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.

The façade of equality

Compliments run smack-dab into the Jante Law, which says specifically that “Don’t think that you’re better than us.”

When you give someone a compliment, you lift them above you, if only for a moment, and that disturbs the equality, or at least the façade of equality, which is so important in Denmark.

So compliments are not a natural thing in Denmark, either on the job or in your personal life.

“You already knew”

I was once invited to a party in Denmark, shortly after I arrived here, and since I was eager to look my best, I invested in a nice and what I thought was a very chic dress. I went to the party, wore the dress. It was a good party but…nobody said anything about my dress.

Speaking on the phone to a friend the next day, I said something along the lines of yeah, it was a great party, but nobody said anything about my dress.

“Oh, it’s a lovely dress. We were all talking about it,” my friend informed me.

I was confused. “Why didn’t anyone say anything to me?” I asked.

“Well, you already knew you looked good.”

Flustered by compliments

When they do receive compliments, Danes often get flustered, because they don’t know what to say.

Or they even get suspicious. Why is this person giving me a compliment? What do they want?

On-the-job honors or commendations can also make them uncomfortable. Why should I be elevated with a special award when I’m really just part of a team?

International managers often come to Denmark assuming awards like “Employee of the Month” will be motivational, when Danes generally find them cringy. It makes them squirm.

Being lifted above all the other employees is awkward and embarrassing, even if you really deserve it.

They mean it sincerely

Now, when I first arrived here, this lack of positive feedback was difficult for me as American. We’re the country that invented cheerleading, and we love sharing compliments for business and pleasure.

Danes find this insincere and superficial.

If they get or give a compliment, they want it to be deeply thought out, sincere, personal, have meaning. And that means that if you do get a compliment from a Dane, they really mean it. It comes from the heart.

Why do you need compliments?

But, on a daily basis, and particularly in the workplace, Danes feel that needing regular positive feedback is a bit childish.

You’re an adult professional – why do you need praise? Why can’t you just do your job?

Which doesn’t mean that children get an overflow of compliments either.

Not too much applause for children either

When my daughter was young, I went to pick her up at her børnehave, her kindergarten. She was in the middle of a game with her friends, so I decided to wait around for a few minutes while she finished up.

There was a younger kid there by the sandbox, not even a year old. He was holding on to the sandbox, trying to pull himself up to a standing position for the very first time.

So I encouraged him. “Come on!” I said. “You can do it! Keep going!”

He was having a lot of trouble. His little legs were still very rubbery, but he was a persistant fellow. He kept trying. Finally, he was standing!

“Yea!!!” I said, clapping madly for him. “Good for you!!”

The Danish female day care worker nearby wasn’t quite as impressed.

“I think he knows he’s good at standing,” she said.

A rare bloom

That little boy had just had his first brush with the law of Jante Law, and the culture in which praise, or too much praise, can lead to an unacceptably swelled head.

That’s why compliments – which the Danes call ros, spelled similar to rose, the flower – are a rare bloom in Denmark.

Getting them or giving them makes most Danes feel awkward.

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