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Body language know-how

Is a friendly hug acceptable in Denmark? Have you had some doubts, especially when you

meet a Dane for the first time? Our cultural detective Jane gives us some great insight.

Photographs: Unsplash / Freepik

Text: Jane Elgård Petersen

The Danes can be much more private and reserved than Southern Europe or South American newcomers. Often, a handshake is the best way to meet a Dane for the first time. Before starting a business meeting, handshakes will always be the most appropriate way to welcome all the participants in a meeting.

Body language, including facial expressions and loudness of voice, gestures, and eye contact, may play an enormous role in the success of a business and social meeting. There are many differences we can discuss. For example, when a Scandinavian smiles, this usually signifies good progress - however, to a Chinese person, it may mean embarrassment. Another custom is frequent bowing - this expresses gratitude or humbleness in Japanese culture. However, it can be seen as ingratiating to Americans and some Danes.

Different cultures have different rules about making eye contact. In some cultures, direct eye contact is viewed as disrespectful if directed at those who demand greater respect due to age or social status. However, in other cultures, direct eye contact signifies trust and reliability. Denmark belongs to this latter group. Therefore, direct eye contact during communication is required. As you might have realised, there is very little hierarchy in Denmark, so no need to show extra deference to anyone, regardless of their social position or age.

"In many countries, it is common to stand close to or touch each other when talking. This happens especially when you know the other person quite well. This is not the best way in Denmark."

Not having direct eye contact can be perceived as an exaggerated display of humility or as if you have something to hide. It may even be seen as rude as if you cannot be bothered to give your counterpart your full attention. So, while you may have intended to show more respect, such a gesture can ultimately backfire.

In many countries, it is common to stand close to or touch each other when talking. This happens especially when you know the other person quite well. This is not the best way in Denmark. Standing too close or touching others may be perceived as too personal, overwhelming and intrusive. The recommendation is to keep a comfortable distance, the length of your forearm when interacting with Danes - at least as a starting point.

Recently I unintentionally made an unprofessional mistake when I put my hand on a client’s gloved hand when talking directly to her. This was not necessarily bad, but I am sure she was slightly surprised by my behaviour. When driving home, I had a bad feeling, as I did not want to offend her or lose her confidence.

Is it easy to read the Danes?

When you hear that Danes are open and laid-back, they tend to express their emotions similarly. However, does Janteloven and the expectations of not standing out go hand in hand with emotional excessiveness? For Danes, happiness is more connected to feeling and is often private, and satisfaction is expressed as a relatively calm and quiet emotion. A Danes’ response will typically not be overly excited when given a gift. It doesn’t mean they are not grateful but they tend to show their gratitude more level-headedly. Danes are mostly happy, even if they don’t show it that much.

Danes can be very secretive regarding personal gatherings, such as birthdays or anniversaries. However, when a close colleague knows it’s your birthday, you are in for a surprise – flags often appear on your desk. You are usually expected (a very typical Danish tradition) to bring a homemade cake for everyone in the office or your team to enjoy. You might have guessed it already – but Danes love eating cake!

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