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How to live (well) in Denmark

When sharing the story of her move to and career in Denmark, it's clear why Kay Xander Mellish was the best person to write books on living and working here.

Photographs: Morten Larsen - / Anastasia Sevruikova /

Georgia Elle Mellish

Text: Michaela Medveďová

Kay Xander Mellish did not choose the best time to come to Denmark 23 years ago. The Internet bubble had burst, which left her out of a job for a while.

In the years that followed, she not only established an amazing career for herself but is now dedicating her time to helping internationals and Danes bridge their cultural differences and work better together.

Danish roots

Kay is originally from Wisconsin - a state with a special connection with her adopted country. "Denmark is very prosperous, but it hasn't always been so. It was very poor for a while, particularly after the Second Schleswig War in 1864. There was famine and war, and about 10% of the Danish population emigrated to America." Many of them came to the Wisconsin area and the states nearby because the climate was similar, and many of them were farmers from Jutland who took their skills to the US. "I don't have any Danish heritage, but the state I grew up in does. For example, we've never had capital punishment, and there's a lot of value to education, so you still see echoes of the Danish culture. One more echo - it has the number one rate of alcoholism in the US. I'm not a drinker, but there are more bars per capita in Wisconsin than any place in the US."

The similarities don't end there - Wisconsin has the same population as Denmark, and the university city (Madison) resembles Aarhus. Wisconsin has one large city, Milwaukee, and one university city, Madison, just as Denmark has Copenhagen and Aarhus. It's also a pleasant, peaceful place - perhaps too much for young people to build their careers. "That's the thing I tell people about Denmark. I have a lot of young people saying they have job offers in the UK, the US, Asia, and Denmark - and asking which one they should take. And I always say: go someplace else when you're young, someplace exciting, date many people, and have many experiences. And when you're 35, married, and have a kid that needs to go to vuggestue, then come back to Denmark."

An executive move

Kay herself moved out of Wisconsin when she was 18. She attended university in New York, moved to Germany and Hong Kong for a couple of years, and then moved back to New York for a decade. "In the 90s, New York was really a go-go place - kind of a Sex and the City time with lots of discos, restaurants, and parties. It was super fun, but I was approaching my mid-thirties and ready for something else."

She'd been looking for a place to move in the US - Atlanta, Austin, Seattle, or Chicago - but none suited her. Then, she visited Copenhagen. "Denmark was sophisticated without being too intense. New York has constant competition, and that's fun when you're building your career. But I was ready for a change - I was ready to start a family."

She was able to find a job in Copenhagen and navigate the immigration process with relative ease. "The company did an executive move for me, so they moved all my furniture here. But they went bankrupt after five months. So here I am, in a foreign country - I don't know many people, I don't speak the language, and I can't really go back because I have all my furniture here. Then I got another job, and that company went bankrupt after nine months."

This was caused by the Internet bubble burst. Kay then ended up being unemployed for a year. She spent the time well - learning Danish and going to every museum in town, learning about the history and culture of Denmark. She learned so much about the Danish tourism industry that she started writing tourist articles about Denmark. "At the end of that year, I was on the last kroner of my savings because I didn't get any benefits - I hadn't been here long enough. But it didn't make me think negatively of Denmark because it wasn't the country's fault - the bubble burst worldwide."

So despite the initial trouble, Kay celebrated her 23rd Danish "birthday" this June and is a dual citizen of the United States and Denmark. When speaking to people in other countries considering the move to Denmark, she always mentions an important consideration: Is Denmark right for you? "Based on your personality, maybe it is, maybe it isn't. You have to be willing to work in a group and share credit. You have to be able to not take yourself seriously and admit your mistakes. And you have to have a lot of initiative in a Danish workplace."

From one big Danish brand to another

Breaking into the Danish job market was quite difficult for Kay. She had a journalism degree and a career as a writer. But she didn't speak Danish well enough to write in it - and still doesn't. "I can do an interview in Danish, which I think is crucial. I speak to customers and give speeches in Danish, but my writing still isn't good enough. When I occasionally write for Danish newspapers, I still get a translator. I can take a look at a translation and use this word instead of that word, but I couldn't do it from scratch."

After spending almost a year without a job initially, she got a position at Danske Bank that she held for the next 8 years. "I almost made them bankrupt. I tried really hard - I just didn't get them over the edge," jokes Kay. This job was a great continuation of her Danish lessons, as her coworkers were Danish, forcing her to train her language skills. Her role was to translate the corporate magazine from Danish to English. "But the stuff I translated wasn't very interesting to English speakers. I'd translate a piece about a local football tournament for readers in Singapore. They don't care. So I did original English language articles about Singapore and our non-Danish business. That turned into me being the writer and editor for the magazine and making it bigger - we ended up being in seven different languages." However, then came the financial crisis, and needless to say, having a magazine was not at the top of Danske Bank's priorities. So Kay moved on - to Carlsberg. "Which was really fun because you get free beer," laughs Kay. "I was very popular during those years because I don't drink that much and was always giving away beer."

And after Carlsberg (and a brief stint in Saxo Bank), Kay set up her own business - and has worked for herself ever since.

"I would say of the people i work with, maybe 80% of the time, we're talking about a female spouse. If the spouse can't get a job, can't find some friends, and is lonely, that will be a short stay."

Work or cultural misunderstandings?

Now she helps companies and individuals achieve better cultural collaboration. Her work focuses on expats who want to work in Denmark and Danish companies with international employees. She's also the author of the popular books How to Live in Denmark and How to Work in Denmark.

When she first arrived, Kay wrote some blog posts about trying to fit in Denmark - and got emails from people telling her how much she helped them. But she did not pursue it further until she left Saxo Bank. "All of a sudden, I had many hours a week with nothing to do. I was trying to set off a business as a voiceover artist - which I still do sometimes. To practice, I started a podcast." Kay's How to Live in Denmark podcast is still running ten years later.

Many people had been asking her for transcripts, so she got a website and put them up. "I had ended up with a big pile of transcripts and thought - hey, this can be a book. And once that was out, I've started to be asked to come and give speeches, and that's now like 80% of my business."

In her first book, there was a chapter on finding a job and working in Denmark, which got the most engagement from people. That spurred the second book, focusing on how to work in Denmark. "People were really interested in it because no other guide was available at the time. Now we have many government agencies and other things trying to help people, but before, people were just in the dark. I saw so many people come here and have it not work out for them because they didn't know the rules." For example, the culture of trust might be unknown for some coming from a non-trusting culture where you have to defend your achievements or work, not share it in a team. "If you are used to your success being based on individual achievement and find yourself in a group-oriented culture, you must make a big adjustment. If someone explains it to you, you realise that it's not about you - they just simply do it this way here."

Cultural differences also come into play when finding a job - instead of relying on qualifications and certificates, Danes like storytelling. "I tell internationals that when they come to a Danish job interview, they need to have three stories prepared: two in which you took on a challenge and figured it out and did really well, and the third story about the time when you made a big fool of yourself, you made a big mistake, and what you learned from it. You get more credibility. Danish employers will think: Okay if she is wrong, she will admit it."

Kay highlights the ability to readily admit your mistakes as a big difference between Denmark and other working cultures, where you either hide it because you don't want to lose face or your job or blame someone else. She thinks Danes are comfortable admitting they dropped the ball partly because of the welfare system - they know that even if they get fired, they've got that hand underneath them. "A lot of Danes don't understand that many expats don't have that same backup, that they might have to leave if they lose their job and don't have permanent residency. So if you have the social welfare system beneath you, you'll disagree with your boss openly, leave at precisely 4 pm, and take all your vacation. But an international doesn't have the same security as a Dane or a permanent resident."

Finding friends with perseverance

But the number one reason Kay sees people leaving Denmark is if their spouse is unhappy. "I would say of the people I work with, maybe 80% of the time, we're talking about a female spouse. If the spouse can't get a job, can't find some friends, and is lonely, that will be a short stay."

There are some things internationals can do to prepare for living in Denmark before coming here. They can read up on the workplace culture to better foresee the expectations their employer is going to have of them. But they should also consider their social network as it is just as important as work. "They should ask themselves what they like to do socially - and start looking for those social aspects in the place they're going to move to. You can't always count on your colleagues to be your friends. If most people already have families, they won't want to hang out with you." Kay also recommends not giving up if friends don't come easy and immediate. "Danes take a long time to warm up to you. One of my colleagues is a Polish woman who had been going to a salsa club for 6 months before they invited her to have sangria afterwards."

Approaching Danes who have not grown up in the area they now live in might also be a good idea because they can feel just as isolated without the friend group they grew up with. "If you're in Odense, find someone who grew up in Aalborg because they won't have their network - and they won't have family functions and celebrations every weekend."

Thanks to her outgoing personality, Kay succeeded in finding her group just as she did in establishing her career. But starting a family was also in the plans. "I was 40 and had not met Mr Right. I'd met a lot of Mr Wrongs," she laughs. "But I decided I really wanted to be a mother. So my daughter is a donor child, and she's absolutely great. I don't know if I could have done that if I was still in the US. There is a great daycare situation set up in Denmark. It's the sense of security again."


Kay is fortunate to see the impact of her work firsthand. She's had people coming to her or reaching out after they've read her book, saying how she's helped them or that they wish they'd had this information five years ago when they moved to Denmark. "I think, in general, Denmark has moved towards addressing cultural differences because, let's face it, they need international workers at all levels of the labour market. They need to realise what they're expecting because when you have an insular culture like the Danish culture, you don't always realise what you expect of internationals." She's constantly learning more about how Danes and internationals work together - and she doesn't plan to stop.

Personally, she wants to focus a little more on travelling within Denmark. "Many internationals come here and just stay in Copenhagen or Odense. There's so much to do here, particularly because you can get train tickets for 99 kroner - you can simply get to the other end of the country.

So I would like to encourage internationals to experience different parts of Denmark, especially if they want to have kids and build a life here."

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