“Is there politeness in Denmark?”
That was the question I was recently invited on a national TV show to discuss.
The implication was that I was supposed to say that Danes were not at all polite, because effusive praise and cheerful agreement make for a rather dull TV show.
But Danes are not impolite. They have their own version of courteous behaviour, which is based on reinforcing aspects of their culture that they care about.
If you’re newly arrived in Denmark, making Danish friends is not easy – in fact, surveys show that one of the main reasons internationals end up leaving is the difficulty of building a network.
The irony is that Danes are actually very good at friendship. Their friendships are strong, reliable, and deep-rooted. Friends can count on each other.
But because Danes take friendships so seriously, they like to keep their number of friendships under control. They don’t want to take on more friends than they can keep their deep commitment to.
The statement “I just don’t have room for any more friends” sounds perfectly sensible to Danes, and utterly stunning to foreigners.
Danes from other parts of Denmark
When internationals ask me how they can make Danish friends, I have one primary piece of advice.
My Danish friends who are about to spend some time in the U.S. often ask me for advice about surviving American culture, and I give them all the same two tips.
First, in the U.S. it’s a good idea to be polite to police officers. Danish cops often come from the countryside and have funny rural accents and since Danes generally don’t like hierarchy and authority anyway, they have no problem being sarcastic and a little smart-ass with a police officer.
That doesn’t work in the States. That Highway Patrol lady with the mirrored sunglasses who has just caught you speeding down Route 66 is unlikely to have much of a sense of humor. If she pulls you over, say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” a lot and keep your hands in view at all times so she can see you’re not reaching for a gun.
That’s the first tip. The second tip is that, should you go to a bar, it can happen that a stranger or two will offer to buy you a drink. If the stranger is of the opposite gender, or same gender depending on the bar, that person is interested in you. Let them buy you a drink. And chat with them while you drink it. If there’s no chemistry, when the drink is finished, you can both go your separate ways.
That’s a little shocking for Danes. Buying a drink for someone is a big deal in Denmark, a place where a loving couple who go out for a romantic candlelight dinner often split the bill. For Danes, buying someone a drink is like buying them a birthday present. Many Danes are not comfortable with a stranger making that level of commitment.
I did a little crowdsourcing for this week’s podcast. I asked some of our listeners, and some people on Facebook – what were some of the small cultural mistakes – the dos and don’ts, the faux pas – you made when you first arrived in Denmark?
I got a whole selection of answers. Don’t keep your shoes on while entering someone’s home was one thing. Don’t arrive even a few minutes late was another. The 8:00 meeting is not an 8:05 meeting. Trying to bum a cigarette – not done in Denmark. Telephoning a friend after 9:30 in the evening or so – if you’re beyond university age, this is not done in Denmark. Dropping by to see a friend unannounced – not done in Denmark. Danes like to plan in advance – and they are proud of their homes, and don’t want you to see them messy.
One girl mentioned that she had eaten the last piece of cake on a plate. You should never eat the last piece of anything in Denmark, at least without asking every single person present. If you don’t want to do that, the proper etiquette is to slice the piece of cake in half, and take half. And then the next person will slice that half in half. And so on. In the end there will be a little transparent slice left to shrivel up in the middle of the plate.
I get a lot of mail from readers of this site, but a lot of the mail I get is on one particular topic.
Here’s one from this week, from Teddy in Ghana: I WANT TO KNOW IF DANES WOMEN WILL DATE A GHANAIAN MAN. I AM VERY MUCH INTERESTED. And one from last month, from Alex: “Hi, I’d like to know if Danish girls would date a bi-racial Brazilian guy.” And one from late last year: “I’m a gay African American male who would like to date a Dane. Any advice?”
Basically, a lot of the mail I get is from men, wanting to know how they can get some action in Denmark.
I can understand this. Danes are very beautiful. And I can tell you now, most of them will not immediately reject you because you have a different skin color. I know of several babies of mixed heritage here in Denmark.
While I can’t offer any personal insights on gay dating in Denmark, I can tell you that male-female dating in Denmark is hard, even for the Danes, and it will probably be hard for you too.
I saw a movie this week. It was the latest in long-running series called Father of Four. The series has been running since the Fifties. As the kids grow up, they just replace them with new actors.
Anyway, in this episode, there was a romance. The oldest sister, who’s about 20, meets a handsome young man with a guitar. What struck me watching the movie was that the male romantic lead was visibly shorter than the female lead. I’d say at least a couple of centimeters shorter, maybe an inch.
Now, in Hollywood, they’d have that guy standing on a box, to look taller, or have the actress standing in a hole, to look shorter. In the Danish film, there was no attempt to hide it. They had them walk side by side through a meadow. I had to admit, I couldn’t focus on the love scene. I kept thinking. He’s really short, or maybe she’s really tall.
More than a decade after moving to Denmark, I am pretty well integrated into Danish society.
I’ve learned to speak Danish, I pay my taxes, I bike everywhere, I send my daughter to a Danish school. I enjoy a nice slice of dark rye rugbrød – even when I’m on my own and don’t have to impress anyone with how healthy I’m eating.
But there are a few ways I simply refuse to integrate. I will not do things the Danish way.
There’s a postcard you can buy at souvenir shops called The Perfect European. You’ve probably seen it somewhere. Last time I went through Kastrup airport, there was a poster version in the customs area.
The postcard has been around since the 1980s, and it has several small cartoons, illustrating each nationality within the 1980s EU, and making a sarcastic remark about what it does best. It says: The Perfect European is as humorous as a German. The Perfect European drives like the French. The Perfect European is as humble as a Spaniard, as organized as a Greek, as calm as an Italian, and serves traditional British food.
And, according to the postcard, The Perfect European is as discreet as a Dane. A little cartoon in the lower-right-hand corner shows a blond Danish man opening his coat to show off pictures of naked ladies.
Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography, in 1969. And for awhile, it was the world’s leading exporter of pornography.
This essay is from a series I wrote in co-operation with the Danish tabloid BT in 2003, shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
On my very first night in Copenhagen, I went with an American girlfriend to a downtown discotheque. I’m a blonde, and she’s an attractive black woman, so you could say we had something for every taste.
We sat at a table roughly the size of a pizza. Three men sat across from us, a distance of approximately 25 centimeters. For an hour. Without saying anything. I think Zulus or spacemen would have found some way to communicate with us, but this was apparently beyond the capability of three well-educated Danes.
Finally, fortified by gin and tonics, we spoke to them first, and they turned out to be nice guys. But that was a lucky night: Since moving here, I have been to many a discoteque where women shake their booty with their girfriends for hours while men watch with pretend disinterest from the sidelines, their eyes radiating invisible beams of desire: Please, miss, ask me to dance.