My Danish friends who are about to spend some time in the U.S. often ask me for advice about surviving American culture, and I give them all the same two tips.
First, in the U.S. it’s a good idea to be polite to police officers. Danish cops often come from the countryside and have funny rural accents and since Danes generally don’t like hierarchy and authority anyway, they have no problem being sarcastic and a little smart-ass with a police officer.
That doesn’t work in the States. That Highway Patrol lady with the mirrored sunglasses who has just caught you speeding down Route 66 is unlikely to have much of a sense of humor. If she pulls you over, say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” a lot and keep your hands in view at all times so she can see you’re not reaching for a gun.
That’s the first tip. The second tip is that, should you go to a bar, it can happen that a stranger or two will offer to buy you a drink. If the stranger is of the opposite gender, or same gender depending on the bar, that person is interested in you. Let them buy you a drink. And chat with them while you drink it. If there’s no chemistry, when the drink is finished, you can both go your separate ways.
That’s a little shocking for Danes. Buying a drink for someone is a big deal in Denmark, a place where a loving couple who go out for a romantic candlelight dinner often split the bill. For Danes, buying someone a drink is like buying them a birthday present. Many Danes are not comfortable with a stranger making that level of commitment.
The two-speed bike
In Denmark, romance is like a two-speed bike. Speed one is casual sexual affairs with someone you may never see again: speed two is a serious relationship where you’ll be expected to go to all your partner’s dull family events. There’s not much of a middle. And what there definitely is not is dating.
A date – as a casual get-together with someone you know a little bit so you can see whether or not you have the basis for a romance – is a word that doesn’t really translate into Danish. You could say aftale but that’s more like an appointment. You make an aftale with your dentist.
And the concept of dating doesn’t really translate either. A local airline just sent me promotion promising the “best date ever”. A one-way ticket to Krakow, Poland for just DK200. Nothing against Krakow – it’s a lovely town, I’ve been there – but when I think a date, I think more like dinner and a movie, or maybe a bike ride together and a picnic. Flying to Krakow is too much of a commitment.
How can you make the first move?
But this lack of a Danish dating structure frustrating for foreigners. I get a lot of emails at the How to Live in Denmark website from non-Danes who have spotted a particular Dane they would like to get to know better and aren’t sure how to make the first move.
They’re not sure that what worked in their home country will work here. For example, one guy from Asia told me he had his eye on a woman in his office. He asked me if it would be a good idea to write her a love poem and leave it with flowers on her desk.
I said no. A Danish woman would probably find that intimidating and a little scary.
My advice to him was to advantage of the office social gatherings, team lunch or Friday bar, to find out what the woman liked to do in her free time – action movies? Art museums? Kayaking? Then he could suggest that it might be fun to do one of those things together.
And because Danes love to plan in advance, he shouldn’t ask the woman on Friday if she’d like to go kayaking on Saturday. He needs to plan 3 to 4 weeks in advance, and the two of them can look through their schedules and find out a day that works for both of them. It’s not very romantic, but the Danes are practical people.
Kæreste, the flexible word
Of course, once he’s suggested this get-together, the woman knows he has an interest in her. And if she has an interest, she’ll ask him out. Danish women are quite good at going after what they want in a man – so good that some Danish men have gotten a little lazy about taking the initiative.
I also told my correspondent that it was fine to ask his co-worker out once, and if she was too busy the first time maybe even twice, but after that he should probably step away.
And if she says no, or that she’s not interested, she’s really not interested. Danes are direct – there’s none of this teasing yes-no-maybe dance of seduction that’s popular in some cultures. And you can be direct too. Once you’ve spent some time together outside of the office, it’s OK to say “I want to be your boyfriend.” Or “I want to be your girlfriend”.
Or that you want to be that very Danish word, kæreste. The Danes may not have a word for dating, but they have a much better word for an adult unmarried partner than we English speakers do. Let’s face it, boyfriend or girlfriend gets a little silly once you’re over age 16.
Kæreste is flexible. Your kæreste can be any gender. Your kæreste can be someone you just met last week, or someone you have three kids with. And if you’re really in love, really committed, your kæreste may even be allowed…to buy you a drink.
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2023