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Stories about life in Denmark

When American holidays come to Denmark

When I moved from the US to Denmark, I didn’t expect the American holidays to follow me.

But American-style Halloween is everywhere now, having transformed the ancient and dignified Danish allehelgensaften to a full explosion of plastic and candy.

If Wikipedia can be trusted, the American version of Halloween only took off in Denmark in 2000, when Fætter BR began to sell the very first of the polyester princess costumes, zombie makeup sets, and plastic pumpkin-shaped candy baskets that now overwhelm stores beginning in late September.

The production of real pumpkins has soared too, with nearly a million sold every year in Denmark.

My guess is that American-style Halloween has become so popular not just because it references a deep pagan tradition, but because getting ready for it gives the kids something to do during fall vacation.

It is also a convenient three or four months before it’s time to dress up again for Fastelavn.

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Stories about life in Denmark

Politeness in Denmark: Some thoughts on Danish etiquette

“Is there politeness in Denmark?”

That was the question I was recently invited on a national TV show to discuss.

The implication was that I was supposed to say that Danes were not at all polite, because effusive praise and cheerful agreement make for a rather dull TV show.

But Danes are not impolite. They have their own version of courteous behaviour, which is based on reinforcing aspects of their culture that they care about.

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In the Media

Tips for Working with Americans in Børsen

In a recent edition of the Danish business newspaper Børsen, Kay Xander Mellish offered seven “Tips for Working with Americans“.

“I hear it again and again when I speak to my clients who deal with American colleagues, customers and suppliers: We thought the cultures were pretty much alike, but they’re not,” Kay writes in Danish.

“The US is a high-risk, high-reward culture that can seem both exhilarating and cruel to a Dane raised on social cohesion, trust, and safety. And American business culture reflects both the excitement and energy and unforgiving nature of American life.”

Tips for working with Americans
In the Børsen article, Kay offers several tips from her new book Working with Americans: Tips for Danes.

Act enthusiastic.The cool, controlled behaviour and flat speaking voice that signify a mature adult in Denmark can be misinterpreted by Americans as disinterest or even boredom. Americans live life with an exclamation point. If you want Americans to get excited about your product, you will need to act as enthusiastic as they do.

Think big. Danes sometimes make the mistake of “thinking small” when going into a negotiation and focusing only on the potential deal at hand. But their American counterparts may not want to limit themselves. They may think bigger, bigger, bigger. In American business as American life, you can always go much lower or much higher, in price or in scope. Be prepared for upselling if the opportunity presents itself.

Give positive feedback. Danes often take the approach that “We hired you to do a job, you’re doing it, and we’ll let you know if there is a problem.” But Americans raised on a culture of constant positive reinforcement often perceive this as “You only call us when something goes wrong.” Keep your US employees and suppliers happy by adopting the habit of regular appreciation for everything that goes right.

Avoid sarcasm and Danish humor. Humor is always tough to export, and the Danish conviction that everyone should be able to make fun of themselves can clash with American sensitivities in a politically correct age. Sarcasm is another risk – the Americans probably won’t understand it and it could get you branded as a negative person, one of the worst things to be in American eyes.

Set specific targets and outline assignments. Danish employees like a feeling of independence, of being given a project outline and trusted to finish it well and on time. American employees are accustomed to clearer instructions and goals. Some may find the Danish approach refreshing, but most will find it nebulous and confusing. Americans also expect more monitoring. If you’re not watching them, some employees will take the opportunity to goof off.

US customers expect high availability. If you’re dealing with a US customer or business partner, don’t count on them to be understanding when you take an extended Danish-style summer vacation and they can’t reach you. In the US, the customer is king and convenience is queen, so if you make access to you or your product too difficult, competitors may see an opening. Limited “telephone times” like in Denmark don’t work; you need to be available at any time within working hours, and sometimes outside them.

Hiearchy is a part of the meritocratic culture. One aspect of American life Danes don’t always understand is how hard it is to make to the top, even for people who come from a relatively privileged background. Once a man or a woman has become a boss, they want the respect and the power that comes with that position. They like their titles, and they’ll often make decisions on their own, without seeking consensus from their team.

Before you go, study the differences
The most important thing to remember is that even though the US and Denmark have a lot in common – like a lack of patience with formalities, and the love of a good deal – the business cultures are very different. Study those differences and plan how you’ll handle them before you go.

Read the original article in Danish.

Image mashup credit: Kay Xander Mellish 2020

In the Media

Kay on Go’ Aften Danmark Live

How to Live in Denmark’s Kay Xander Mellish recently visited the Danish national TV program Go’ Aften Danmark to discuss politeness in Denmark.

Kay joined two other expats to respond to the hosts’ challenge: how can Danes be more polite.

One of the other expats encouraged Danes to be more outgoing; another suggested using more kind words, such as please.

Kay’s input was that Danes could perhaps avoid English-language profanity around native speakers.

You can see the entire interview on TV2Play.

Photo credit: Kay Xander Mellish 2020

Stories about life in Denmark

Nudity in Denmark: The naked truth

The relaxed approach to nudity in Denmark can be a surprise for many newcomers.

It’s something they’re often confronted with at the local swimming hall, where a very large and strong attendant insists that they take off their entire swimsuit and shower thoroughly before going into the pool.

Stripping off in front of strangers is new for a lot of internationals, and some try to place it a larger context of Danish morality.

It hasn’t been entirely forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography in 1967. Some people still think of Denmark as a place where there is easy sex available and a generous display of naked boobs and butts.

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Stories about life in Denmark

Making Danish friends: A few strategies based on experience

If you’re newly arrived in Denmark, making Danish friends is not easy – in fact, surveys show that one of the main reasons internationals end up leaving is the difficulty of building a network.

The irony is that Danes are actually very good at friendship. Their friendships are strong, reliable, and deep-rooted. Friends can count on each other.

But because Danes take friendships so seriously, they like to keep their number of friendships under control. They don’t want to take on more friends than they can keep their deep commitment to.

The statement “I just don’t have room for any more friends” sounds perfectly sensible to Danes, and utterly stunning to foreigners.

Danes from other parts of Denmark
When internationals ask me how they can make Danish friends, I have one primary piece of advice.

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Stories about life in Denmark

What I say when I’m welcoming newcomers to Denmark

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on August 27, 2019.

Fall is one of my favorite times of year, because it is time for one of my favorite types of speaking engagement – introducing Denmark to some of the smart, motivated young people arriving from around the world to study at Danish universities.

The university people have wisely decided that another foreigner might be best suited to explain some of the quirks of Danish culture when welcoming newcomers to Denmark.

So since the publication of my first book, How to Live in Denmark, I’ve been speaking regularly to audiences of new arrivals, and I probably learn as much from them as they learn from me.

What Danes are most proud of
One of the things I’ve learned is that the aspects of Danish culture that the Danes are most proud of can be troublesome for newcomers.

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Stories about life in Denmark

US and Denmark: The enthusiasm gap

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on July 30, 2019.

While I love living in Denmark, I also enjoy returning to my home town in the US on vacation. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is suburb of Milwaukee, a likeable but unglamorous city.

It’s wonderful to see family and friends and reconnect with American culture.

Such big cars! You see families out to pick up groceries in massive Ford trucks, each of its four wheels the size of a Christiania bike.

Such big supermarkets! You’ll have no problem achieving your 10,000 steps per day as you walk for miles past the gigantic exhibits of fresh fruits and vegetables arranged artistically by size and color, the acres of canned goods and breakfast cereals and ethnic foods, the in-store restaurants with hot soup and fresh pizza, and end with the vast selection of flowers by the cash register.

So many different types of Americans, from so many countries of origin. And despite a few incidents exaggerated in the media, they generally get along pretty well.

But the biggest difference is enthusiasm. Americans of all kinds are generally upbeat and enthusiastic, at least in public. This is, after all, the place that made a cheerleading a form of competitive athletics.

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In the Media

Tips for Danes Working With Americans on DR Radio P1

“Today I have in the studio Kay Xander Mellish, and she’s here to talk about her new book, Tips for Danes Working With Americans”, announced host Tore Leifer on DR’s Radio P1 the other day.

It’s always enjoyable to visit the DR studios on Amager – so enjoyable that I didn’t mind that Tore had misunderstood the name of the book, which is actually Working With Americans: Tips for Danes.

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Stories about life in Denmark

Tips for Danes visiting the USA: What I tell my Danish friends travelling to America

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on July 3, 2019.

As summer vacation season begins and some of my Danish friends and business contacts tell me they are heading to the US on holiday, I’m always pleased but also a little nervous. Oh, dear, I think to myself, I hope they have a good time, and get to see the good side of America and not the bad.

And I try to give them a few tips for Danes visiting the USA.

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