This essay is from a series I wrote shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
Danes like to see themselves as a relaxed, casual society that doesn’t put too much emphasis on formal manners.
That said, there are powerful unwritten rules about Danish manners that will earn you sullen, silent disapproval if you do not follow them.
For example, when sharing food with the Danes, you may not take the last item on any given plate.
You may take half of it, and it is quite entertaining to watch the last of a plate of delicious cookies be halved, and halved again, and then halved one last time, so there is only a tiny crumb left – which no one will take because it is the last item on the plate. Someone will gobble it guiltily later in the kitchen during clean-up.
Bring your own birthday cake
If it is your birthday, your friends or colleagues will congratulate you heartily, and celebrate by putting a Danish flag on your desk, regardless of what your actual nationality may be. They will not, however, be providing any sweets.
That’s your job, and it is considered good form to bring a cake or fruit tart for the after-lunch period. If your workplace is particularly busy, you can just announce by group email that the cake is in the kitchen for whenever anybody has time. There, each colleague can cut his or her own piece, carefully slicing the last bit into tinier and tinier halves so you will have a small, nearly transparent sliver to take home with you at the end of the day.
When dining with the Danes, you should not begin to eat until the host or hostess says, “Værsgo og spise”, which loosely translates as “Come on and eat!” When you are finished with your Danish meal, you should say, “Tak for mad,” aka “Thank you for food” before leaving the table.
Should you for some reason be eating when someone else is not – say, you’re having an early or late lunch while your colleagues are on their way to a meeting – Danes like to say “Velbekommen!”, or “Enjoy your food!”
They like to do this when your mouth is entirely full of pasta or some other volumuinous dish. I find this incredibly annoying. Just nod. You are not required to respond.
There is no word for “please” in Danish. Polite children are taught to say, “Må jeg bede om…” when requesting something, which translates to “May I beg for…”
You can also ask politely if people would “be sweet” and do things you would like them to do. When requesting that, say, your upstairs neighbor remove his giant oak dining table from the hallway where you bang your shins on it every day, you can say, “Vil du ikke være sød og…” or “Would you not be sweet and…”. Putting anything in the negative form makes it more polite in Danish.
English profanities are very popular among Danes, and children are sometimes permitted to say them as an alternative to their Danish parallels. It can be jarring for English speakers to hear small blonde children swear like battle-hardened Marines while adults stand idly by, but write it off to cross-cultural misunderstanding.
By the way, those parents will almost always go by their first names, as do teachers and doctors. The “Mr.” and “Mrs.” forms are almost unknown in Denmark, except for when airlines add them to your e-Ticket.
Since there is no “Ms” in Danish, airlines and sometimes banks will call all females over 18 “Fru”, the Danish version of “Mrs.” This is occasionally translated back to English, where all women – married or not – will find suddenly find themselves “Mrs” this-and-that.
You are not expected to address anyone with “De”, the formal Danish word for ‘you’, except perhaps people who are more than 80 years old, plus Margrethe, Queen of Denmark, who is in her 70s.
Her son Crown Prince Frederik is in his 40s and prefers the informal “du”, although his snobbish, jealous younger brother Prince Joachim still reportedly insists on “De”. Perhaps the only reason “De” is still taught in language schools is Joachim’s penchant for importing wives from abroad.
Selling is embarrassing
The most ill-mannered thing you can do in Denmark is to sell something, or try to. Danes are appalled by aggressive salespeople, and “car salesman” is a term of insult.
The car salesmen feel this deeply: when I tried to lease a car recently, I almost had to beg them to tell me about the different features and models. One salesmen sat placidly behind a desk. When I asked about specific features of the car I was interested in, he would come over and point them out, and then sit down behind his desk again until I had another question.
This principle also applies to job interviews. You should try to convince your potential boss that you would be right for the job without bragging about your past achievements, a balance that is difficult to strike. If you mention something you have done very well, make sure to qualify it by noting something else that you screwed up badly.
This will demonstrate something called “self-irony,” a treasured Danish concept. It means not taking yourself too seriously.
“Self-irony” is at the root of what in my book is Danes’ most unhappy mannerism, which is laughing openly at others’ misfortunes.
Drop an watermelon onto your foot? Ho! Accidentally try to go down the “up” escalator while carrying a lot of luggage? Ho! Ho! Stumble while trying to balance a tray full of drinks from the bar, spilling $75 worth of pasta and cocktails onto the floor? Ho! Ho! Ho! No one will try to help, but everyone will have a smile at your expense. This is because you should not be taking yourself too seriously. You are everyone’s silent movie comedian today.
Danes don’t do this just to foreigners – they do it to each other. There’s an old fashioned concept called a “kvajebajer”: when you make a fool of yourself, you are supposed to buy a beer for everyone who enjoyed watching you. Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2023