This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on July 30, 2019.
While I love living in Denmark, I also enjoy returning to my home town in the US on vacation. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is suburb of Milwaukee, a likeable but unglamorous city.
It’s wonderful to see family and friends and reconnect with American culture.
Such big cars! You see families out to pick up groceries in massive Ford trucks, each of its four wheels the size of a Christiania bike.
Such big supermarkets! You’ll have no problem achieving your 10,000 steps per day as you walk for miles past the gigantic exhibits of fresh fruits and vegetables arranged artistically by size and color, the acres of canned goods and breakfast cereals and ethnic foods, the in-store restaurants with hot soup and fresh pizza, and end with the vast selection of flowers by the cash register.
So many different types of Americans, from so many countries of origin. And despite a few incidents exaggerated in the media, they generally get along pretty well.
But the biggest difference is enthusiasm. Americans of all kinds are generally upbeat and enthusiastic, at least in public. This is, after all, the place that made a cheerleading a form of competitive athletics.
Exclamation point or udråbstegn?
By contrast, Danes grow up saying stille og roligt as a mantra, and believing a mature adult is cool, calm, and collected. Big arm movements are discouraged. A flat vocal tone is best – don’t raise your voice, and certainly don’t have a temper tantrum. A small, placid, and sincere smile is best for greeting new business acquaintances and strangers.
But America is the land of the exclamation point.
“Welcome to our store!” say specially-trained greeters when you enter Costco or Walmart.
“Strike!!!” says the light-up scoreboard at the Milwaukee baseball stadium. “We are hiring!!!” says a sign outside the local United States Post Office. “Come in for some cheers!!” says a billboard outside a bar.
To some Danes, this excess energy can seem childish, over the top, and unnecessary. I once worked with a Danish marketing manager who went through his American colleagues’ texts and deleted all the exclamation points. “They sound like shouting,” he said.
But for the Americans, those punctuation marks gave the text energy and excitement. “They show we really believe in our product!” they told me.
From “ikke dårlig” to Amazing!
This mismatch can be a problem when Danes try to do business with Americans, as I write in my new book Working With Americans: Tips for Danes.
When Danes act stille og roligt, Americans sometimes think they’re unimpressed, uninterested or even bored.
And when they follow Janteloven and understate the benefits of their product, the Americans take them at face value and assume the product must not be very good.
I try to help my Danish clients learn the importance of showing enthusiasm at all times when doing business in the US, even if they find it pushes their boundaries a bit to replace expressions like “ikke dårlig” and even “meget fint” with more energetic terms like amazing! and awesome!
I also tell them to lower the volume on the sarcasm which is so much a part of daily life in Denmark. The Americans probably won’t get it, and even if they do, constant use of irony might suggest that you are a negative person, which is one of the worst things you can be in the US.
Relentless positivity is the way Americans deal with the slings and arrows of everyday life in a culture that is much less secure than Denmark.