Julefrokost season is just around the corner, which means that within the next two months you are likely to be seated at a long, thin table (or unwieldy round table) for many hours next to someone you may or may not have something in common with.
Danes have grown up with this structure, which means they know how to carefully balance a bit of light chatter with a person to their left, a bit more with the person to their right, and perhaps a bit of shouting across the table, over the serving dishes and the hostesses’ favorite centerpiece.
But it can be difficult for newcomers, who are used to a more fluid party structure where people are constantly on the move, and where the bore you are stuck with can be quickly discarded in favor of an old friend you actually like, or someone across the room who might be more entertaining or attractive.
This isn’t allowed in Denmark, where you are committed to one chair and one chair only until the ris allemande comes out.
How to make small talk
And beyond, which can be agonizing for people who come from cultures where it is considered good manners to get up from the table as soon as you have finished your meal.
So one of the most important things I teach newcomers at my “How to Live in Denmark” seminars is how to make small talk with the Danes.
Danes like to insist that they don’t like small talk, but at a formal dinner there is no avoiding it. Fortunately, there are a few topics you can always use to make conversation flow.
Home renovation chatter
One of them is the renovation and remaking of your Danish acquaintance’s home. No matter how long they’ve lived there, this is never finished.
Ask where your bordherr or borddame lives, if there was any renovation necessary when they moved in, and if they have any new renovation projects planned right now.
The next hour will be neatly covered as your Danish conversational partner launches into a deep discussion of bathroom tiles, kitchen cabinet fronts and the importance of precisely the right drawer handles.
I’ve always secretly believed that this is why the Danes buy summer houses – it means they have two houses to renovate and decorate.
Comparative weather and vacations
Another good topic is the weather – or even better, comparative weather. Anyone can talk about the fact it is grey and rainy and dark for much of November – but the ability to compare this October with, say, October 2006 or this summer’s rain level with the summer of 2012 is a peculiar Danish gift.
Get a Dane talking about rainfall patterns, particularly a farmer, gardener, or someone whose house has a leaky basement, and that can cover a lot of time between courses.
Another good small talk gambit is travel. The social welfare state offers the Danes generous time off, and they like to use it to travel away from Danish weather.
It’s November now, which means that everyone’s fall holiday is complete. So, did you go anywhere for fall vacation? Once that topic is exhausted, you can begin to discuss their experiences during the summer holiday, and in a pinch even work your way back to last spring’s Easter holiday, or forward to the skiing holiday after Christmas.
Topics to avoid
What conversational topics should be avoided? Politics, of course, and religion, and I suggest treading carefully around the topic of the Royal Family, because you don’t know how reverent your conversational partner might be.
(I once make the mistake of suggesting that the Crown Prince might not have been able to attend Harvard had he been an everyday Frederik Jensen. An angry woman from Jylland took up much of the dessert course listing all of the Crown Prince’s achievements since birth.)
The best advice I get to internationals looking forward to a long season of holiday dinners with colleagues or the family of the Dane they are married to is this: talk about Denmark.
Danes are great fans of their own country, so you’ll never go wrong talking about the aspects of Denmark you particularly like – the food, the nature, the quiet, the cleanliness of the air, etc.
(Don’t talk about how much you love the welfare state, though, or some Danes will think you are here only to take advantage of it.)
Janteloven, where it still exists, applies only to individuals. When it comes to Denmark, Danes are certain – and would like to hear foreigners confirm – that it is the best country in the world.
This article originally appeared in Danish in the newspaper BT on November 4, 2019.
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2021