Photograph: Pia Damsgaard
Text: Zachary A. Marx
How do you sum up the cultural differences between America and Denmark during a brief presentation? This was the task in front of me and two other presenters, Niels Arved and Charlotte Nytoft, by Herning Biblioteket. We decided that anyone could read off easily googleable statistics, so instead focused our attention on more personal stories and impressions.
Whereas I was born and raised in the USA, my two co-presenters were Danish-born, but each spent significant time in America before returning to Denmark. Interestingly, I was far more critical and far less reverent toward my “home” country than my Danish counterparts.
I left America at the tail-end of the last “once in a lifetime” economic catastrophe. I was one of the tens of millions of Americans left in the cold by The Great Recession. So I started my personal story with “the worst week ever,” when – in the midst of The Great Recession – I found myself out of a job, a broken-down down car, and my unemployment benefits held up for three long months because of an unfounded objection from my former employer.
My conclusion – both from my experiences with the difficulties of being poor in America and from the relative ease at which we lived on one income in Denmark – was that Denmark was the place we wanted to raise a family. The difference, in my mind, was empathy. Danes understand the importance of a work-life balance. Danes understand that healthcare and education should be rights and that society bears the burden of paying for them. They know the importance of things like parental leave and vacation time.
"Danes understand that healthcare and education should be rights and that society bears the burden of paying for them. They know the importance of things like parental leave and vacation time."
During the Q&A, an audience member asked me what it would take for me to return to America. I answered, “It would take two great jobs with great benefits to even consider it.” The issue of parental leave is especially salient for my wife and me, having just gone through it with our first child.
As I referenced above, my Danish co-presenters were much more effusive toward the United States. They spoke about the individual freedom they felt, and the kindness and openness of Americans they met along the way. Charlotte, in particular, was impressed by the level of charity – in both time and money committed to it – from Americans. Niels, on the other hand, was impressed by Americans’ work ethic.
These points are not without their merits. In my presentation, I joked about the reverse culture shock of going home and people trying to make small talk with me whilst waiting in line for the toilet. Americans are certainly not shy about opening up to complete strangers, in nearly any circumstance.
However, I had to object to the point about charity. Charities inherently exist in the gaps between society’s needs, and a government’s ability to handle those needs. That Danes expect, with good reason, that their most vulnerable citizens will be protected. Also, a large share of charitable donations goes toward churches. Some churches spend that money to feed the poor and homeless. Others use it to build basketball courts and private jets for their priests.
As for the point about work ethic, Americans indeed work harder and longer hours than in many countries. But again, this is out of necessity. I know many people with careers as teachers or police officers who are working second and third jobs, not for extra money, but just to get by.
For me, it boils down to the simple question of whether you value the individual or society more. Are you Elon Musk, or the Average Joe? For wealthy Americans and entrepreneurs, America is a great country. For tens of millions of Americans who are struggling with the ever-rising costs of healthcare, education, rent, etc. and medium incomes that have stagnated for decades, it is not as fantastic.
Charlotte and Niels both looked back at their time in the US with a sense of nostalgia. They clearly had a very different experience than I did! For me, I look at America from across the pond with a feeling of great sadness. I wish that it were a country that I felt we could return to if the right opportunity presented itself.
In the end, it was a fun night, with a very interested and engaged audience. With the 2020 Presidential Election coming up, Danes are far more interested than usual in that strange country on the other side of the Atlantic. As such, Niels, Charlotte, and I will follow up with a brunch at the library on 4 November, the day after the election. Hopefully, I’m drinking a celebratory toast, in stark contrast to four years ago.