The weirdest things about the Danes – through the eyes of AU internationals

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Reality is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the eyes of four new AU employees from other countries who participated in AU’s workshop for new arrivals recently. Omnibus asked them to share their first impressions of Danish culture.

2019.05.10 | Lene Ravn og Andreas Bang Kirkegaard (fotos)

One thing the workshop participants wondered about was why Danes are so interested in what other people eat on Christmas Eve – and assume that everyone serves the same thing year after year. And another asked why “hygge starts at 6 pm and ends at 10 pm”.

“If you got a new co-worker in Canada, people would offer to show you around, ask you if you need help with anything and maybe even throw a welcome party for you.”

Learning Danish culture

Once a month, AU offers a ‘Cultural Training: Living and Working in Denmark’ workshop for international AU employees and their significant others.

Omnibus joined in for the May session, at which participants explored topics like the Danes’ conception of society, the ‘Law of Jante’ and the Danes’ tendency to keep their work and private lives in separate compartments. 

Lindsay MacDonald Vermeulen is Canadian, a postdoc at the School of Communication and Culture and has been living in Denmark since October 2017.

What has surprised you most in Denmark?

“The Danes aren’t as hospitable as I had expected, and it’s been hard to make friends. If you got a new co-worker in Canada, people would offer to show you around, ask you if you need help with anything and maybe even throw a welcome party for you.”

What do you like best about Danish culture?

“To be honest, the Law of Jante. People don’t have such a competitive mindset, and they trust each other.”

What do you like least?

“I’ve started to get a little homesick. I miss seeing more cultural diversity. This is one area where Denmark really differs from Canada, which is a nation of immigrants.”

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about Danish culture?

“People trust each other here, and everyone’s allowed to ask ‘why’ when a decision is made. There is genuinely great respect for other people’s opinions.”

“I haven’t seen anyone in formal clothes here in Denmark – not even at the office.”

Daizon Sakuri is Japanese, a visiting professor at the Department of Global Studies, School of Culture and Society and has lived in Denmark for a month.

What has surprised you most in Denmark? 

“I haven’t been that surprised, because the Danes seem pleasant and modest – like the Japanese. People don’t make noise, they don’t shout in the street, and they’re polite. But in Japan, wearing a tie is also part of being polite. I haven’t seen anyone in formal clothes here in Denmark – not even at the office. And I really like that, because suits aren’t very functional, they’re expensive and you freeze in them in the winter. In fact, it can feel a little suffocating to be forced to wear them.”

What do you like best about Danish culture?

“The Danes are quite relaxed, and I think that has something to do with how they dress. It has an effect on people that things aren’t so stiff, and you can’t hide behind a tie. It stresses that Danes respect diversity – which the Japanese do not.”

What do you like least?

“Danish food. It’s not good. Why do you have to eat cold food all the time? In Japan, we eat warm soup and warm noodles. But here, you eat smørrebrød. Danes don’t eat a lot of fish, either, which is odd considering the whole country is surrounded by the sea.”

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about Danish culture?

“I’ve confirmed that Denmark is a good place to live your life. And I’ve met a number of people from Japan who don’t want to return home because society treats the individual well.”

“You would be seen as a nationalist – maybe even a separatist – if you flew the national flag in your own garden in Belgium”

Jo Philips is Belgian, assistant professor at the Department of Engineering and has lived in Denmark since October 2018.

What has surprised you most in Denmark?

“I believed that Denmark was a lot like Belgium. But that’s not the case. For example, Danes fly the national flag on birthdays and for all kinds of other occasions. For Belgians, that’s a very political thing to do. You would be seen as a nationalist – maybe even a separatist – if you flew the national flag in your own garden in Belgium. An average family won’t even own a flag – and even if they did, it would only be used in connection with football matches. In Denmark it’s not a symbol of nationalism, but just a symbol of a celebration, and as a foreigner you need to understand that. I still don’t quite know how to do it. Should I fly the flag on my daughter’s birthday? And is it more appropriate for me to fly the Belgian flag or the Danish flag?

And then there are the working hours, which have also surprised me. Everything takes place earlier. And there’s more time for your family. So when I pick up my daughter at the kindergarten at 4:30 pm, I’m often the last parent.”

What do you like best about Danish culture?

“The balance between work and free time. Family is important to the Danes, and you don’t have to have a guilty conscience about your job if you pick up your kids early. In other countries, people would interpret that as meaning that you’re not ambitious about your job. 

In that light, it really also surprises me that there are such big problems with gender equality at the university. In Belgium, I saw Scandinavia as the place where the gender equality problem had been solved, and I expected that there would be a 50/50 balance between men and women at the university. It surprises me that there are so few women at AU when the balance between work and free time is so good. But there must be something else standing in the way.”

What do you like least?

“It’s hard to make friends. But that’s actually also hard in Belgium too. Especially at my age, when you have a job and kids. And the food. I miss Belgian food so much.”

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about Danish culture?

“In Denmark, the management style is very democratic. And you need to be conscious of that, because otherwise it just seems strange when everyone’s opinions need to heard and meetings take a long time. In fact, it can seem like bad management. But the truth of the matter is that Danish managers want to motivate their employees, show them trust and get them to take responsibility themselves.”

“There’s a big contrast between private life and working life in Denmark, and you don’t go out with your co-workers”

Laura Bianchi is Argentinian, an intern at International Academic Staff and has lived in Denmark since July 2017.

What has surprised you most in Denmark?

“There are a lot of differences. Argentina is always in crisis. Everything works here. You can bike to work on a bike path. If this was Argentina, you would have biked between the cars on the road, and when you got there, your bike might be stolen. 

Another difference is that in Argentina, you can invite people home two hours after you meet them. You don’t do that here. And I still haven’t made any Danish friends.”

What do you like best about Danish culture?

“Everything works, and everything is very safe. People generally do the right thing. By that I mean that Argentina is very corrupt. We often blame our politicians, but in reality everyone uses bribes a little bit. That’s not how it is in Denmark.”

What do you like least? 

“The language. It’s really, really hard to learn. There are too many vowels, and I can’t even hear them. Obviously, you can survive in English here, but as in many other countries, you’re an outsider if you don’t speak the language.”

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about Danish culture?

There’s a big contrast between private life and working life in Denmark, and you don’t go out with your co-workers. In Argentina, there aren’t any social rules against that – you can be friends with everyone. And people always show up on time in Denmark. Argentinians are always late, and if you come ‘on time’, you actually end up coming too early.”

 

To be or not to be...Danish

During the ‘Cultural Training: Living and Working in Denmark’ workshop Annette Dahl, country specialist from C3 Consulting, gave participantes the following good advice on how to blend in:

  • You should only help a Dane if you’re asked. Otherwise, hands off.
  • The Law of Jante is still in force. And one of its effects is that Danes are truly terrible at giving each other compliments.
  • Danes are direct – but not when giving feedback or when telling jokes.
  • Equality is gold. “When former prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt got herself a Gucci bag, the Danes asked themselves: ‘Can you be chair of the Social Democrats and have one of those?’ The answer is no if you adhere to the principle of equality, and so she was given the nickname ‘Gucci Helle’,” Annette Dahl explains.
  • Schools downplay the importance of grades and competition. Instead it’s all about finding your own personal motivation. And the many Iron Man athletes and stressed-out people in Denmark can be understood as a consequence of that.
  • It’s polite not to talk in line at the supermarket, and to refrain from sitting next to other people on the bus. 
  • Hierarchies are flat. And as a foreigner in a Danish classroom, you might find the students pretty rude.
  • No Outlook, no friends. If you want to make Danish friends, open your Outlook calendar and say: ‘I’d like to have a cup of coffee with you. When is good for you?’

Translation: Lenore Messick.

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