I am a foreigner, have lived in Copenhagen for 12 years, and can barely speak a word of Danish – yet all my friends bar one are Danes.
But it turns out from talking to other foreigners living here that I may be one of only an exclusive few who are successful enough to infiltrate and crack the Danish friend code.
Luton boy lucks out
Why do so many foreigners find it difficult to make Danish friends? Have I just been incredibly lucky and somehow found affection amongst the Danes? After all, up until Brexit being English meant I was in the premier league of Denmark’s favourite foreigners!
I remember when I first arrived in 2008 finding it weird but strangely flattering that myself, a white male from suburban Luton with average English features, was considered exotic. Luckily, times have changed and today exotic is a little more interesting than my pasty white face.
It is sad to think that so many foreigners living here in Copenhagen will never have the experience of being invited to spend time with the Danes in their summerhouses or, let alone, be invited for a cup of coffee in a Danish household in this city.
Could it just be down to a foreigner’s entry point into the city? Many come here to work at international companies and so have little chance to mingle with homegrown Danes. Or maybe it is simply the fact that Denmark is a nation of introverts and even Danes find it hard to find new friends.
Of course, it could also be the language barrier, meaning that not speaking Danish is the problem. Even though most Danes love to practise their English, they are only willing to do this until their brains start to hurt. They will invariably switch back to Danish, so unless you can keep up, this friendship will be going nowhere. But if this was the case, I would have no Danish friends.
“It is an intriguing question,” says Thomas, a born and bred Copenhagener. “Trust among people in Denmark is high, but sometimes it seems like Danes have enough satisfaction in the friends they already have. They consider starting new relationships a risky business, as they could pose a threat to the stability and safety they already enjoy in their lives.”
Bianca from Italy has been here for five years and has repeatedly tried to make friendship connections with the Danes. “Throughout my first couple of years here, I was devastated that I had no Danish friends as I do consider myself a social person. Today I still have zero Danish friends, but now I have no expectations,” she says.
“Of course, the language is a huge barrier and, although I speak English fluently, I can never express myself 100 percent like I do in Italian. Especially when making jokes, as I believe humour to be important building blocks when forming any new friendship. I also think there is a big cultural gap between northern and southern Europe: the way we dress, the way we look, the tone of our voice, even our facial expressions,” she adds.
Petar from Bulgaria has lived here eight years and agrees that making friends as an adult is mostly about finding common interests and sharing mindsets: “I think that it takes a long time for Danes to warm up to you and find a good reason to allow you into their circle. As far as I know they form strong friendships early on, even from their kindergarten days, and so it’s less likely for them to do so later in life.”
“At university here, we had plenty of locals around, but somehow they kept to themselves. With some I managed to get closer, but there always seemed to be a barrier that stopped them from allowing a new friend into their closed circle,” he adds.
Depends on the Dane
Mette – born and bred in Roskilde, who until recently was living in New Zealand – thinks it takes a certain type of Dane to have non-Danish friends. “I think Danes like to have international friends, but at a distance so they can impress their friends. It takes a particular type of Dane to have close foreign friends, and it’s normally those who have lived abroad.”
“I would feel I would be missing something if I only had Danish friends,” says Thorsten, who is originally from Herning in Jutland. “Where else do you learn and experience new things? When I returned from living in Japan, I found Denmark quite tribal, so I really wanted foreign friends to gain a broader view on life.”
The simple truth is that as foreigners we are always going to find it hard to make friends with the locals, as wherever we are in the world tribes normally stick with their own kind.
Our choices will always be limited, yet I think subconsciously I have always been strategic when choosing my Danish friends. Have they lived abroad, do they have an international mindset, and are they comfortable spending a whole evening speaking in English?
So, we also need to be selective and realistic about who can potentially be our Danish friends.
Within intimate range
Brian from Scotland has lived in this city for nearly 30 years now. He is finally fluent in Danish, but overall he thinks the way to find Danish friends is by joining a group or association.
“There isn’t the same social gathering structure here, like in the UK where you can go down to the pub for a pint,” he points out.
“Yet the Danes do have groups for everything, and these activities normally include social events and julefrokosts. Anything that gets you into their intimate range is good, so you become ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.”
I asked my oldest Danish friend Jørgen why he thought I had been successful in finding Danish friends?
“Because you challenge the Danes, you are an extrovert, you’re honest and don’t mind confrontation, you know how to flatter and take the piss out of them – and most importantly you make them laugh,” he smirked.