Despite having been here for 16 years, I still wonder about a lot of things typical to Danes. Don’t get me wrong, the average Dane is quite likeable, and you will most likely grow accustomed to them. However, sometimes they are just … ehm … ‘different’ from other nationalities – especially when they try to be formal and polite.
The other day during the lunch break at work, it struck me that the Danish understanding of politeness is actually quite different from other cultures. One of my colleagues was reaching for the salt and got a little close to me and my plate, so she apologised by saying: “Jeg rækker lige over” (I’ll just reach across and grab this). However, it was stated very matter-of-factly, rather than as a question. Later that day at the supermarket, I encountered the same Danish ‘politeness’ when another customer announced: “Jeg kommer lige forbi” (I am passing by), rather than asking whether he could pass, please.
However, here is the thing. The Danes are in fact being polite in their very own direct way. You are informed about what they will do, and Danes do not expect any response on your behalf. Of course, this can cause some confusion and the misunderstanding that Danes are being impolite and rude. Often, the lack of an equivalent word for ‘please’ in the Danish language is sorely missed.
I actually voiced my thoughts about this rather strange politeness to my colleagues over lunch. And it struck me that they were not aware of the fact that this sort of behaviour could come across as being rude. From their point of view, they are extremely polite when ‘informing’ me rather than just reaching for the salt. So saying “I wonder why” to your Danish colleagues can be recommended. You might get the explanation you were looking for.
I started making a list of all the everyday things I wonder about years ago, and it had become rather long. Fortunately, you learn a lot about the Danes as time passes by, and most of the stuff I had scribbled down I have found the answer to. Just ask the Danes and they tend to tell you the truth – and without any sugar-coating due to the Danish way of being direct.
However, I do wonder whether my Danish colleague will ask or rather inform me the next time she reaches across me for the salt …