When I first arrived in Denmark, I saw something I haven’t seen since, which was a parade of Danish soldiers walking down the street.
These were soldiers that were just back from duty in a very violent war zone, and what I remember most about the parade is that the crowd was entirely silent.
I gave a weak little cheer – hooray! – because that’s what I would do in my own culture, but I was the only one.
I remember reading in the media afterwards that it was difficult for Danes to understand how well-raised Danish boys could get involved in any type of war, any type of military activity that might involve hurting people.
Well-raised Danish boys would always be peaceful.
I don’t know if the recent conflict in Ukraine has changed that belief, as people realize that aggressive warfare can still happen in Europe. Violence sometimes comes to you, whether you like it or not.
But I’m often told that in their daily lives Danes are “conflict-shy”, or konfliktsky in Danish.
I don’t think this is true. They are happy to loudly share their opinions in situations where they don’t have to deal with the fallout, like yelling at you as they whizz past you in the bicycle lanes. If you try to catch up with them to continue the conversation, they’ll bike away pretty fast.
They’re happy to share their opinion, they just don’t want to hear yours.
Online, as well, Danish people are not conflict-shy. I’m blown away sometimes by what Danish people will write on LinkedIn or Facebook under their own names, just vicious stuff. Last week someone told me on LinkedIn that I was “obviously a moron” right next to his real name and his company affiliation.
I’m told that it’s even worse on Aula, the network for parents with kids in public schools. But that’s not face-to-face conflict.
When those parents see each other in real life, they probably default to the more common passive aggressive stance, or withering sarcasm that is sometimes funny but is often just mean. And very difficult for an international to decode.
Don’t raise your voice
If you are an international who lives in Denmark, or someone who wants to, you have to learn how to handle a conflict in Denmark. This might be with a colleague or your upstairs neighbors or the authorities at the commune.
In these cases, it’s very important not to lose your temper or raise your voice. And this can be tricky if the culture you come from, your culture of origin, is a passionate culture.
Denmark is not a passionate culture. If you hear someone talking about their passion here, it’s almost always some sort of hobby, or the summer home they have been fixing up for years. Their passion is almost never a person or a cause.
And they generally use the English or French word passion, not lidenskab, which is the rather clumsy Danish translation.
Humor and equality
So, the keywords to handling conflict here are not strength and passion, they are humor and equality.
You have to take the approach that you and the person you disagree with are equals. Your counterparty isn’t someone you can push around, but they’re also not someone better than you that you have to bow down to.
One of Danes’ favorite expressions is øjenhøjde, or eye level. They love that concept. When Prince Christian, the future king of Denmark, recently turned 18, several of his birthday greetings from the public said, Remember to always stay at eye level with your people.
The person you disagree with is your human equal, even if they’re a teacher or a manager or someone who works for the government.
Find the humor
The other best strategy getting a conflict resolved in Denmark, to find the humor in it. If you can make the other person laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, you’re halfway there.
Keep it as light as you possibly can, assume good faith, and assume that the other person really would like to solve the problem, and assume that it is solvable, which isn’t always true, but it’s a good first assumption.
Humorously acknowledge your contribution to the problem, whatever it might have been, and own your mistakes. Danes really like people that admit they’ve made a mistake and have a sense of humor about it.
Be as practical as possible. Danes are practical to a fault. Focus on something that can really get accomplished, not big noble concepts of truth and justice.
Direct aggression doesn’t sell
I have seen internationals in Denmark make disagreements much worse than they have to be by raising their voices, telling the other person they are racist or sexist, threatening to call in somebody’s boss or threatening to expose them online, which is illegal, by the way.
Denmark has very strict privacy laws – if you catch someone stealing your bike and you post a photo of them online, you’re the one who will hear from the police first.
Direct aggression just doesn’t sell here. This is a little country, in which the culture is based on getting along in groups. People don’t sue each other, they rarely call in the cops or authorities, and they’re very rarely violent against each other.
If they’re really angry, their weapon of choice is bitter sarcasm, and a stubborn refusal to do whatever they secretly think is a waste of time.