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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.

Chivalry died so feminism could live
Gender equality, for example. Gone are the days when a gentleman would pull out a chair for a lady or walk on the outside of the sidewalk to protect her from mud and rogue horses.

Chivalry died so feminism could live. No one expects the modern Danish man to take off his costly high-performance all-weather rain jacket and put it over a puddle so a lady can walk across without dampening her feet.

She has her own costly high-performance all-weather rain jacket, and probably some spiffy high-performance waterproof boots to match.

Gender equality is why it is considered polite in Denmark for couples to split the bill on first dates. It is courteous to make the lady pay for her own hamburger. This shows that a Danish man respects her autonomy and earning power.

It’s also why some Danish women enjoy dating non-Danish men.

A gender divide on the bus
I find there still is a gender divide when it comes to giving up your seat for the elderly on public transport, however. Old ladies are quite pleased when you give up your seat for them – in fact, they often demand it.

Older men, by contrast, can get rather huffy when you offer your seat, because they like to think of themselves as still quite vital and handsome, in a Sean Connery kind of way.

I have learned to avoid offering men seats unless they are using a cane or wearing a long, 1960s style dark raincoat, the universal sign of a man who is extremely old and owns it.

Respecting people’s time
Another important part of contemporary Danish etiquette is respecting people’s time.

Everyone in Denmark is extremely busy or likes to think that they are. That’s why turning up to appointments on time is so important. Not just in a business context, but in a social context.

I’ll never forget the time I planned a 7pm dinner party on a chilly winter night. I happened to look out the window at 6:55 and was surprised to see all of my guests sitting in their cars, with the heat running, ready to push my doorbell at precisely 7pm but not a minute before.

This social punctuality is a shock for many internationals, whose own version of politeness is to be “fashionably late”. Even in New York City, where I lived before moving to Denmark, an 8pm start time suggests that you should turn up at 845 or so.

If you turn up at 8pm for that New York appointment, you will encounter a host or hostess with wet hair, wearing sweats, still folding the napkins and putting them on the table.

Turn up at 845 in Denmark, by contrast, and you will get a burned dinner and a boiling mad host.

Booking in advance
Another part of Danish social etiquette is booking your engagements very far in advance. Internationals always gasp when I tell them that mid-October is already far too late to invite your Danish friends to a Christmas party.

And once booked, an appointment is a nearly sacred obligation. Even if the date is months in advance, you simply turn up at that date and time without ever needing to reconfirm.

You don’t cancel unless you’re sick, you have a family emergency, or there is some kind of natural disaster like a hurricane.

It’s considered very poor form to cancel just because you got a better offer, or because your team just made the playoffs and the game is on TV, or worst of all that you are simply too busy. This would rudely suggest that you are busier than the person you cancelled on, or at least think you are.

When time management goes out the window
Of course, once you sit down at a Danish dinner table, time management goes out the window.

You’re expected to spend hours talking, eating a bit, drinking a lot, and talking some more. Being in the moment and enjoying the other guests’ company is hygge.

And prioritizing friends and family for a short time above the cares and stresses of all the other stuff you need to get done is the highest form of Danish politeness.

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on October 9, 2019.


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