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Danish business etiquette can be difficult for foreigners to master.

Shaking hands upon meeting with eye contact is an important part of Danish business etiquette.

So is a casual approach: the local equivalents of “Mr” and “Ms” are almost never used.

Most Danes dress casually in the office: a business suit is almost never required, and dresses are uncommon. A high-quality sweater and well-tailored business trousers is acceptable business wear for any gender.

Some Danes are very direct: Danish business etiquette doesn’t require a lot of extra words, and Danes can sometimes seem a bit harsh.

Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Motivating Danish employees: Tips for Foreign Managers

When you’re not from Denmark, understanding the way Danes think can take a little time. And if you’re an international manager in charge of managing and motivating a group of Danes, you may not have a lot of time to experiment before you’re expected to produce results.

So I wanted to share some of the tips I gave to a group of international managers recently on motivating Danish employees.

Motivating Danish employees is very different than motivating other groups of people because there are two big factors missing – hierarchy and fear.

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Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Will I ever be promoted? Plus, how to leverage your annual review

Foreigners in the Danish workplace tend to be clustered at the very top of companies – several of Denmark’s largest firms have Dutch or Norwegian CEOs – or at the very bottom, in entry-level service positions.

Even skilled workers like engineers and nurses are more likely to be found in hands-on functional roles than in middle or upper management. Berlingske Tidende, one of the country’s major newspapers, publishes a list of the Top 100 upcoming business talents every year, and at least 90 of them are ethnic Danes.

Some companies like to talk a lot about their open-mindedness, but in practice believe that only Danes are really capable of managing other Danes. Language certainly plays a role, and foreigners are also seen as unable to understand the Danish national psychology and secrets of employee motivation.

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Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Never lose the trust of a Dane: Lies, corruption, and when to give birthday presents

Trust is so natural to the Danes and such an integral part of their culture that it is like the water fish swim through: even though it’s all around them, they barely notice it’s there.

As a foreigner, if your culture has a different outlook on honesty and trust, it’s important to adapt to the Danish way for as long as you’re in Denmark. If the Danes decide they can’t trust you, you might as well pack your suitcases and go home. Once you lose the trust of a Dane, it’s like losing your virginity: you’ll never get it back.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Danish humour: Dry, dark, and weird

 
Danish humor is a tricky thing for many foreigners. Danes compete with the Brits for world leaders in dry humor and sarcasm, but it can be hard for foreigners to figure out what’s a joke and what’s not.

In Denmark, if you drop the ball at work, drop your lunch entrée down the front of your business shirt, or make a fool of yourself for any other reason, you’re supposed to be able to laugh at your own bumbling.

In fact, the Danes have a tradition called the kvajebajer (failure beer) or kvajekage (failure cake.)
The person who makes a big mistake offers this beer or cake to others as a way of playfully admitting that he or she failed to live up to expectations.

One of my LinkedIn contacts, for example, worked for a company that failed to meet an important delivery date by two days. When it finally delivered the product, it also delivered a brightly-colored “failure cake”, which everyone took a few moments of the workday to enjoy.

Not all Danish humor is funny

Making fun of yourself can be fun and light-hearted, but Danish humor is not always so gentle.

Danish humor

Unik, the spokesman for a chain of cosmetics shops, says “I don’t shop here.” Classic Danish humor.

When directed at others, Danish humor is a perennial source of confusion for foreigners, and it can be a source of misunderstanding and discomfort in the office.

The basis of Danish humor is keeping people’s egos in line by cutting down anyone who thinks himself better than others. At its best, it’s self-deprecating, good-natured and playful, but it can also be dry, dark, and weird, and occasionally passive-aggressive and cruel. It is rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

For example, I was in a meeting held at one of the renovated 18th-century buildings beloved by the Danish creative class. We were upstairs in a room that had been converted from an attic. Thick wooden beams held up the slanting walls.

One of the meeting participants reached down to plug in her computer and, sitting up too quickly, bashed her head against the thick beam. There was a loud “thunk” as her skull hit the heavy wood, and an uncomfortable moment as she clutched her aching head.

Then someone in the room broke the silence. “No damage done,” he said cheerfully. “Not much in there anyway.”

She was Danish – she thought it was funny. Someone else might not have.

Sarcasm is seen as a sign of intelligence

For Danes, biting sarcasm is seen as proof of intelligence, confidence and wit. Foreigners already dealing with cultural confusion don’t always see it that way, particularly if the sarcasm is coming from their supervisor.

Most Danes are smart enough to avoid the worst aspects of Danish humor with newcomers, but sometimes a little barbed comment slips out anyway.

For example, if you arrive at a meeting a few minutes late, the meeting leader might say drily, “I hear you can buy watch batteries at the supermarket these days.” That’s a joke – and a reminder that tardiness is not appreciated.

It’s often said that when a foreigner is included into a circle of Danish humor, it’s because Danes know they can take it, and that they have accepted you as part of the group.

Until then, remember that if a Dane seems to be making fun of you, they are trying to laugh with you, not at you.

Or they are trying to get you to fall in line. It’s hard to be sure.

If you’re not sure if what someone is saying is supposed to be a joke, ask them.

No “big arm movements”

While passive-aggression is common in Denmark, open warfare is not.

Don’t raise your voice. Don’t yell. Don’t wave your arms around to make a point. (The Danes have a saying for people they see as too expressive – “he has big arm movements.”) And never, ever lose your temper.

In many cultures, losing your temper is seen as a sign of power and passion. Make a scene is a way of showing that you really care about something. If that something is an important personal relationship or an honorable political position, losing your temper is seen as noble and justified.

This is not true in Danish culture, where losing your temper is seen as a sign that you are childish, unable to control yourself, and basically untrustworthy.

Danes immediately lose respect for someone who “melts down.” If you think you’re going to blow your top at work, excuse yourself and go take a walk. (I’ve done it myself a few times.)

Someone who has been on the receiving end of your anger won’t forget quickly, and won’t be afraid to tell his friends or business contacts about your “crazy” behavior.

You never want to have an enemy in a small country like Denmark, where you will meet the same people again and again.

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Kay Xander Mellish books

Buy Kay’s books about Denmark on Amazon, Saxo, Google Books, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble Nook, or via our webshop.

Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2022

Read also:
April Fool’s in Denmark and the rough game of Danish humor
The Kvajebajer, or “Failure Beer”, and what it means for Danish working culture

Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Don’t work when you’re sick, plus dealing with stress

In some countries, such as the US, “working sick” is a badge of honor. You are supposed to be so dedicated to your team or to the assignment that you come to work even if you have a bad cold or a slight fever.

In Denmark, the opposite is true. If you feel you’ve got the beginnings of something that could be contagious, particularly a stomach virus, you are considered a better team member if you stay home that day and care for your health. You are not expected to work from home or answer emails if you are ill.

It’s also considered OK to take a day or two off if you have a sick child at home, although in these cases you may be asked to participate in a phone meeting or some other work-related activity while your little darling sleeps.

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In the Media

The Privileged Immigrant: Kay Xander Mellish’s TEDx Talk

Kay Xander Mellish’s TEDx Talk “The Privileged Immigrant” looks at highly-educated immigrants who choose to relocate for professional or personal reasons.

What responsibilities do these privileged immigrants have to the places where they’ve chosen to live?

In the talk, which was delivered April 14, 2018 at TEDx Odense, Kay suggests that immigrants with options need to research the basic values of the place where they intend to move in order to make sure that their own values are in line with the people who already live there.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Is learning to speak Danish worth it?

Learning to speak Danish can be difficult, even if you speak its close linguistic cousins, English and German.

While the written language isn’t too tough to figure out, the spoken language is a headache. Danes pronounce only small bits of each word and smash those small bits together.

One foreigner told the story of two boys he saw trading football cards on a train. “Davilik!” “Davilik!” the boys kept crying out.

The foreigner, who was working hard to learn Danish, tried to look up Davilik in his dictionary – without success. There was no such word.

It was only months later that he realized they were saying, “Det vil jeg ikke!” or “I don’t want to make that trade.”

Even the Swedes and Norwegians have trouble understanding spoken Danish.

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Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

How to handle a Danish business meeting

A Danish business meeting is just one element of the Danish decision-making process – which can be extensive, as the people involved seek consensus on whatever issue is being discussed. There’s an old Danish saying that “A disagreement is a discussion that ended too soon.”

So get to the meeting location precisely on time – or even a couple of minutes early – and be ready to say your piece. On some occasions, you should also be ready to be in it for the long haul.

One thing that sets apart Danish (or Nordic) meetings is that every single person, from the boss down to the student helper, will be having his or her say on the matter at hand.

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Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Decoding your Danish pay slip + understanding your Danish taxes

When you get your first pay slip from a Danish company, the first thing you’ll probably notice is how small it is. What you thought would be your income in Denmark will have been diminished by Denmark’s world-champion income taxes.

Understanding your Danish taxes can be tricky, however, because they are divided into so many different parts.

Understanding your Danish taxes
The most important two lines on the pay slip are brutto, which is what your employer is paying you, and netto, which is what you’ll actually get to take home. In between will be several lines of taxes you must pay.

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