I was in London this week, and did a little fall wardrobe shopping. I got tired after walking for awhile, and it was lunchtime, so I sat down in a pub. I had a beer and a fish and chips and a British guy next to me was also having a beer and fish and chips and so we just chatted through lunch. We talked about politics, the weather, the job market. After lunch, we waved goodbye and I went back to shopping. It was a fun lunch, but I never found out his name.
The reason I mention this is that it never could have happened in Denmark. Danes don’t talk to strangers. They talk to their friends. The idea of a casual lunch with someone you will never see again makes no sense to them.
And foreigners often say it’s hard to make friends in Denmark. This is because Danes take friendship very seriously. A friendship is a commitment, often a lifetime commitment. You will often meet adult Danes who have friends they met in kindergarten. As a matter of fact, this is why I chose to put my daughter in a Danish school, instead of an international one – I wanted her to have those deep friendships. In some international schools, your friends are moving in and out all the time as Mom and Dad get transferred around the world.
But for you, as a foreigner, this can be tough. Danes don’t really have the idea of ‘an acquaintance’ – they have the word, en bekendte, but it isn’t used very often. If you were in some other countries, an acquaintance might invite you, maybe your partner, over for dinner and then, three months later, you’d invite the acquaintance and her partner and maybe it would continue and maybe it wouldn’t.
That light, no-obligation friendship – Danes don’t do that. In Denmark, friendship is an obligation, and a trust. Friends don’t let each other down. So, when a Dane meets you, he may think ahhhh he’s a great guy, but I really don’t have room for another friend. I have no time to see the friends I have. Meaning, the people he’s known since he was three years old.
Now, it’s September and the university students are arriving in Denmark. You guys will have it relatively easy. When you’re 18 or 22, beer, sex, parties with loud music are all things that make it relatively easy to meet people. If you’re at university, you’ll find it’s not that hard to make friends.
But it is hard when you’re an adult, when you’re coming here for work, or because of a Danish partner. Of course, you’ll have your Danish partner’s friends, but they don’t want to hear any complaints you might have about your partner. If you have a job, you’ll have your colleagues, but you’ll find the relationship pretty much ends at the end of the workday, particularly if your colleagues have children.
So, if you’re too old for parties with loud music, how do you make friends in Denmark? I tell people two things. First of all, look for other people who are looking for friends. Not just other expats, but Danes who didn’t grow up in the town where you live. For example, I live in Copenhagen, but my Danish friends are from Odense and Aarhus and Esbjerg. They don’t live near their friends from kindergarten. They’re open to meeting new people.
Secondly, join a club. Danes love clubs, they love what is called ‘free time organizations.’ Garden clubs, running clubs, football clubs for men, dance and aerobics classes for women.
And when you meet people there, don’t take things too fast. Friendship is a slow-growing plant in Denmark. Don’t ask anyone over for dinner the first or second time you meet them. Maybe after three months of seeing them once a week, then you can ask if you want to get together sometime. Probably not a dinner at your house, that’s too heavy – but maybe go to a garden show together, or to see a football match.
One quirk of Danes is that they love to make plans far in advance, and they are very good about sticking to those plans. You can invite a bunch of people for dinner on a Tuesday two months from now at 8pm, and although you may not see them in the meantime, they will all turn up, precisely on time.
So, when you invite your potential new Danish friend to get together, don’t say, hey, there’s a great football match Saturday evening, wanna go? No, he’s already made plans for Saturday evening. He made those plans three months ago. What you have to do is pick an event that’s three to six weeks away and you can make plans in advance to go to that event together.
And don’t cancel, unless you are sick. Social engagements are not casual in Denmark. Friendship is never casual in Denmark. The only relationship in Denmark that can be casual is – a sexual one.
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2023