A Dane Abroad: Lost in translation – The Post

A Dane Abroad: Lost in translation

Clasping cultural differences can be a minefield (photo: Pixabay)
April 20th, 2019 5:52 am| by Kirsten Louise Pedersen

As cultures blend across borders and people becoming increasingly mobile, cultural norms are shifting.

Our interaction with foreigners has quickly evolved from the odd mingle on our holidays. Many of us regularly travel for business, and who doesn’t have at least one relation who has a foreign partner? Living as an expat for at least a couple of years is common, and then there’s the culture shock of returning home.

So whatever the capacity of a foreign cultural encounter, figuring out how to best deal with a greeting situation can turn into a rather entertaining and sometimes awkward conundrum.

Hugs or kisses?
When greeting in a mixed cultural environment, do you shake hands, hug, wave, press foreheads together, kiss on the cheek, nod …?

Cheek kissing alone can set you up for disaster if you think you’re doing one kiss, and the other person thinks you’re doing two, and you end up with a combination of weird lingering and misplaced kisses. Someone needs to tell the Dutch that doing three cheek kisses is over-the-top and has got way too much potential to go pear-shaped.

And if you start on the wrong cheek, it’s all over. This greeting debacle has materialised as multiple cringeworthy moments over the years for me, and I learnt that basically no-one has any idea how to deal with this issue.

‘The Method’
Following too many awkward greetings, I have developed a (rather masculine, come to think of it) compulsion to try and take control of the greeting situation.

My method consists of proactively diving in for an obvious handshake (hand outstretched way in advance) followed by either patting the subject’s shoulder, or simply using my free hand to ‘hug’ the handshake.

Either way ensures the occupation of both hands, thereby abolishing any uncertainty as to where to put the hands – while smiling and laughing to distract the subject.

Gidday Mate, Seeya Mate
In New Zealand, “How are you?” is a standard greeting, and as this is basically just a polite way of saying “Hi”, it doesn’t really invite a big answer, I would come to learn. Danish people take everything very literally, and so this greeting baffled me for a long time when I was first settling in there.

The first few times, I politely stopped and thought about how I was doing in order to draft an appropriate reply. So I was shocked to see the back of the person disappearing as they just walked on.

I would later learn that the expected response (regardless of how you are doing) is “Good, how are you?” and to keep on walking. No-one would really answer each other’s questions, and no-one would really know how anyone’s actually doing.

Danish minimalism
In Denmark people are very straightforward, and so if you want to say “Hi”, you just, well, say “Hi”. If someone asks you how you are, it’s probably because they actually want to know how you are.

In Denmark there isn’t the same level of extra politeness worked into either language or greetings as there is in English. If you cross someone you know in the street and are too busy to stop and talk, it is not uncommon for people to just yell out “Hej!” (hello), or you may get a hej + wave combo.

No extra fluff here!

Kirsten Louise Pedersen


Born and raised in Denmark and a resident of New Zealand for over 14 years, Kirsten has lived a pretty nomadic life since her early 20s. A physiotherapist, yoga teacher and keen home cook, she is passionate about food, good living and natural health. Follow her on Instagram @mskirstenlouise