing with cultural confusion don’t always see it that way, particularly if the sarcasm is coming from their supervisor.

Most Danes are smart enough to avoid the worst aspects of Danish humor with newcomers, but sometimes a little barbed comment slips out anyway.

For example, if you arrive at a meeting a few minutes late, the meeting leader might say drily, “I hear you can buy watch batteries at the supermarket these days.” That’s a joke – and a reminder that tardiness is not appreciated.

It’s often said that when a foreigner is included into a circle of Danish humor, it’s because Danes know they can take it, and that they have accepted you as part of the group.

Until then, remember that if a Dane seems to be making fun of you, they are trying to laugh with you, not at you.

Or they are trying to get you to fall in line. It’s hard to be sure.

If you’re not sure if what someone is saying is supposed to be a joke, ask them.

No “big arm movements”

While passive-aggression is common in Denmark, open warfare is not.

Don’t raise your voice. Don’t yell. Don’t wave your arms around to make a point. (The Danes have a saying for people they see as too expressive – “he has big arm movements.”) And never, ever lose your temper.

In many cultures, losing your temper is seen as a sign of power and passion. Make a scene is a way of showing that you really care about something. If that something is an important personal relationship or an honorable political position, losing your temper is seen as noble and justified.

This is not true in Danish culture, where losing your temper is seen as a sign that you are childish, unable to control yourself, and basically untrustworthy.

Danes immediately lose respect for someone who “melts down.” If you think you’re going to blow your top at work, excuse yourself and go take a walk. (I’ve done it myself a few times.)

Someone who has been on the receiving end of your anger won’t forget quickly, and won’t be afraid to tell his friends or business contacts about your “crazy” behavior.

You never want to have an enemy in a small country like Denmark, where you will meet the same people again and again.

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Kay Xander Mellish books

Buy Kay’s books about Denmark on Amazon, Saxo, Google Books, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble Nook, or via our webshop.

Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2021

Read also:
April Fool’s in Denmark and the rough game of Danish humor
The Kvajebajer, or “Failure Beer”, and what it means for Danish working culture

Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Is learning to speak Danish worth it?

Learning to speak Danish can be difficult, even if you speak its close linguistic cousins, English and German.

While the written language isn’t too tough to figure out, the spoken language is a headache. Danes pronounce only small bits of each word and smash those small bits together.

One foreigner told the story of two boys he saw trading football cards on a train. “Davilik!” “Davilik!” the boys kept crying out.

The foreigner, who was working hard to learn Danish, tried to look up Davilik in his dictionary – without success. There was no such word.

It was only months later that he realized they were saying, “Det vil jeg ikke!” or “I don’t want to make that trade.”

Even the Swedes and Norwegians have trouble understanding spoken Danish.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

What to wear to work in Denmark: Quiet colors, quality cut and fabric

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.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Your first day at work in Denmark: Flowers, handshakes, passwords, and several people named Mette

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.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Understanding your Danish boss: Less like a general, more like a sports coach

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.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

The Danish Flag: 800 years old and going out of style?

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.

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