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manners

Stories about life in Denmark

Politeness in Denmark: Some thoughts on Danish etiquette

“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.

Chivalry died so feminism could live
Gender equality, for example. Gone are the days when a gentleman would pull out a chair for a lady or walk on the outside of the sidewalk to protect her from mud and rogue horses.

Chivalry died so feminism could live. No one expects the modern Danish man to take off his costly high-performance all-weather rain jacket and put it over a puddle so a lady can walk across without dampening her feet.

She has her own costly high-performance all-weather rain jacket, and probably some spiffy high-performance waterproof boots to match.

Gender equality is why it is considered polite in Denmark for couples to split the bill on first dates. It is courteous to make the lady pay for her own hamburger. This shows that a Danish man respects her autonomy and earning power.

It’s also why some Danish women enjoy dating non-Danish men.

A gender divide on the bus
I find there still is a gender divide when it comes to giving up your seat for the elderly on public transport, however. Old ladies are quite pleased when you give up your seat for them – in fact, they often demand it.

Older men, by contrast, can get rather huffy when you offer your seat, because they like to think of themselves as still quite vital and handsome, in a Sean Connery kind of way.

I have learned to avoid offering men seats unless they are using a cane or wearing a long, 1960s style dark raincoat, the universal sign of a man who is extremely old and owns it.

Respecting people’s time
Another important part of contemporary Danish etiquette is respecting people’s time.

Everyone in Denmark is extremely busy or likes to think that they are. That’s why turning up to appointments on time is so important. Not just in a business context, but in a social context.

I’ll never forget the time I planned a 7pm dinner party on a chilly winter night. I happened to look out the window at 6:55 and was surprised to see all of my guests sitting in their cars, with the heat running, ready to push my doorbell at precisely 7pm but not a minute before.

This social punctuality is a shock for many internationals, whose own version of politeness is to be “fashionably late”. Even in New York City, where I lived before moving to Denmark, an 8pm start time suggests that you should turn up at 845 or so.

If you turn up at 8pm for that New York appointment, you will encounter a host or hostess with wet hair, wearing sweats, still folding the napkins and putting them on the table.

Turn up at 845 in Denmark, by contrast, and you will get a burned dinner and a boiling mad host.

Booking in advance
Another part of Danish social etiquette is booking your engagements very far in advance. Internationals always gasp when I tell them that mid-October is already far too late to invite your Danish friends to a Christmas party.

And once booked, an appointment is a nearly sacred obligation. Even if the date is months in advance, you simply turn up at that date and time without ever needing to reconfirm.

You don’t cancel unless you’re sick, you have a family emergency, or there is some kind of natural disaster like a hurricane.

It’s considered very poor form to cancel just because you got a better offer, or because your team just made the playoffs and the game is on TV, or worst of all that you are simply too busy. This would rudely suggest that you are busier than the person you cancelled on, or at least think you are.

When time management goes out the window
Of course, once you sit down at a Danish dinner table, time management goes out the window.

You’re expected to spend hours talking, eating a bit, drinking a lot, and talking some more. Being in the moment and enjoying the other guests’ company is hygge.

And prioritizing friends and family for a short time above the cares and stresses of all the other stuff you need to get done is the highest form of Danish politeness.

This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on October 9, 2019.

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

Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Summer vacation in Denmark: The agony and the ecstasy

Planning your summer vacation in Denmark is like playing the lottery. You could hit it lucky, with golden days and long, warm evenings, when you can sit with friends in the soft light and drink hyldeblomst cocktails.

Or you could get grey day after grey day, interspersed with a little rain whenever it is least convenient. The weather could be chilly, leaving your cute new summer clothes to sit disappointed in your closet while you wear your boring long trousers again and again.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

April Fool’s in Denmark, and the rough game of Danish humor

April 1st is April Fool’s Day – Aprilsnar in Danish – and each Danish newspaper will feature a clever but false story for the unwary to be fooled by.

Last year, for example, there was a story that the Danish police were switching their siren colors from blue to red to match the Danish flag.

There was also a report that the perennially messy discount supermarket Netto was launching a discount airline – Jetto.

And a local TV station ran a piece about how an acute shortage of daycare workers meant the Danish army had to be called in. It showed video of the battle-hardened tough guys in combat uniforms, reading aloud from storybooks and helping with toilet training.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Gift Giving in Denmark: Package games, almond gifts, and why it’s OK to exchange whatever you get

Like so many other aspects of life in Denmark, gift giving in the holiday season comes with dozens of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations.

Should you give a gift to your boss? What about your colleagues? Will you and your Danish friends exchange gifts? And why does almost every store in Denmark ask if you want a “gift sticker” when you buy something?

Here are a few basic tips about gift giving in Denmark.

Gift giving isn’t the most important thing
First of all, it’s important to emphasize that gift giving is not the most important thing about the holiday season in Denmark. Food is the most important thing, from the roast pork to the caramelised potatoes to the shredded red cabbage to the buttery Christmas cookies.

Alcohol is probably the second-most important.

And neither one is any good without the hygge of being together with your family at Christmas dinner, or your colleagues at the work Christmas lunch, or your football friends at your team holiday party.

Gift giving runs a distant fourth, so don’t get too worried about not choosing the perfect gift. That’s what the “gift sticker” is for – it means the recipient will be able to take your carefully-chosen gift back to the store and exchange it for something they’d like better.

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Stories about life in Denmark

No planned hangovers: 13 years after moving to Denmark, here are some ways I won’t fit in

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 even 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.

Introducing people to each other
Here’s one example: The Danish way of introducing people to each other. Where I come from, if I’m with one friend – let’s say, A, Anders, and we run into another friend, let’s say B, Bente, I introduce them to each other. I say, Anders, this is Bente, one of my favorite clients. Bente. Anders is my personal trainer.” That way they know a little bit about each other, so we can all participate in the short conversation that follows.

That’s not the Danish way. In the Danish way, people are expected to introduce themselves. Anders sticks out his hand and says “Anders.” And Bente sticks out her hand and says, “Bente”. That’s it. And then I chat briefly and uncomfortably with Bente while Anders kind of stands there like one of the bronze statues in Ørsted Park. Or, worse, stands there while Bente says, I hear you’re looking for a new personal trainer. I know a great guy!

So, I do try to introduce them to each other, in my American way, and they try to introduce themselves, in the Danish way, and it’s all a mess, we’re all talking over each other. I have failed to integrate.

I don’t watch Danish reality programs
Another way I’ve failed to integrate is that I don’t listen to Danish pop music, and I don’t watch Danish TV. Now, I know that there are some Danish TV dramas that have become famous all over the world – ‘The Killing’ is one of them – but there’s also a lot of the usual entertainment filler.

The same reality programming, dancing and singing contests, that you see in any other country. But Denmark is a small country, 5 and a half million people, and most of them are shy. Trust me when I tell you that there is not that much talent to choose from.

But it makes my Danish acquaintances concerned, and sometimes upset, when I say I don’t watch their TV. DR, the national TV channel, is seen as a way to kind of bind everyone together. That’s why everyone is legally required to pay about $600 a year for it, whether they watch it or not. If I was going to watch trashy entertainment, I’d watch American trash. God knows we have enough of it.

Not over the moon about licorice
Danish food. I have not integrated my diet to Danish food. I don’t eat nearly enough pork, and I’ve yet to master fried fish balls. I don’t like herring, and I’m not over the moon about licorice.

Licorice to a Dane is like a chili pepper to a Texan – it is their culinary ne plus ultra. You can buy sweet licorice, salt licorice, chocolate covered with licorice, licorice syrup for your coffee, powdered licorice to put on chicken or fish…they are nuts about it. I swear, I think it’s something genetic. If you have this specific gene, licorice tastes amazing, like, say, chocolate to everyone else.

In general, Danes do eat a lot of candy, and they binge, and teach their children to binge. The way we do it at my house is, I let my daughter have a little bit of chocolate or a cookie each day after dinner, as dessert.

Danes don’t do this. There is, theoretically, no candy all week, and then a giant bowl of candy on Friday night. Friday candy, it’s called, and it’s linked to a special Disney show on TV.

Stink-o on the weekend
They have the same attitude towards alcohol. I’ll often have cocktail at the end of the workday, or a glass of wine with dinner. I know my Danish friends think is a little suspect.

Danes don’t do this. What they do is avoid alcohol all week, and then get absolutely stink-o on the weekend, or when they go to a party. Getting stink-o is an expected part of the evening’s entertainment. Sometimes I try to make weekend plans with friends and they’ll say, no, we’ll be out the night before, so we’ll have a hangover that day. They plan their hangover!

I have not integrated to the Danish binge drinking culture. But I do like a glass of wine now and then.
 

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

Stories about life in Denmark

Danes and privacy: Why public nudity is OK & public ambition is not

Shortly before I arrived in Denmark in 2000, one of the famous guards outside the queen’s palace at Amalieborg was fired. You’ve seen these guards in pictures, the Royal Life Guards. They’re dressed like the British palace guards, only with dark blue coats, instead of red. They have the same tall, black, bearskin hats. It’s no big secret that being in the Royal Life Guards is an excellent path to a powerful future in corporate Denmark.

Anyway, the guard that was fired was special. She was the first woman to guard the Royal Palace at Amalieborg. There was a lot written about it in the newspapers at the time. Unfortunately, this young lady also had a part-time job. She was a prostitute. She would guard the palace by day and run her business out of the royal barracks in the evening. She found customers via escort ads in the local newspapers.

So the young lady was fired. But she was NOT fired because she was a prostitute. She was fired because she’d been ordered by her commander to stop moonlighting after her side-job was first discovered, and she did not stop. In fact, she’d been asking her soldier colleagues to drive her to her various nighttime appointments. She was fired for not following orders.

Whatever she wants in her private time
The Danes I talked to didn’t find this case particularly shocking. “It’s her private time, when she’s not at work,” they said. “She can do whatever she wants in her private time.”

That was my introduction to the Danish passion for privacy, and protecting their private life. The word private, itself, is used a lot. You’ll hear Danes talking about their ‘private economy’, which means their personal finances. Two of your colleagues may say they ‘we know each other privately’, which does not mean they’ve seen each other without underwear. It just means they get together on weekends.

Where this relates to you as a foreigner, is when the Danes around you – your colleagues, your neighbors, the people sitting next to you on the Copenhagen metro – don’t want to invade YOUR privacy. This is why they’re not talking to you.

Not being unfriendly; just respecting privacy
Now, me as an American, let’s say I saw a new African family move into my apartment building. I would think that was pretty interesting. I’d probably want to chat with them about where in Africa they came from, what they were doing in Denmark. Maybe bring them some American cookies and see if I could get invited to a meal to taste some food from their country.

But some Danes, not all, but many Danes, would not chat with the African family at all. This is because they are protecting the African family’s privacy. Perhaps the family doesn’t want to talk. Perhaps they have a secret. In Danish eyes, it can be good manners not to disturb them or ask too many questions. The African family might, incorrectly, see this as Danish unfriendliness.

And that’s not just for people from ethnic minorities. I’m blonde and green eyed, Danish speaking, I do not know most of my neighbors in Denmark. When they move in and out of one of the six apartments in my relatively small building, they often don’t say hello when they move in or goodbye when they move out.

I will admit here that I have resorted to Googling my neighbors to find out who they are, and why they might be using a chain saw at 10pm on a Saturday night.

Your age is not private in Denmark
Now, you may see an irony here. You may wonder how people who appear topless on public beaches, or nude in daily newspapers, keep anything private at all.

Well, there are some things that are private in Denmark, and some things that are not.

For example, age. In New York, where I used to live, you didn’t ask women their age. And if you did, you’d probably get lied to. I used to take off five or six years.

In Denmark, everyone knows your age. It’s part of your social security number, which you use for every contact with the government, even checking out library books. If you call to set up an appointment with your doctor, you’ll need to give that number, which includes your birth date. Your age is not private in Denmark.

On the other hand, your personal choices are very private. When I lived in Hong Kong, local Chinese people I had just been introduced to would ask me “Why aren’t you married? Don’t you want children? You’re getting awfully old.”

That’s not the kind of stuff people in Denmark want to discuss with strangers. They also don’t do much office gossip, about who is sleeping with who, or who is cheating on his or her spouse. That’s considered private.

Ambition is embarassing
And some things are private because they are considered embarrassing. Like ambition. Ambition is embarrassing in Denmark, because it suggests that you want to be better than someone else. In an egalitarian society, that’s very bad manners. A recent survey showed that 68% of Danes are not interested in being promoted at work. Maybe that’s because, if you get promoted, whatever extra income you get mostly goes to taxes. But maybe it’s because some Danes were too embarrassed to tell the survey taker that they wanted to get ahead. Ambition is private in Denmark.

Religion is another thing that is very private in Denmark. Even though Denmark is officially a Christian country, and the queen is head of the state church, to be openly Christian, and talk about Jesus or being saved, is considered bad manners. It will make most Danish people very uncomfortable. Many Danes see religion as sort of a security blanket for backward, uneducated people. This is one of the many reasons Danes have so much trouble understanding their Muslim minority.

Contempt for the Bible Belt
Speaking of religion, my Danish friends have a lot of contempt for Bible Belt in the U.S., where people loudly declare their religious fervor, but if you’re, say, gay, you’re expected to hide it, keep it to yourself.

In Denmark, if you’re gay, you can tell everybody – but if you’re religious, particularly deeply religious, you’re expected to hide it, keep it to yourself. That kind of thing is…private.
 

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

Stories about life in Denmark

Danish manners: Why everyone is laughing at you

This essay is from a series I wrote shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.

Danes like to see themselves as a relaxed, casual society that doesn’t put too much emphasis on formal manners.

That said, there are powerful unwritten rules about Danish manners that will earn you sullen, silent disapproval if you do not follow them.

For example, when sharing food with the Danes, you may not take the last item on any given plate.

You may take half of it, and it is quite entertaining to watch the last of a plate of delicious cookies be halved, and halved again, and then halved one last time, so there is only a tiny crumb left – which no one will take because it is the last item on the plate. Someone will gobble it guiltily later in the kitchen during clean-up.

Bring your own birthday cake
If it is your birthday, your friends or colleagues will congratulate you heartily, and celebrate by putting a Danish flag on your desk, regardless of what your actual nationality may be. They will not, however, be providing any sweets.

That’s your job, and it is considered good form to bring a cake or fruit tart for the after-lunch period. If your workplace is particularly busy, you can just announce by group email that the cake is in the kitchen for whenever anybody has time. There, each colleague can cut his or her own piece, carefully slicing the last bit into tinier and tinier halves so you will have a small, nearly transparent sliver to take home with you at the end of the day.

When dining with the Danes, you should not begin to eat until the host or hostess says, “Værsgo og spise”, which loosely translates as “Come on and eat!” When you are finished with your Danish meal, you should say, “Tak for mad,” aka “Thank you for food” before leaving the table.

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Velbekommen!
Should you for some reason be eating when someone else is not – say, you’re having an early or late lunch while your colleagues are on their way to a meeting – Danes like to say “Velbekommen!”, or “Enjoy your food!”

They like to do this when your mouth is entirely full of pasta or some other volumuinous dish. I find this incredibly annoying. Just nod. You are not required to respond.

There is no word for “please” in Danish. Polite children are taught to say, “Må jeg bede om…” when requesting something, which translates to “May I beg for…”

You can also ask politely if people would “be sweet” and do things you would like them to do. When requesting that, say, your upstairs neighbor remove his giant oak dining table from the hallway where you bang your shins on it every day, you can say, “Vil du ikke være sød og…” or “Would you not be sweet and…”. Putting anything in the negative form makes it more polite in Danish.

#&%#/?!!!
English profanities are very popular among Danes, and children are sometimes permitted to say them as an alternative to their Danish parallels. It can be jarring for English speakers to hear small blonde children swear like battle-hardened Marines while adults stand idly by, but write it off to cross-cultural misunderstanding.

By the way, those parents will almost always go by their first names, as do teachers and doctors. The “Mr.” and “Mrs.” forms are almost unknown in Denmark, except for when airlines add them to your e-Ticket.

Since there is no “Ms” in Danish, airlines and sometimes banks will call all females over 18 “Fru”, the Danish version of “Mrs.” This is occasionally translated back to English, where all women – married or not – will find suddenly find themselves “Mrs” this-and-that.

You are not expected to address anyone with “De”, the formal Danish word for ‘you’, except perhaps people who are more than 80 years old, plus Margrethe, Queen of Denmark, who is in her 70s.

Her son Crown Prince Frederik is in his 40s and prefers the informal “du”, although his snobbish, jealous younger brother Prince Joachim still reportedly insists on “De”. Perhaps the only reason “De” is still taught in language schools is Joachim’s penchant for importing wives from abroad.

Selling is embarrassing
The most ill-mannered thing you can do in Denmark is to sell something, or try to. Danes are appalled by aggressive salespeople, and “car salesman” is a term of insult.
The car salesmen feel this deeply: when I tried to lease a car recently, I almost had to beg them to tell me about the different features and models. One salesmen sat placidly behind a desk. When I asked about specific features of the car I was interested in, he would come over and point them out, and then sit down behind his desk again until I had another question.

This principle also applies to job interviews. You should try to convince your potential boss that you would be right for the job without bragging about your past achievements, a balance that is difficult to strike. If you mention something you have done very well, make sure to qualify it by noting something else that you screwed up badly.

Self-ironing
This will demonstrate something called “self-irony,” a treasured Danish concept. It means not taking yourself too seriously.

“Self-irony” is at the root of what in my book is Danes’ most unhappy mannerism, which is laughing openly at others’ misfortunes.

Drop an watermelon onto your foot? Ho! Accidentally try to go down the “up” escalator while carrying a lot of luggage? Ho! Ho! Stumble while trying to balance a tray full of drinks from the bar, spilling $75 worth of pasta and cocktails onto the floor? Ho! Ho! Ho! No one will try to help, but everyone will have a smile at your expense. This is because you should not be taking yourself too seriously. You are everyone’s silent movie comedian today.

Danes don’t do this just to foreigners – they do it to each other. There’s an old fashioned concept called a “kvajebajer”: when you make a fool of yourself, you are supposed to buy a beer for everyone who enjoyed watching you. Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!
 

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