It’s unusual for us Americans to miss a business opportunity – it feels a little unnatural, to be honest – but for some reason, I have never before written about hygge.
Hygge is big business. Hygge housewares catalogues offer candles, soft blankets, earthenware coffee mugs, and warm socks that will help you, too, experience hygge. Hygge tours are offered in major Danish cities.
And authors who do write about hygge are richly rewarded. They’re interviewed by glossy magazines, their books are arranged in elaborate piles in the shops at Copenhagen airport, and they speak to adoring audiences in London, Paris, and Rome. Meanwhile, my next exciting engagement is at Holsterbro Gymnasium. (I really am excited, kids – see you there!)
Selling hygge has become an industry. But hygge, like love, is not really something you can buy.
“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.
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.)
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 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. It was a fun lunch, but 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.
It’s summer in Denmark. The evenings are brighter, the winds aren’t quite as chilly, and the wild blue anemone flowers are bursting up through the grass. And the tourists are on the way. Understandably, Denmark attracts most of its tourists during the spring and summer, when you don’t need to pack heavy winter clothing. Although maybe you do – it depends on the summer.
Anyway, the tourists will be coming, and some of those tourists in Denmark may be related to you. What do you do with them? They want the Danish experience.
Based on my many years of showing parents, aunts, former colleagues, old college roommates and friends of friends around Denmark, these are my tips. They’re a bit Copenhagen-centric, but I think most of them can be applied throughout Denmark. And at the end, I’ll tell you about an amazing new museum I just found last week.
The Classic Tourist Day
OK, here’s the classic tourist day. First of all, start your tourists in the morning with a trip to the local bakery where they can pick out their own Danish pastry. Or two or three pastries. I know it’s called Wienerbrod – Viennese bread – but Danish pastries really are some of the best in the world. And get some coffee or black tea. Carbs and caffeine will set your tourists up well for the day’s busy program.
One of the many things I do for a living is work as a voiceover, and one of my regular gigs is with a Danish company that makes high-end microphones. Frequently, they present their microphones to visiting customers from around the world, and my role is to be fitted out with six or seven different microphones at once – a headset microphone like Britney Spears wears, a necklace microphone like the ones on reality shows, a lapel microphone like newscasters wear, even an old fashioned tabletop microphone. Then I read a text while the company switches the various microphones on and off, so the customers can hear the difference between the different models.
When the customers are from China, I always choose to read a text from Hans Christian Andersen. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are extremely popular in China. Many Chinese read them as children. So, when I’m faced with a room full of Chinese microphone buyers, I usually read The Little Match Girl. The Little Match Girl, if you haven’t heard it lately, is a very sad story about a starving little girl on the streets of Copenhagen in the 19th century. She’s supposed to be selling matches to help support her family, but it’s winter and she’s so cold that she keeps lighting the matches to keep herself warm. In the end, they find her small, frail body frozen to death.
So, when I read this story, strapped into seven different microphones, I find that by the end these highly technical Chinese sound professionals are sniffling and sentimental, transported back to their younger days.