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.
For example, a friend told me about a foreigner who was standing by the elevator at work, just getting ready to go upstairs for a meeting, when a Danish colleague walked by and said “God rejse!”
In other words, Bon Voyage. Have a nice trip. In the elevator.
Is that funny? I don’t know if that’s funny.
In some countries, such as the US, “working sick” is a badge of honor. You are supposed to be so dedicated to your team or to the assignment that you come to work even if you have a bad cold or a slight fever.
In Denmark, the opposite is true. If you feel you’ve got the beginnings of something that could be contagious, particularly a stomach virus, you are considered a better team member if you stay home that day and care for your health. You are not expected to work from home or answer emails if you are ill.
It’s also considered OK to take a day or two off if you have a sick child at home, although in these cases you may be asked to participate in a phone meeting or some other work-related activity while your little darling sleeps.
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.
A Danish business meeting is just one element of the Danish decision-making process – which can be extensive, as the people involved seek consensus on whatever issue is being discussed. There’s an old Danish saying that “A disagreement is a discussion that ended too soon.”
So get to the meeting location precisely on time – or even a couple of minutes early – and be ready to say your piece. On some occasions, you should also be ready to be in it for the long haul.
One thing that sets apart Danish (or Nordic) meetings is that every single person, from the boss down to the student helper, will be having his or her say on the matter at hand.
When you get your first pay slip from a Danish company, the first thing you’ll probably notice is how small it is. What you thought would be your income in Denmark will have been diminished by Denmark’s world-champion income taxes.
Understanding your Danish taxes can be tricky, however, because they are divided into so many different parts.
Understanding your Danish taxes
The most important two lines on the pay slip are brutto, which is what your employer is paying you, and netto, which is what you’ll actually get to take home. In between will be several lines of taxes you must pay.
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.