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To Be Perfectly Frank | After you, Søren
When I find myself in that most common of situations, that of trying to explain to newcomers to this country or to my friends and family in England the differences between the British and Danish cultures, I am often wont to tell them that I come from an ‘after you’ society, whereas in Denmark it is ‘after me’. I’ve even made up a sort of joke to illustrate it. What happens, I ask, if you put two Brits in a room with a door only wide enough for one to exit at a time. The answer? They will never get out, as they endlessly insist “After you”, “No, after you”. Equally, though, two Danes would never get out of the same room; they would be jammed in the doorway, each trying to get out first. The best situation, of course, would be to have one of each in the room: guess then who would be first out, and with no by your leave!
This at first may sound like a cynical generalisation, but it’s amazing how often it crops up. We’re all aware of course of the old cliché about having doors closed in one’s face. A British acquaintance of mine, however, recounts a true experience, as a newcomer to these shores several years ago, of offering his seat to a heavily pregnant woman on a crowded bus. No graceful acceptance and a grateful thank you here, or even a polite “Thanks, but it’s quite all right”. Instead, he was railed at to the effect of how dare he imply that she could not cope with her condition. Who was he to humiliate her in front of the entire bus by suggesting that she was in some way weaker than or inferior to him? Weak she certainly was not, but I suggest that he was the more humiliated by the encounter.
So are Danes impolite? Needless to say, that depends on which camp you ask. Danes don’t consider themselves impolite, simply straightforward and direct. They find the British tendency to defer to another’s point of view in the name of politeness rather comical. But then maybe they don’t realise that Brits can also find it comical; it depends where you draw the line and how far you go. And perhaps that’s the answer: whereas Brits in general can discern subtle differences in another’s behaviour and adjust their response accordingly, Danes see things much more in black and white. This would explain why Danes need a more formal framework in which to function socially. The stultifying (to foreigners) ritual of any gathering, be it a birthday party or a wedding, is ample testimony to this need. Even relaxing with friends or family (apparently invented in Denmark and called hygge) has to be planned for and organised, preferably sitting up to a table with coffee and lagkage.
Much of British comedy depends on an ability to laugh at oneself or at life as a whole. Take ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, for example, or ‘Fawlty Towers’. Although these and other series have been enormously popular overseas, including in Denmark, I somehow wonder whether we are all laughing at the same thing – the obvious clowning alone or that together with a more subtle ridiculing of (one’s own) society in general. Here again, Brits pride themselves on a ‘healthy’ disrespect for authority in all its forms. In Denmark, the reverse is true. This may account for the existence here of quasi-anarchistic organisations, seen by some as the only way to protest against authority – or perhaps one should say ‘the Establishment’.
It can also account for my being assured by a guest at a dinner party that Denmark had been through a social revolution while Britain had not. This really flummoxed me (recalling Magna Carta, the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and Margaret Thatcher) until I realised she was talking about the 1960s. I was in my late teens in 1960, so am in a reasonably good position to recall what happened. As far as I can see, the same transition took place in Britain as in almost everywhere else in western Europe. It was a doing away with the old authoritarian structure and sexual mores and the blossoming of personal freedom. But we didn’t see it as a ‘revolution’. There was no taking to the streets and throwing rocks, which the Danes happily copied from Paris and Berlin. And we kept the things that we liked, including saying “After you” to a stranger you meet in a doorway.