Stories about life in Denmark

Danish manners: Why everyone is laughing at you

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.

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Velbekommen!
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.

Self-ironing
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 2018

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12 Comments

  • Reply Steen June 24, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    Excellent, things I have never thought of as strange to a foreigner. Really nice to become more aware of Danish culture. But as I guess you can manage in Danish I am going to leave my comment in Danish. You got a few errors in this one, that I think is worth looking into.

    Der er to betegnelser for kvinder på dansk: Fru og Frøken (forkortet Frk.) Den sidste er for ugifte in English “Miss”

    Velbekomme er uden “n” til sidst. Med “n” bliver det næsten tysk i sin lyd. Til gengæld hedder det “kvajebajer” 😉 hvor efter jeg naturligvis griner lidt. Men jeg er også en af de værste danskere til det med at grine, selv danskerne har det svært når jeg gør det, og i virkeligheden er jeg bare glad og smiler. Og så vil jeg love dig at hjælpe dig med pakkenellikerne (skønt dansk udtryk), hvis du en dag har behov.

    Da jeg var barn havde vi flere varianter af “please”. “Vil du være så venlig” er en af de andre. Jeg tror den største forskel er at man indleder med dem, mens man siger “please” til sidst i sætningen. Der slutter man på dansk med et “tak”.

    “Værsgo’ og spise” er rettelig “Vær så god at spise” faktisk har dt været skrevet som “værsaagod at spise” i mange mange år eller den korte form “Værsgo’ at spise”.

  • Reply Kasper June 25, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Good post, although you’re slightly misinformed on the “Ms/Mrs” situation, the correct danish translation of Ms. is Frøken, shorterned Fr. or Frk

    this is not very used, but as you said, in general the prefixes are generally unused in Denmark, except airplane tickets (and banks from time to time)

    Also, when talking about Self-irony, you forgot to mention the very common Danish expression “Selv-fed” which is, basically, being cool with making yourself look like a fool, and taking the piss out of yourself, when you fall to everyone elses mockery, for dropping this tray full of food and cocktails, worth $75.

  • Reply Anne September 27, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for a nice blog 🙂
    It is actually funny for me to read about the last-piece-of-food rule, since it is not one I have knowed at all (and I am native and 27 years) – but it might come from the fact that my family were rather poor, and my mother therefore always would ask if me or my other siblings wanted the last piece left. But that on the other hand has provided some difficulties in not finishing my plate or leaving food behind.
    Another rule I was only made aware of a couple of years ago, is that you as a guest cannot take food twice – which I actually find rather insulting, in the way that I hope me guests eat till the are full or tell me if I didn’t provide enough food and they are still hungry.

    • Reply Louise September 27, 2016 at 12:07 pm

      I was wondering about this to. I have never in any of the companies I have worked in, experienced that people won’t eat the last piece (of anything!) Sometimes people even “fight” for the last (2nd or even 3rd) piece of cake.. Especially men who isn’t allowed to eat cake at home for their wifes 😉 It’s kind of a “Først til fadet” situation, which loosely translates into something like “first one to the plate” (gets the first/most).

  • Reply Per October 9, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Hi Kay,

    Great observations, very funny to read, but I think you have a slight wrongly translation here.
    You write:
    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…”

    Translated that would rather be “May I pray for…..” or “May I ask for…..”
    Bede = pray
    Tigge = beg

    Keep up the good work 😉

    • Reply Kay Xander Mellish October 9, 2013 at 11:45 am

      You are absolutely right, Per! Thank you!

  • Reply Tomas October 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Hehehe you got it right. Danes are a funny bunch. Being born and raised here, by hungarian parents, still makes me an outsider in a way. Meaning I can see the danes from the outside as well as being a dane myself at the same time.

    It takes either a person like me, growing up with two cultures, or a foreigner to spot it like you do 🙂

  • Reply Lisa October 25, 2013 at 2:10 am

    Hej! Love your posts….I lived in Denmark 30 years ago as an exchange student and it sounds like not much has changed.
    Danes can be quite suddenly and inexplicably cold when you break an unwritten rule. I remember the swearing in English thing and getting the impression that profanity was quite accepted…until I introduced the phrase “hold kaeft” (not sure if I have spelt it right) into conversation. Well I quickly learnt that whilst telling someone ” to shut up”…with no acrimony intended was off limits….using the english WTF was quite ok….and cleary I shouldn’t have been confused….ja!

  • Reply Andreas November 1, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Great post. I think I know where the story of cutting the cake into slivers come from…

  • Reply Camilla February 19, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    As is the case in English, the distinction between Frk (Miss, Ms) and Fru (Mrs) is based on marital status. Being an unmarried young Dane, I am still being addressed by my bank as Frk *** (Ms ***).

    • Reply Kay Xander Mellish February 20, 2015 at 8:21 am

      Hi Camilla! It’s funny you say this, because I’m also unmarried, but I apparently have transitioned into ‘Fru’ territory. I wonder if they have a specific age when they switch you over!

  • Reply LegoDreamer3000 March 19, 2017 at 1:17 am

    COMMENCE RANT:
    I’ve been here exactly one week and am already wishing I hadnt moved over for work. People on a whole come across as quite passive aggressive, from the way they try to run you over (with any form of transport lol) to their general blunt demeanor. It seems like the whole nation is on their period..

    I am also getting the impression people are quite conservative(in the pure sense), or should I say superficial…As in most Danes I’ve met (my age at least) go out of their way to espouse this liberal hipster mentality; to not be would be too harmful to ones ego. Not that there is anything wrong with being liberal, it just seems alot are in it because its safe. Reminds me of the Japanese saying “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.Oh well, only 2 more years to go…

    Oh and dont even get me started on the taxes =)

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