When I do How to Live in Denmark presentations, I generally ask for just a few simple items – a screen, a remote, and a glass of water.
On a recent gig, I was provided with everything except the water. And since I had met several of the company’s employees when I arrived – handshakes with Mette, Søren, Nikolaj – I asked one of them to kindly get me a glass of water. I asked Nikolaj.
Nikolaj smiled, walked off, and brought me back a glass of water.
It was only after the presentation was finished and I was home making connections on LinkedIn that I found out that Nikolaj was Senior Vice President for Europe, with more than 650 people working for him and a salary that must have been in the 3 million-kroner-a-year zone.
But Nikolaj had never mentioned his title to me, because that’s just not done in Denmark.
Passion for equality
One of the most important words in the Danish language is ligestilling – equality. The belief that all (Danish) people are basically equal permeates every relationship and every interaction.
(It’s one of the reasons customer service tends to be so poor in Denmark – there’s no tradition of anyone serving anyone else.)
You could dip deep into Danish history to find the reason for this passion for equality, which probably has something to do with the need for farmers to co-operate in order to make it through the dark Scandinavian winter.
Fancy job titles do not fit into that passion for equality. They suggest you think you’re better than someone else. Which you might actually be, if you’ve worked your way to the top of your field, but that admission is slightly embarrassing.
No titles on office doors
If you do have an impressive job title, it’s considered bad taste to show it off.
Office doors in Denmark, for example, usually have just the name of the person inside, not their title. When you introduce yourself, whether to one person or an audience of 500, you give just your name, preferably just your first name. (Like Nikolaj did.)
And it’s considered laughable to strut about in a way that shows everyone you’re the boss.
In fact, when you enter a room of Danish businesspeople, it is almost impossible to tell who the boss is. Everyone’s dressed the same, everyone acts pretty much the same, and nobody shows any particular deference to the boss.
This can be a problem when you’re a job hunter or salesperson and have to figure out who in the room has the power to make a decision.
Confusing for foreigners
To Danes, titles are pompous. Even doctors and professors use their first names in a spoken context or in casual written communication.
But the lack of titles can be confusing to foreigners who do business with Danes. Particularly in hierarchical cultures, many people want to deal with a Dane of a similar status as their own.
When highly-educated Danes sign an email with just their first names – as is considered good, equal manners in Denmark – people from hierarchical societies often assume they’re talking to a secretary or an intern.
That can get in the way of a good business deal.
I recently read a Danish guide to doing business in India. The writer suggested that Danish people not just use their job titles, but actually create a job title that sounds as impressive as the Indian they want to do business with.
Don’t understand the competitive world
For a Dane, that’s a little bit like putting on a costume at a party.
Titles seem artificial and make them feel slightly uncomfortable. I do an event that includes tips for Danes working with Americans, and one of the most frequent complaints I hear is how
Americans love their titles and how tiresome and pretentious that is.
The truth is, Danes don’t always understand how competitive the world outside Denmark can be.
In the USA, India, or China, the competition to get into the “best” schools is brutal and begins in childhood. A “good” primary school may be necessary in order to access a “good” secondary school, which can set you up for a “good” university.
If you outperform everyone else at all three, you might get a chance at a “good” job at a “good” company, and then work your way up to a fancy title.
That fancy title means your hard work has paid off. It means you’ve “won.”
Having grown up in a welfare state with an extensive safety net, it can be hard for Danes to comprehend how important it is to “win”, and how far and fast you can fall if you don’t.
Creating a network more important than showing off
In Denmark, it’s much less common to obsess about the “top” primary schools or “top” secondary schools. There are only a few major universities, each of which is “top” in its own subject.
And the focus throughout the Danish educational system is on group work, not individual excellence. Successful students focus on building the network they’ll need to get good student jobs and internships in their fields – not on antagonizing people by showing they’re the smartest one around.
(Danes who have the “smartest one around” type of personality often end up leaving Denmark; I know of several who have successful businesses in the USA.)
Chat about teams, projects, customers, goals
Anyway, if they remain in the local business world, Danes don’t start a conversation with a potential new contact by asking about titles. They chat about teams, projects, customers, goals, maybe past companies they’ve worked for. If a title is mentioned it all, it’s mentioned at the end of the conversation.
It’s even considered a bit crass to research someone’s title before you meet them, although with LinkedIn that’s increasingly easy to do.
Knowing someone’s title suggests you care about hierarchy and might not have a full commitment to equality.
And to be fair, the flat management structure at Danish companies means someone’s title doesn’t always reflect how much power they have, or their ability to hire or sign on the dotted line. Or whether or not they’ll be asked to fetch a visiting American a cold glass of water.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2021