Decoding Danish Culture
The challenge facing internationals!
Text: Mariano Anthony Davies
For those who come to Denmark with different cultural backgrounds, getting to know the Danes and becoming an integrated part of their lives can be challenging.
An analysis of this challenge can run the risk of generalisation and painting everyone with the same brush. The complexity of the issue must also include consideration of local East-West cultural diversity within the Danish DNA as people in Jutland often have stereotype views of those from East Denmark (particularly Copenhagen) and vice versa.
For that reason, this article will tentatively seek to illustrate some general tendencies as seen through the eyes of many European and British citizens, who came to Denmark with different cultural baggage and made an effort to get to know the Danes.
If we assume that there is no smoke without fire, this historical DNA may explain some aspects of Danish culture today as experienced through non-Danish eyes.
Robert Molesworth was Great Britain’s Envoy posted in Denmark 1689-1692 and is known for his perhaps very “undiplomatic” description and sharp criticism of Denmark’s autocracy and the enslaved position of the population at that time. If we assume that there is no smoke without fire, this historical DNA may explain some aspects of Danish culture today as experienced through non-Danish eyes.
Not having had much freedom of movement or freedom of speech for many centuries, this may explain why Danes are observed as being slightly shy or reserved and at the same time very authoritarian.
It is certainly noteworthy that a recent British Ambassador commented that his initial impression of Danes, in general, changed after he changed his tactical approach towards them. Initially, Sunday walks within the area of the British Ambassador’s Residence over a three-week period did not lead to contact to any of the local Danes in their gardens. On the fourth week, he took the initiative to greet the same Danes in their gardens and soon got to know them all very well.
There could well be historical, psychological reasons for their generally very reserved nature (coupled with very well-developed cultural traditions) – the way they lead their lives, their passion for celebrating family events with songs, their Christmas traditions that include dancing around the Christmas tree and a very identifiable food culture.
At the same time, the Danes are a very proud nation who support their sports stars with sometimes exaggerated expectation that can then lead to even more exaggerated fear of lack of performance in the final analysis – an amusing duality. On the one hand, we are the best and all the excitement of winning, but followed by panic and the fear of losing.
This duality is also expressed through what is culturally known as “Jantaloven” – practised both among themselves nationally, regionally and with outsiders. In principle, this cultural baggage has five creeds – do not think you are especially important, do not think you are as important as us, do not think you are as clever as us and do not think you are better than us.
Consequently, Danes (in general) tend not to praise other Danes or others in general for their achievements – although this is allowed and practised with sports and other heroes in Danish society. Hence, there is a dichotomy in this duality, which is practised as a quite harmless national, regional, and personal pride in the final analysis.
The route to decoding Danish culture is two-fold. You need to take positive and active steps to understand Danish culture and seek natural contexts to show Danes that you want to get to know their culture and way of life. Such efforts will often be rewarded, but you must take steps to “break the ice” and get them to open up.
The combination of language and cultural understanding will enrich your perspective and open doors to an enlightening experience of Denmark and the Danes.
The more difficult step to take is to learn to speak Danish, which is grammatically not very difficult, but the pronunciation of words can be challenging, unless you are a very musical person. The combination of language and cultural understanding will enrich your perspective and open doors to an enlightening experience of Denmark and the Danes.
Ironically, you do not need to be good at Danish – just making an effort will be appreciated and often, once you are inside their comfort zone, they will enjoy speaking English with you as Danes usually like to practice and improve their English.
Be brave, take the first steps, and you will more often than not be rewarded with friendship. Once you break the ice, you will be on a path to discovering why the Danes have been voted the happiest people in the world and discover their great sense of humour.