This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on July 3, 2019.
As summer vacation season begins and some of my Danish friends and business contacts tell me they are heading to the US on holiday, I’m always pleased but also a little nervous. Oh, dear, I think to myself, I hope they have a good time, and get to see the good side of America and not the bad.
And I try to give them a few tips for Danes visiting the USA.
No private bubble
One thing you should be prepared for, I tell them, is that Americans love to chat with strangers. You may find yourself standing in line at Target or Whole Foods or Chipotle and have a person totally unknown to you deliver an unexpected compliment, like “Such cute shoes,” from a woman or “Is that a soccer jersey? It’s cool,” from a man.
This is unexpected when you come from Denmark, where it is considered good manners to go around in a private bubble. When these American strangers strike up a conversation, you may ask yourself What do they want?
They don’t want anything. They’re just brightening up their day by being friendly.
Where are y’all from?
Once they hear your accented English, they may ask, “Where are y’all from?” If you answer Denmark, they might say, “Is that in Europe?”
Yes, it’s true that most Americans aren’t world champions when it comes to geography.
But really, could you find the states of Ohio, Iowa, and Idaho on a US map? Together, they have roughly the population of Sweden plus Switzerland, two countries Americans often mix up.
Once they find out you are European, Americans also may try to share their own European heritage, as distant as it may be. For example, they may tell you they are Swedish, but on closer inspection, you find they are referring to some guy named Gösta who came over on a boat in 1910 and the family still eats Swedish pancakes at Christmastime.
They may also mention that their plane once landed in Cork, Ireland and is that close to where you live?
All have to do is be friendly and enjoy a conversation will be over as soon as it is your turn at the cash register.
Friendly restaurant workers and tipping
One thing that often annoys Europeans is that servers in restaurants are too friendly. When you sit down they introduce themselves with their names – Hi, I’m Crystal, I’ll be your server today – and keep stopping by to ask if you would like dessert or more coffee. (Beverage refills are generally free in the US, but ask to be sure.)
Crystal, of course, is putting on her happy face because a large part of her income comes from tips. When you pay your bill, you will be expected to add on 20% top of it, preferably in cash, for Crystal and her colleagues.
Restaurant workers know that Europeans are often lousy tippers, so they may be nervous when you sit down. Please defend Europe’s honor with an appropriate tip. Whatever your opinion on the tipping system, don’t take it out on poor Crystal.
Taking on serious topics
Should you get a chance to have a longer discussion with an American, please quash the temptation to immediately tell them all you think is wrong with their country dating back to the displacement of the indigenous Americans in 1620.
You have an unfair advantage, because Americans don’t know enough about Denmark to tell you what they think of a country where Rasmus Paludan just got 10,000 votes.
Americans do like to talk about Donald Trump, so expect him to come up in conversation. But he is not as widely disliked as Europeans might imagine – in fact, he currently has a 43% approval rating – so if you travel outside NYC or California, you can expect to meet a few of his fans.
You may be keen to tell them how much more sophisticated politics are in Europe. But if you run into someone who reads The Economist or follows the news closely enough to name Silvio Berlusconi, Viktor Orbán, or even Boris Johnson, you may have a hard time convincing them.
No, you can’t walk there
The most common mistake Danes make when visiting the US is underestimating the size of the country, both nationally and locally. Wherever you are headed for a day’s sightseeing, you may think you can walk there, but you probably can’t walk there.
Even if Google Maps suggests your destination is only 20 minutes away on foot, there are often no sidewalks to walk on, because most places in the US are not built for walking.
Taxis in the US are of varying quality and mass transit is generally awful; there is a reason that rental cars and the forbidden-in-Denmark apps Uber and Lyft are so popular. Make your US trip more enjoyable by arranging to use one of them before you go.
Those are my tips for Danes visiting the USA. Have a great time!
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2023