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What's trust got to do with it?

Hidden hurdles to integration in Denmark.

Photograph: Pexels

Text: Luisa Geitmann-Mügge

The fact that it is hard to learn Danish, takes serious effort to understand the tax system, and finding a job as a foreigner aren't the most enjoyable experiences about being an international in Denmark. But what other, more subtle structures and cultural dimensions are there that can make it challenging to integrate into Danish culture? There are at least two things that come to mind when taking a closer look at Danish everyday culture beyond rugbrød and leverpostej. Firstly, the Danish society at large is built upon a high level of trust - in the system and each other. Secondly, people are generally expected to be self-sufficient and independent - in most domains of life and from a young age.

Trust me, trust the system

Unattended babies in prams in front of cafés or only having to show your picture-less yellow card at local elections. These are moments in which you realise that in Denmark, people trust each other. The same trust they seem to have in each other often also applies to "the system". It is uncommon to hear someone raised in Denmark question whether they can trust, for example, their municipality with their data or expect anything less than proper and timely management of their requests. And they have good reasons to "trust the system": in Denmark, things just work (unless MitID breaks down, that is). By now, people are used to smooth processing and convenient digital communication.

And this is where the invisible hurdle lies for internationals: many are not used to being able to trust the system to that extent.

You don't have to come from a corruption-riddled country to meet public administration officers and other service providers with a portion of scepticism unfamiliar to many local Danes. It is sufficient to have years of experience dealing with a public system which is less stable, reliable, efficient and digitised to find it difficult to internalise the Danish "det skal nok gå"- attitude.

This cultural misalignment can lead to tensions if not talked about openly. To avoid widening the gap between immigrants and the public system, both parties need to be reflective of their perceptions and active in communicating them. Public and other employees dealing with international cases can take a step towards them by providing more detailed explanations of processes and how long these usually take, as well as by giving instructions on what to do when things don't go as expected. A healthy portion of empathy, moreover, never hurts in intercultural encounters.

On the other side of the equation, internationals might just have to be more open and honest about their concerns, share that they are worried, and ask people who have lived in the country for longer for their advice. Find out what is normal and when you should start being worried.

What do you do, though, when you start worrying, want to complain, or think that you've been treated unfairly or not received the things you feel like you're entitled to?

"Unattended babies in prams in front of cafés or only having to show your picture-less yellow card at local elections. These are moments in which you realise that in Denmark, people trust each other."

There is help, but you've got to ask for it

This leads us to the second hidden hurdle to seamless integration: the high level of independence and self-sufficiency expected from individuals.

In Denmark, children are taught to not just be independent thinkers but also proactive "doers" from an early age. This might be one of the reasons why many of those who grew up in Denmark have a hard time relating to less independent adults.

The Danish welfare system is extensive. However, it can be irritating for internationals who grew up in cultures which demand them to be less independent that it is often the individual's responsibility to ask for their piece of the welfare cake. If you are unaware of that, you might be left behind. And even if you do, you might not be aware of what level of persistence is required or appropriate.

The good news is that entities like your municipality's citizen service, the healthcare sector and other social services are created to serve you and the vast majority of people employed in these sectors are very ready and willing to do so.

So, in most cases, the question is not whether you will be helped but rather whom to ask and how persistent you have to be.

Balancing act

It is an art to find the right balance between trusting the system enough and advocating for your rights. You'll have to be patient and expect that everything is going to work out and ask for what you want in a manner which would be perceived as at least pushy in many other cultures at the same time. Landing at this sweet spot is something you learn over many years of living in a culture. Like many other aspects of culture, it becomes natural and subconscious. For those joining a culture later in life, getting there is more unnatural and requires active effort, but it can definitely be aided by an interculturally sensitive and informed environment.

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