“Could you say rødgrød med fløde?” I was asked.
Oh, my God! What was that? Was it an example of typical Danish sarcasm or genuine help to improve my Danish? That was my first thought. It was just the beginning of many other interesting experiences regarding Denmark and the Danes.
An attractive destination
Denmark is one of the most peaceful countries in the world. It is popularly known as Scandinavia’s greatest little kingdom, a place where William Shakespeare never visited but one of his greatest tragedies, ‘Hamlet’, is set.
A number of indices make Denmark an attractive destination to travel and live. As per the Global Peace Index (GPI), Denmark was ranked second during between 2012 and 2016. As per the English Proficiency Index 2016 by the World Economic Forum, Denmark stood second in the countries that are best at English as a second language.
What makes Denmark one of the most peaceful nations in the world and why do Danes speak less English even though their English Proficiency Index is high? We are trying to find some of the answers as well as providing some interesting observations about Danish culture.
Modesty the best policy
The most interesting cultural characteristic of the Danes is their modesty. This can be really confusing for other cultures. For example, while business executives from countries like America clearly showcase their achievements and are very competitive in their dealings, the Danes try to be very modest in their behaviour, even though their skills and competitiveness are the same.
A Russian lady living in Copenhagen shared her view on Danish modesty. “In Russia, if you are wearing a new attractive dress, especially if it’s red, everyone will give you compliments and you can also expect to get good comments,” she said.
“But the Danes don’t like receiving such praise from others and they just try to change the subject quickly and not encourage such compliments. If you are commenting to a Dane that her dress looks really nice, she might answer “Oh, it’s just a normal dress. I bought it from Bilka [a local supermarket store].”
The example of Carlsberg, Denmark’s leading brand of beer, also helps us to understand Danish modesty. Most of the beer brands make bold statements in their advertising to show their supreme position in the market. For example, the slogan for Budweiser is ‘king of beers’ and the Samuel Adams slogan is ‘America’s world-class beer’. Intriguingly, Carlsberg’s slogan is ‘probably the best beer in the world’. Carlsberg derives this modesty from its cultural roots to not assume the position as the best beer in the world.
Say it like it is
Even some of the shop names are very simple and interesting examples of Danish modesty. A few examples are the Danish local supermarket store called ‘Normal’, the name of bookshops such as ‘Danskboghandel’ (Danish book store) and ‘bog & ide’ (books and idea), the name of the kitchen and home appliances shop ‘Køkken & Hjem’ (kitchen and home) and a shoe repair shop named ‘Skomageren’ (shoemaker). Sometimes it is just the name of the city with their service. For example, a flower shop in Ishøj is simply ‘Ishøj Blomster’ (Ishøj flowers) and a bicycle shop in Copenhagen is just ‘Copenhagen Bicycles’.
In Denmark, during situations like scoring high marks in an exam or being promoted at work, the Danes do not express it with much pride and excitement. Whilst the Italians, Spaniards and other relationship-orientated cultures express their joy and happiness with their friends, and colleagues talk proudly about their achievements compared to their competitors, the Danes don’t show such excitement.
For example, whenever Clara asked her fellow Danish graduates how they did in their exams, she got replies like “They went okay” and “They went fine”. However, when the examination results were published they actually had the best scores. In Spain, a similar response meant the exam was really hard and they were not expecting a great score.
The importance of Janteloven
Modesty is a cultural element that seems to be built inside the mindset of the Danes. They tend to follow the ‘Janteloven’, a highly egalitarian principle that states that no-one should consider themselves better than others. It doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about your experiences and achievements, but keep it in mind to do it a modest way instead of giving an impression of bragging.
A management seminar conducted by a US business expert in Copenhagen was not well received by the Danish audience because he was trying to explain how good he was in his profession and he highlighted all his achievements – including his pictures with Hollywood stars. He was surprised by the low energy of his audience compared to all the seminars he conducted in America and Britain.
‘Janteloven’ or the ‘law of Jante’, was created by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in 1933 in his book ‘A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks’. There are ten laws just like the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament. The ‘law of Jante’ focuses on modesty and encourages people to put their egos down beneath everything. In the Danish business world, you could be seen as being arrogant or rude if you try to sell yourself too highly or exhibit too much confidence.
The ten laws of Jante are:
- You’re not to think you are anything special
- You’re not to think you are as good as we are
- You’re not to think you are smarter than we are
- You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are
- You’re not to think you know more than we do
- You’re not to think you are more important than we are
- You’re not to think you are good at anything
- You’re not to laugh at us
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything
These ten laws form the crux of Danish modesty. The philosophy of jantelov is that when you put your ego down, the interests of the group are raised. Intriguingly, the concept of bringing down the ego in Janteloven has a close resemblance to how egoism is restrained in the Vedas and the Upanishads (a collection of hymns in the Sanskrit language) and the verses of Bhagavat Gita (a 700-verse scripture in Sanskrit and a part of the Indian epic Mahabharata).
The Scandinavian model
The focus of ‘Jantelov’ is on ‘team achievements’ rather than individual interests. Everyone in the team is given an equal opportunity to discuss matters (even the revenue figures tend to be transparent) and make suggestions and offer opinions, which is sometimes known as the ‘Scandinavian model’ in business. Employees work together and perform their tasks with the boss who is also entitled to perform his or her own task, but being a boss doesn’t make him or her better than any of the other workers. This egalitarian and group-focused approach makes Danish working life more peaceful and successful compared to other cultures.
It is really interesting to note that the supporters of the Danish football team are called ‘Roligans’ because they are well-mannered, calm and modest before, during and after the matches. This is the exact opposite behaviour of hooligans. The term Roligans is derived from the mix of the words ‘rolig’, which means ‘quiet’ in Danish, and ‘hooligans’, the British slang for a criminal gang and their activities, which include physical attacks on rival fans. Ironically, this modesty can sometimes be a struggle for many ambitious people who have to compete with others in sports.
The Janteloven backlash
A famous Danish handball player, Anja Andersen, raised her voice against the ‘Jantelov’ attitude in Danish sports. When trying to break this mentality in her team she wore a t-shirt with the words “Fuck Janteloven!” to explicitly show arrogance towards this forced modesty mindset and encourage her team to be proud and to highlight that they want to be the best.
Recently young Danes have been advised not to be so ‘Jantelov’ when applying for international jobs and that their CVs should reasonably showcase their key achievements. We can say that ‘Jantelov’ still exists, but it is slightly fading in some areas depending on culture, organisation, and situation.
Unpredictable like the weather
One of the most common observations by expats is that Danes struggle to make good eye contact with strangers. Therefore, they come across as being very reserved or busy on the streets and public transportation and one may be hesitant to ask for help if you need it. According to the ‘Internations Survey Expat Insider 2017, among the 64 countries Denmark ranks last on the Ease of Settling Index that comprises ‘Feeling welcome to Foreigners’ (Denmark: 61st), ‘Friendliness’ (59), ‘Finding Friends’ (64) and ‘Language’ (49).
However, the Danes sometimes surprise others by showing a willingness to help them when they least expect it and expats living as paying guests really do understand this feeling. The Danish family they live with may not show much enthusiasm or even interest in their guest’s daily life. Even if they like you very much, they won’t express it. However, it will come as a surprise on your birthday as you will slowly realise how important you are to them as part of a family.
The Danes are also known for their conflict-avoiding behaviour. There is an interesting Danish word, ‘pyt’, which is used just like a sigh. When there is a bad situation for example – the children break the glass of a fish tank – they use the word ‘Pyt’, which means let it go, and all the anger or grief is expressed in that simple word, and then they forget the situation and move on with other things.
Clara and Jinu recollect that it is quite normal to initiate a discussion in ‘small talk’ in Spain and India that may include sharing some details from their private lives. However, in Denmark, it is unusual to ask personal questions and it takes a long time to get to know each other. Jinu has worked with Danish team members at various events and seminars but he was never asked to share anything about his family or private life.
There is a high respect for privacy that separates the working and personal lives of the Danish people. The Danes may talk about their private lives at some point, but may not go too deeply. If you come from a culture where it is normal to talk more about private things from day one, you can do that, but don’t expect the same from the Danes until a reasonable level of relationship is established.
It is also a good idea to understand the concept of privacy spread out in the form of separate circles, like a circle of family life, home life, work life, social life, hobbies, groups etc. These are not always interconnected like in many other cultures – for example Spain or India. It is important to note that family and private life are also separate. So there are situations that exist in which a teenager or an adult has their own private circle that the family may not be a part of it.
In his book ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People’, Michael Booth comments that the Danes are highly sociable when amongst friends. If you ask a Dane how many Facebook friends they have they will reveal some interesting statistics. “I will never add anyone other than my family, relatives and close friends from my school and university days”, said one Danish lady whilst discussing this. You may, however get accepted onto their LinkedIn accounts since LinkedIn is widely used and looked more favorably upon in Denmark. There are many cases when we met Danes who promised to add us as ‘friends’ on Facebook but actually never did.
We met an Indian girl working for an IT company in Copenhagen who shared the following strange experience whilst working with a Danish team member. When he was working in her team in Bangalore, he was really friendly and helped to create lots of fun and a positive vibe in the team. However, when he was moved to a different team in Copenhagen, he suddenly completely changed and became very formal. We heard a lot of similar comments and stories from different expats.
The ‘rødgrød med fløde’ syndrome
One of the important observations about Danes is their sarcasm. It is also known as ‘black humour’. People from some cultures like the United Kingdom may understand and accept sarcasm and might be able to give some sarcasm back as a response to a sarcastic comment, but the majority of cultures are unable to understand it. For some, it can create confusion and even misunderstanding. They continue to puzzle themselves, trying to figure out what and why the Danes said that to them.
A typical example was when a member of a restaurant’s cleaning team from China arrived for his first day at work. He was full of excitement and he asked his Danish boss for his first assignment. His Danish boss without any smile on his face said “Okay, let’s start with cleaning my car.” The Chinese person was confused and thought he was telling him for real, so he prepared to begin work on the boss’s car. The Danish boss then started to laugh and told him that it was a joke and then explained his actual assignment.
Danes are very proud of their language. Being one of the most difficult languages, they try to test the foreigner’s knowledge and pronunciation of some hard words like ‘rødgrød med fløde’ (forest berries with cream). They also like to help you to pronounce it correctly by repeating it many times. Sometimes such discussions become sarcastic and fun. Even if you are able to pronounce ‘rødkål med flød’ they will laugh because it is funny to them how a foreigner tries it. Clara has been living in Denmark for 14 years now and she still gets this question whenever she meet new Danes.
There is also a point that if you experience this kind of sarcasm, it is a sign that they have started to like you and are trying to be nice to you, otherwise they wouldn’t be being sarcastic to you. In Danish movies, this kind of humour is always there and sometimes you can find Danes laughing out loud about something that you really didn’t see as being funny. But never dare to be sarcastic to a Dane until you have got to know how they do it, otherwise it may go wrong and be a complete disaster for future relationships.
The Danish mantra is hygge!
The word you hear a lot while in Denmark is ‘hygge’ and there is no exact English translation for this word. The closest match in English is ‘cosiness’. For the Danes, ‘hygge’ is one of the key values that speaks about the way they understand and characterise themselves, just like the Americans who believe in ‘Individual Freedom’, the French in their ‘Gloire’ and the Germans in their ‘Order and Precision’. In a similar way, the Danes are very proud of this ‘hygge’ concept and they practise it in everyday life.
The feeling of ‘hygge’ includes arranging lighted candles, filling bowls with sweets or fruit, arranging plants and flowers in the room etc. You will find lighted candles in bars, pubs, discos and workplaces and on dinner tables. Danes are one of the largest consumers of candles. Danes often suggest ‘hygge’ in almost everything they do. It includes work, study, living together etc… So the use of candles and sweets, especially liquorice, Danish flags and flowers in a relaxed environment will make all your meetings ‘hyggeligt’. Similar ‘hygge’ moments in Spain and India would revolve around going out, partying, relaxing on the beach, celebrating festivals, talking aloud and socialising etc …
Unpredictable Danish weather
Danish weather is one of the most surprising phenomena during your expat life. Expats joke that even horoscopes give more accurate predictions than the Danish weather forecasts at times! Summertime is really nice in Denmark, but it is really short or disturbed all the time by rain, low temperatures and wind. There are a lot of jokes about the Danish summer.
Danes prefer to make trips to warm countries during the winter season to avoid the extreme cold and dark weather. The doctors advise patients who suffer from winter depression to take a trip to warmer countries. The Danish weather is very changeable at times: from being windy one moment to rainy the next, and sometimes it’s snowy. But Danes say that there is no such thing as “bad weather” only “bad clothing”.
Dannebrog – not just a flag
The Danish flag, the Dannebrog, which is red with a white cross, is not only the Danish flag but also part of the heritage of celebrating events. When I first moved to Denmark I saw a big Danish flag in front of a house. It thought “What a patriotic family”, but I later came to know that someone in that house was celebrating a birthday. So they are celebrating a birthday in a symbolic way or having ‘hygge’.
Even expats get Danish flags during their birthday celebrations from their Danish friends. Intriguingly, the Danish flags are used on many other occasions like celebrating a shop anniversary, Christmas, discount sales at shops, welcoming family members and friends from the airport, sports etc. So the Danish flag is a very important element and part of Danish culture.
Denmark is a wonderful country with a lot of opportunities, a taste for everything and a lot of cultural, social and political innovations. Whether you like it or not, Denmark is the most interesting country in the world … probably!