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Stories about life in Denmark

What’s it like to live in Denmark as an expatriate? Kay Xander Mellish has lived in Copenhagen since 2000, and her blog about life as a foreigner among the Danes includes a podcast as well as drawings and photographs. If you are moving to Denmark, studying in Denmark, or simply thinking of visiting Denmark, you may enjoy this blog about the experiences of a foreigner in Copenhagen.

Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

The white magic of the Danish graduation hat

I’m occasionally hired to do cultural training for international specialists coming to Denmark. This involves four hours of explaining the basics of Danish life – the banking system, the health care system, how to shop for food – for example, the fact that yellow is the color of discounts in Denmark. If something has a yellow price tag, the price has been cut.

And I always include a section on the Danish year.

By the Danish year, I mean the rhythm of vacation weeks and holidays from year to year, from bonfires on Sankt Hans at midsummer to the eating of duck on Morten’s Day in November.

Morten’s Day isn’t as popular as it once was, but if you didn’t know about it you might wonder why there are suddenly pictures of ducks all over the place.

The truck tour

But what always gets the most interest is what’s about to occur over the next couple of weeks – Danish high school graduations and the accompanying truck tour.

If you’ve been in Denmark in June you’ve seen this. Open-backed trucks packed with teenagers wearing fresh white caps and cheering or blowing whistles. Using there’s some pop music pumping at a very high volume.

The sides of the truck are covered with white banners, traditionally bedsheets, on which are painted slogans that are more or less obscene.

Everybody on the truck except the driver is several beers in and shouting at passerby on the sidewalk, who shout back.

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

Do you have to learn Danish to work in Denmark?

In one of my seminars, I met an Irishman who had fallen in love with a Danish woman. He agreed to move to Denmark and thought it would be better for his job prospects if he learned to speak Danish.

“Why not just learn Norwegian? It’s easier,” his girlfriend said cheerfully.

The poor man did start to learn Norwegian, only to be told by his laughing girlfriend that her suggestion was an example of the famous Danish humor.

But she was correct that Norwegian is probably easier to pick up. Danish is a difficult language to learn, 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.

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

In Denmark, ask for help when you need it…Danes may not offer unless you ask.

If you remember only one thing, remember this, I say when I speak to newcomers in Denmark. 𝐀𝐬𝐤 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐡𝐞𝐥𝐩 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐧𝐞𝐞𝐝 𝐢𝐭.

Too often internationals find themselves overwhelmed in Denmark, but hesitate in asking for assistance, because they don’t want to appear incompetent or dumb.

Danes, meanwhile, hesitate to offer help, because they don’t want to suggest that the international is incapable of doing the job they’re being paid for, or step over the international’s personal boundaries.

“Jeg vil ikke trænge på” is the Danish-language way of saying it – which loosely translates to “I don’t want to interfere.”

Be the one to break the ice

So it ends up as a misunderstanding. Danes would really like to help, and internationals need the help, but no one wants to be the first to speak up.

My suggestion: be the one to break the ice!

If you’re Danish or have been here a long time, go ahead and ask if someone needs assistance. If you’re an international, go ahead and ask for help.

The Grundtvig system encourages questions

Danes have been raised in the Grundtvig educational system, in which there are never too many questions.

They certainly won’t mind a few more questions from you – in fact, they’ll be more annoyed if you *don’t* ask questions and then make a silly mistake.

That said, Danes love to appear extremely busy at work: the ethos is to be extremely efficient during your working hours and then cut loose at 4 to spend time with your family.

So you may have to interrupt someone to ask your question. They’ll get over it.

The construction workers and the suitcase

Realizing that it’s important to ask for help is a lesson I had to learn myself when I first arrived in Denmark.

I arrived at Copenhagen’s main train station with an old-fashioned brown suitcase I’d purchased from a vintage shop, a beaten-up leather bag with a lot of romantic travel stickers on it, but no wheels.

It looked great but it was impossible to move around, particularly with all my stuff inside. I was dragging it through the station when I saw some muscled construction workers enjoying a coffee break.

Still young and pretty at the time, I smiled at them winningly, hoping one of them would come help me lift the ridiculous old suitcase. But none did.

Hmph, I remember thinking, comparing the Danes unfavorably to Frenchmen and Italians. Clearly I have now arrived in a country where a gentleman won’t help a lady with her bag.

Looking back, I simply should have asked.

Had I asked, perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, I’m sure that one of those guys would have been very pleased to help.

“How to Work in Denmark” comic created with DALL-E using Chat GPT 4, with (extensive) revisions by Kay in Photoshop.

Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Why Danes find compliments so awkward

A story I’ve heard over and over again when I talk to internationals working in Denmark is this: They thought they were going to get fired.

They’d been working for a year or so at a professional-level job in Denmark, often one they’d been recruited for, but they’d never heard any positive comments from their manager.

They started to worry. They were doing their best, but maybe it just wasn’t good enough.

Were they going to lose the job? Were they going to have to go back home, humiliated, and explain the whole thing to their friends and family?

Expecting bad news

This was what was on their mind when they went into their annual employee review. They were expecting some pretty bad news.

Instead, they got a promotion. And a raise. Their manager thought they were doing great. But the Danish approach to employee feedback is generally – “No news is good news”.

You have a job, you’re doing that job, we’ll let you know if there are any problems.

Positive feedback is uncommon in Denmark, because Danes themselves are often uncomfortable receiving compliments.

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Dating, Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Romance in Denmark

I talk a lot in my speeches about how people bring their own work culture with them when they come to work in Denmark, but they also bring their own dating culture.

The way you expect to meet a potential partner, to flirt, to show you’re serious, to take the relationship to the next level, these are expectations you bring with you to Denmark from your home culture.

When you get here, you will meet Danes who have very different expectations.

Romance in Denmark

Denmark’s doing a big recruitment campaign now, trying to get young professionals to bring their skills to Denmark, and a lot of them are single when they arrive.

If they want to meet someone and don’t meet someone, and if they want a serious relationship and a family but can’t get started, they often go home again.

So, in the name of economic development, here are my tips on romance in Denmark.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Finding light in the Danish winter darkness

I frequently work with internationals who have arrived in Denmark from sunny countries like India, the UAE, and the Philippines, and they all share one common challenge – finding light in the Danish winter darkness.

Actually, Danish people struggle with it as well. The darkness that starts to fall in the early afternoon means that 5pm looks just like 8pm, which looks just like midnight, which looks just like 5am, which looks very similar to 8am. Dense, inky black sky.

During the daytime there’s a dim grey light, sometimes accompanied by a soupy fog of tiny raindrops. It’s tough to handle.


Many people living through this time in Denmark describe feeling low-energy – sløj is the very descriptive Danish term. It translates directly to “sluggish”. Others feel deeply depressed. Some eat too much, or drink too much. Some sleep all the time.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are my tips for handling these dark months, which generally stretch from November until the end of February.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

New Year’s Eve traditions in Denmark

It’s almost Week 1, in the weekly numbering system that’s widely used in Northern Europe, where the year starts with week 1 and runs through to Week 52 or 53, depending on the calendar.

It’s very efficient for planning, so you don’t have to say something messy like “What about that week that starts Monday June 3…” Week 1 starts on January 1, and everything follows that in perfect order.

But before that we have New Year’s Eve, a day that fills me with trepidation to be honest, because in Denmark, New Year’s Eve is all about amateur fireworks.

Cannonballs, Roman Candles, Ding Dongs, Triple Extremes – these are what you can purchase to set off yourself in a local parking lot, terrifying any nearby dogs or cats.

Having a family member in the hospital business, I can’t help but think that today, December 26, there are a few amateur fireworks fans who have perfectly well-functioning eyes and fingers who won’t have them on January 2.

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

How to Handle a Conflict in Denmark

When I first arrived in Denmark, I saw something I haven’t seen since, which was a parade of Danish soldiers walking down the street.

These were soldiers that were just back from duty in a very violent war zone, and what I remember most about the parade is that the crowd was entirely silent.

I gave a weak little cheer – hooray! – because that’s what I would do in my own culture, but I was the only one.

I remember reading in the media afterwards that it was difficult for Danes to understand how well-raised Danish boys could get involved in any type of war, any type of military activity that might involve hurting people.

Well-raised Danish boys would always be peaceful.


I don’t know if the recent conflict in Ukraine has changed that belief, as people realize that aggressive warfare can still happen in Europe. Violence sometimes comes to you, whether you like it or not.

But I’m often told that in their daily lives Danes are “conflict-shy”, or konfliktsky in Danish.

I don’t think this is true. They are happy to loudly share their opinions in situations where they don’t have to deal with the fallout, like yelling at you as they whizz past you in the bicycle lanes. If you try to catch up with them to continue the conversation, they’ll bike away pretty fast.

They’re happy to share their opinion, they just don’t want to hear yours.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Drugs in Denmark

When it comes to drugs, Denmark’s approach is inconsistent. Getting illegal drugs doesn’t seem to be too difficult, but getting legal drugs can be.

Hashish, which is illegal in Denmark, was until recently easy to procure at “Pusher Street”, in the so-called Free State of Christiania in Copenhagen. Christiania is one of the tourist attractions of Copenhagen.

This old military base, which was taken over by hippies during the 1970s, is a unique place, with dirt roads and ramshackle wooden buildings put together with odds and ends and some gorgeous wild nature which is surprising to find in the middle of a European capital city.

Pusher Street was a row of wooden booths where until recently buyers could choose from a selection of hashish being sold openly, although the dealers would smash your camera if you tried to take a picture of it.

It’s been shut down again and again in the past, usually after violent incidents, but it always risen up again. The truth is many Copenhageners like the fact that hashish dealing is centralized in one place. They don’t want the dealers and customers coming to *their* neighborhoods.

Snowflake doesn’t mean winter weather

Anyway, much of the drug dealing in Denmark today doesn’t take place on Pusher Street, it takes place via smartphones like everything else. Via text messages, or on apps that are popular with young people, like Snapchat.

When someone has a snowflake emoji next to their Snapchat profile image, it doesn’t mean that they like winter weather.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Equality and the Electric Bike

When I first arrived in Denmark, you could shut down any dispute in Denmark by appealing to the common good. Solidarity – solidaritet– and fælleskab, or community, or even samfundssind, societal spirit.

These were magic words, and they still are, particularly with the older generation that built Denmark’s welfare state. If you want to convince this generation of anything, just make a reference to solidarity and community and societal spirit. Works like a charm.

What about “Jante Law”?

I’m often asked if the younger generation is as dedicated to these principles as their elders, and if they still follow the Jante Law.

Jante Law is not really a law – it’s like a legend, in which people living in Denmark are not supposed to act like they’re better than anyone else, or smarter than anyone else, or know more than anyone else.

This, of course, is tricky if you actually are better than someone else, or smarter than someone else, or know more than someone else. But the idea is, don’t try to speed ahead of others. We all move at the same rate.

Young people aren’t too keen to put up with that, in particular in an environment where they are competing internationally.

For many Danish young people, the idea that all Danes are equal and we must all move together, at the same pace, seems outdated.

And one contemporary example is the rise of the electric bike.

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