April 1st is April Fool’s Day – Aprilsnar in Danish – and each Danish newspaper will feature a clever but false story for the unwary to be fooled by.
Last year, for example, there was a story that the Danish police were switching their siren colors from blue to red to match the Danish flag.
There was also a report that the perennially messy discount supermarket Netto was launching a discount airline – Jetto.
And a local TV station ran a piece about how an acute shortage of daycare workers meant the Danish army had to be called in. It showed video of the battle-hardened tough guys in combat uniforms, reading aloud from storybooks and helping with toilet training.
If you’re dumb enough to take these stories seriously, people will laugh at you. You will be the April Fool.
(In other news, I will be closing down this website soon to take a job heading the Scandinavian division of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. We’re hoping to get a knighthood for Mr. Trump here in Denmark. Read more here.)
Danish humor is not painless
To some extent every day is April Fool’s Day in Denmark, because Danish humor is a rough humor. Danes show affection by making fun of each other. And, as an international, they might make fun of you too.
This is a good thing: that means they have accepted you into the circle of Danishness.
But it doesn’t mean that the intersection of non-Danes and Danish humor is entirely painless. If you come from a culture where you are easily offended – and that, unfortunately, includes the American culture these days – you may spend a lot of time with your feelings hurt.
If you come from a culture where honor or face is prized, the Danish insistence on taking nothing seriously and taking everyone down a peg can be shocking.
What have you stolen now?
I was speaking to a group of refugee co-ordinators a couple months ago, and they told me the story of a refugee who had been hired to work in a shop in rural Jutland, where the Danish humor is at its most dry.
The shop ran out of something, so the refugee employee was asked to go back to the storage building to replenish the supply. When he was there he accidentally set off the alarm.
The Danish boss came back to check on the alarm and he said – and this would be funny if it was Dane-to-Dane – he joked, “What have you stolen now?”
Now, if this had been a Danish employee, she would have known to respond with a similarly dry answer. “What have you stolen now?” “Not much. You got here too fast.”
But this poor refugee did not understand that the boss was making a joke. “I have stolen nothing!” he said. “I am an honest man!”
He was heartbroken. Let’s face it – Danish humor can be rough.
Danish humor is harsh partly because Denmark is basically a glorified large family, and you can make fun of your family. Everything is an in-joke. You know you’re accepted.
It’s also part of the Danish passion for equality. While a compliment might puff you up, make you think you’re something special, a sharp dig brings you back down to earth. There’s a little bit of Jantelov in there – don’t think you’re better than us.
I experienced this at a cocktail party, where I was talking about my new apartment building, an architectural prize-winner that is for some reason very attractive to German tourists.
I was complaining – or perhaps humble-bragging – about the annoyance of having a busload of pensioners from Dusseldorf taking pictures of me through the window on Saturday mornings.
A woman standing nearby was ready to take me down a peg.
“I’ve been past that place on the train many times,” she said, “and I’ve always wondered, Who would want to live there? But now I know. You do.”
Advice from a Dane
The dark side of Danish humor is that it can descend into bullying – people can get away with a lot by saying “Hey, it was just a joke,” when it clearly wasn’t.
As a Danish commenter said on one of my previous blog posts, “An annoying aspect of Danish humor is that ‘everyone’s a comedian’, when the average person is not funny. Thus you are always expected to crack some joke or laugh at some joke, which leads to what I call the “ho ho” culture, that guttural only half-genuine laugh so common in Denmark.”
“My advice to foreigners,” he continued, “is to give back as good as you get. Quick thinking, timing, and response time is more important than a well-thought-out comedic reply. Someone who is quick on their feet with banter will bond well with the Danes. Consider it mental ping-pong. It can be enjoyable if there is genuine goodwill behind it.”
The idiot beer
A great example of that goodwill is the Danish tradition of the kvajebajer, or idiot beer.
An idiot beer is something you buy for all your friends or co-workers when they’ve seen you make an idiot of yourself.
Maybe you’re a bricklayer and built the wall of a house without making any space for windows, maybe you’re a translator who translated something into the wrong language. Maybe you scheduled your wedding on the same day as the DM championship match in handball.
Whatever it is, you’ve made a fool of yourself. And the proper thing to do is admit it, laugh at yourself, and buy everyone a beer.
Or idiot cake
For non-drinkers or non-drinking situations, I’ve also seen kvajekage, or idiot cake.
One of my clients wasn’t able to deliver a product on time, so when they finally brought the product to their customer, they also brought idiot cake. When the Danish football league made up its brackets and mistakenly excluded one team, it sent that team an idiot cake.
Finding joy in what is basically a screw-up is a very Danish way of handling things.
Compare, for example, the acrobatics necessary in Asia to make sure no one loses face, even when they’re totally in the wrong. Even nearby countries like Germany and Sweden are a lot less cheerful about admitting their mistakes.
But to the Danes being able to make fun of yourself, as you also make fun of everyone else, is crucial to being part of the community.
In fact, I feel lucky that Danes have such a good sense of humor about themselves. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a career.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2019