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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Tips for living with a Danish family

As the new academic semester starts up, some of you may be planning to live in a Danish home. It could be you’ll rent a room in a household, maybe you’ll be part of a Danish host family, or maybe you’ll just be staying with Danish friends.

I thought it might be useful to have some tips on living with a Danish family.

First of all, if you’re used to having your parents or domestic workers do most of the household chores – things are about to change.

Danish families generally don’t have live-in domestic workers. A few wealthy families with small children have au pairs, and it’s common to have a weekly cleaning person, but on a day-to-day basis, household chores are done by all the members of the family.

Male, female, young, old, everybody does their part. (In fact, statistics show that Danish men do more household chores than any other men in Europe.)

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Denmark and the USA, Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Tips for Danes working with Americans, and Americans working with Danes

As an American who has lived in Denmark for more than 10 years, I’m often asked for tips by Danes working with Americans.

It’s usually the smartest people in the organization who ask the question: others seem to assume that because they speak great English and have watched every episode of “Friends” or “Breaking Bad” they have a good enough handle on the American culture way of doing business. As the great American composer George Gerwshin once wrote, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Here are a few tips taken from my presentation “Working With Danes/Working with Americans.”

Fear of lawyers and lawsuits

U.S. companies and employees live in constant fear of litigation. When I first arrived in Denmark, I remembered being shocked at traditions that could make an American liabilities lawyer rich. Whether it was bonfires at a børnehave, hot coals to warm your hands on at Tivoli, or drunk studenter falling off the back of trucks, I couldn’t help thinking about how a stupid or carless person might injure himself and sue.

American businesses think about this all the time, since they have two things on their mind: how to stay in business at a profit, and how to avoid litigation, since the second can make the first impossible. Every business decision, every product development or marketing technique, every hiring and every firing, has to be looked at through the lens of : Can we be sued for this?

Even official social events take place in the shadow of possible litigation. This is why Americans have trouble understanding the amount of alcohol served at Danish office parties. An American boss has to keep in mind that if someone misbehaves at or on the way home from one of these parties, the company may be held liable. And if the boss herself makes has one too many cocktails and makes a smart remark about an employee’s anatomy or ethnicity, she could end up in trouble with HR at best, and with a career-ending lawsuit at worst.

Better to stay sober and go home early, or stage the party at a local bar where people buy their own drinks and are therefore responsible for what they do afterwards. (The bar, however, might be held liable in some cases.)

American diversity is a wonderful resource – and a constant challenge

America is no longer the mostly White and Black populace you might imagine from the movies and music videos popular on Danish TV. While the greatest number of immigrants to the U.S. now come from Asia, the country is also home to Arab-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic and Latino Americans, who have roots in Central and South America but can be of any race.

Most Danish companies who do business in the U.S. have figured out that it’s no longer OK to produce marketing materials showing only White faces. But diversity is more than skin color and ethnic background. It includes other ‘protected classes’, including women, older Americans, people who are ‘differently abled’ (from using a wheelchair to suffering from mental illness) and LGBTQIA+ Americans.

For example, I had a Danish client who had put together a “Valentine’s Day Quiz” to sell its product – but based the entire game around heterosexual couples. These days, that’s a turnoff to straights as well as gays. Better to make the whole thing gender neutral.

Another customer wanted to put out a form with only two gender choices, “male” and “female”. That can cause you problems with younger target groups who back transgender rights. Facebook, for example, currently has 53 different gender options to choose from.

You can argue that this is slow strangulation by political correctness (and many Americans will agree with you) but the bottom line is that you are not in the American market to make a political point – you are there to sell a product, so I suggest you do whatever is least likely to offend the largest number of people.

Diversity also requires strict protocols for hiring and firing. You must have everything written down so, if necessary in a court of law, you can prove that person A was treated exactly like person B. This kind of record-keeping can seem annoying and petty for Danes accustomed to informality and used to operating with a high level of trust.

“Toot your own horn”

Americans are taught to ‘sell themselves’ and will expect Danes to do the same.

One of the worst things a Dane can be called is a bilsælger, a pushy promoter. But Americans have grown up in a much more competitive environment than Danes have, and have learned from an early age that getting into the ‘best’ schools, the ‘best’ universities, the ‘best’ internships and the ‘best’ jobs requires a good dose of self-promotion. My mother used to tell me that in the business world, I’d have to “spend 80% of your time doing a great job, and 20% of your time telling people you’re doing a great job.”

This can leave Americans at a loss when dealing with Danish understatement and self-irony. Unless they’ve received cultural training, they might take Danish self-restraint as lack of confidence, laziness, or even ‘dead wood’ that the company no longer needs.

I remember being involved in a project in which a Danish company had been purchased by an American one, and a team of mid-career Danish engineers was set for one-on-one meetings with their new bosses.

My advice was that they should explain to their new bosses exactly what their work had produced and how it had contributed to the company’s successful products, and would continue to do so. They should ‘toot their own horn’ as the American expression goes.

The engineers were, understandably, horrified.

Working hours, work-life balance, and Danish welfare state envy

If the Danish working model is built on flexicurity, the American model is built on fear. Since there is very little safety net in the U.S., an American who loses his or her job can fall very far, very fast.

This is one of the reasons Americans with well-paying jobs take so few vacations, and when they do, they tend to take short ones. The fear is: If my boss notices that everything runs smoothly when I’m out of the office, I might not have a job when I get back.

This is also why your American colleagues repeatedly emphasize that they very, very busy – joining to a phone meeting 15 minutes late, for example, because they were so very, very busy doing something else extremely important. The fear is: If I’m not busy all the time, the company may realize they don’t need me.

Your American colleagues will no doubt comment on the short Danish working hours, with the office a ghost town by 5pm while the Americans work on into the evening.

But having worked at Fortune 500 companies in both countries, I can say that Danes work fewer hours because they work efficiently, and with focus.

When I worked on 12-hour days on Wall Street, there were a lot of long lunches, taking a quick nip out to pick up my dry cleaning, shutting the door to an empty office so I could call Grandma on her birthday. In other words, those 12 hours weren’t 100% work.

Danes, by contrast, want to get the job done quickly so they can go home to their families.

While Americans love their families as much as Danes do, an American executive who leaves a position because he “wants to spend more time with my family” is using a code word for “I got fired.”

 

If you’d like more tips and observations for dealing with your American colleagues, book my presentation Working with Danes/Working With Americans.

 

Hear all our How to Live in Denmark podcasts on Spotify and on Apple Podcasts (iTunes).

 

Get the How to Work in Denmark Book for more tips on finding a job in Denmark, succeeding at work, and understanding your Danish boss. It can be ordered via Amazon or Saxo.com or from any bookstore using the ISBN 978-743-000-80-8. Contact Kay to ask about bulk purchases, or visit our books site to find out how to get the eBook. You can also book a How to Work in Denmark event with Kay for your school, company, or professional organization.

 

 

 

 

 

Want to read more? Try the How to Live in Denmark book, available in paperback or eBook editions, and in English, Chinese, and Arabic. If you represent a company or organization, you can also book Kay Xander Mellish to stage a How to Live in Denmark event tailored for you, including the popular How to Live in Denmark Game Show. Kay stages occasional free public events too. Follow our How to Live in Denmark Facebook page to keep informed.

Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2019

Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Arriving in Denmark: Some tips from my experience

August in Denmark brings the first signs of fall: a crisp chill in the air, the changing color of the leaves, the annual posters warning drivers to be aware of small children riding their bikes to school for the first time.

And foreign university students in the local 7-11, asking that their buns be warmed up.

I saw a newly-arrived young American student in my local 7-11 this morning, asking that her newly-purchased bun be warmed. The 7-11 clerk told her sorry, but there were no bun-warming services available at that branch.

She wasn’t too pleased, but it’s always a mistake to expect U.S., U.K., or Asian-level concepts of customer service in Denmark: in this egalitarian country, nobody serves anybody, and if they do they are frequently grumpy about it. You and the store clerk are equals, and nobody’s going to warm anybody’s buns unless it was agreed to in the original deal.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Danish babies: Rolling royalty and tribal names

 

Denmark is a small country, and Danish people tend to think small things are good. Small cars. Small homes. Small ambitions when it comes to international team sports. But one thing in Denmark is never small – a baby carriage.

Danes seem to believe that a carriage (or pram) for a new baby should be roughly the size of a hotel room on wheels.

Inside, baby will be wrapped up warm with a fat feather blanket – even in the summer. There will also be room for pillows, books, toys, snacks, diapers and extra clothes in the giant baby carriage.

Danish babies are like rolling royalty. Everything they need is at their tiny fingertips.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Danish Birthdays: Flags, Queens, and Remembering to Buy Your Own Cake

 

It has been said that Danish birthdays are the most important in the world. Adults, children, even the Queen of Denmark make a big deal about birthdays. And there is specific set of birthday rules and traditions for every age and role you play in life. Let’s face it, Danish birthday traditions are a minefield for foreigners. Get it wrong and you could make some serious birthday faux pas.

For example, if the sun is shining on your birthday, you may find Danish people thanking you. ‘Thanks for the sunshine’ they’ll say. This is because in Danish tradition, the weather on your birthday reflects your behavior over the past year. If you’ve been good, the weather is good. If you’ve been bad….well, then. You get depressing, grey, Danish rain.

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Podcasts

Danes and Singing: Danish drinking songs, party songs, and foreigners who try to hum along

 

There have been very few international singing stars from Denmark, and that’s a surprise, because Danish people love to sing.

Joining choirs is very popular, and Danish schoolchildren often start the week with a song – in my daughter’s school, all the grades get together and sing something from the school’s common songbook.

There’s actually a kind of common songbook for all the children of Denmark, called De Små Synger, where you can find classics like Se Min Kjole (See my dress), Lille Peter Edderkop (Little Peter Spider) or Oles Nye Autobil, (Ole’s new car). Ole’s new car is actually a toy car that he uses to run into things, like his sister’s dollhouse. De Små Synger

In general, the Small Songs are a throwback to an older Denmark, a quieter Denmark where most people lived in the countryside. Many of the songs refer to green hilltops, or forests, or baby pigs or horses, or happy frogs that live in a swamp. And of course, all the humans in the Small Songs are entirely Danish – or ‘Pear Danish,’ as the local expression goes. One out of five children born in Denmark today is not an ethnic Dane, but there’s no such thing as Little Muhammed Spider or Fatima’s New Toy Car.

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Podcasts

‘Friendship in Denmark is a slow-growing plant’

 

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. 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.

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Podcasts

Danes and English, or “Can I get by in Denmark without speaking Danish?”

 

I get a lot of mail at the How To Live in Denmark podcast, and some of it is from people who want to move to Denmark, but they’re not sure what to do to make money once they get here. But, I do speak English, they say. Can I make money in Denmark just off of just speaking English?

Generally, no. No you can’t. I mean, I do, but I was an experienced journalist before I got here. But English is not a rare commodity in Denmark.

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Podcasts

Danes and Authority: The giant penis on the wall, or how to deal with Danish civil servants

 

When you think you’re talking to the authorities in Denmark, you’re often not talking to the authorities. If it’s about bus service, train service, unemployment compensation, homeless shelters, even fire protection and ambulance services – you will be talking to a private company hired by the authorities.

Denmark has a really high level of privatization. Of course, these companies get subsidies from the government to provide transport service, or to counsel to the unemployed, or to put out the fire you started while trying to barbecue ribs, but their employees are not civil servants. They can be hired and fired and trained and promoted – they work for private companies.

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Books

How to Live in Denmark eBook now available!

If you enjoy the podcasts and this website, you may also enjoy the new How To Live in Denmark book, now available for download from Amazon, iBooks and Saxo.com.

The book is an easy-to-read collection of essays from the first year of the How To Live in Denmark podcast, which premiered in summer 2013.

It includes material from some of the most popular podcasts, like ‘No Planned Hangovers: Ways I will not Integrate in Denmark’ and ‘Tips for Dating a Danish man’ and ‘Tips for Dating a Danish woman.’

There’s also an extra essay with a little bit more personal information about me, such as how I first came to Denmark.

I hope you enjoy the book, which I’ve tried to price at an affordable level for everybody – around DK50, varied only slightly by your local level of sales tax.

Please contact me if you’re interested in a volume package to distribute to your student or work organization,  of if you’re interested in having me stage a live ‘How To Live in Denmark’ event. like_us twitter_button