I read with great interest a column by Christian Wenande in The Copenhagen Post entitled: ‘I am not afraid to say it: I love Copenhagen!’ In this piece, Christian goes on to say: “As part of the international community, we’re all aware of Denmark’s deficiencies. Many of my foreign friends and colleagues are eager to point out that, amongst other things, Danes are rude and unwelcoming, service is non-existent, the weather is abysmal, taxes are a disgrace to mankind and the welfare system is a massive waste of money.” He then goes on to say why he indeed loves Denmark. Now let me tell you why I think Denmark (and the Danes) are great and why more people around the world need to know that!
In 2001, I spent six weeks in Denmark, meeting locals, writing and experiencing Danish culture. This began a love affair with Copenhagen as my mistress. Why you ask? There is no shortage of great cultures and cities around the world, right? The real answer to that question is: “Yes, but …”
During my time in Denmark, I had the opportunity (really pleasure) to meet with former United States congressman Tom Lantos of California (who has since passed) at Denmark’s celebration of American Independence Day (otherwise known in the States as July 4). At the event ,Congressman Lantos told me why he thought Denmark was great. “They are the most civilized people on this planet,” he said. Those words were not lost on me as I looked into the culture and history of this place.
After all, the Danes were responsible for saving the vast majority of Denmark’s Jews during the Second World War. In fact, over 99 percent of Denmark’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust. When I commended a local teacher for the actions taken by the Danes during the war, he returned my compliment by saying: “Yes, but we could have done more.” It is that sense of humility that I admire most about the Danish people and culture.
During my visit, I learned about a great Dane by the name of Victor Borge, whom I remember seeing on American television with my grandparents as a child. Beyond his comedic behaviour, he was credited with one of my most favourite quotes: “A smile is the shortest distance between two people.” How right Borge was, and what a great ambassador he was for Denmark!
I also learned about the somewhat controversial Janteloven (or Law of Jante) created by Danish-Norwegian author Asksel Sanemose, who espoused the collective good over all individual success. His 11 principles, as I understand them, are:
1.You are not to think you’re anything special.
2. You are not to think you’re as good as us.
3. You are not to think you’re smarter than us.
4.You are not to convince yourself that you’re better than us.
5.You are not to think you know more than us.
6.You are not to think you are more important than us.
7.You are not to think you are good at anything.
8.You are not to laugh at us.
9.You are not to think anyone cares about you.
10.You are not to think you can teach us anything.
11.You are not to think that there aren’t a few things we know about you.
I can understand why to some, these ideals are controversial and even frustrating, but in them one can also find a theme of unity and collective spirit rarely seen within a culture or people.
I remain astonished at how Denmark has integrated its appreciation for art and design into its culture: something other countries and cities around the world could learn a lot from. In addition, I respect the great pride taken in the way the online promotion of all things Danish (particularly in the areas of art and design) is communicated across the globe each day by the likes of Marie-Louise Munter of MissDesignSays.com, OpenCopenhagen.dk and Visitdenmark.com – all of which have a strong social media presence highlighting the beauty, ingenuity and creativity of Denmark. Denmark’s work in the area of sustainability is second to none.
Eleven years later, my appreciation for the Danish people has taken on new meanings as I have gone on to do much work in the areas of communications design, civic engagement and place-making (cultivating a sense of place, and how that is communicated to locals and non-locals alike).
I now call Providence, Rhode Island my home and dream again of going back to Denmark to build bridges between such places as Copenhagen and creative communities elsewhere, such as Providence. ‘Sister cities’ connecting Copenhagen and Providence would serve to introduce each of those communities’ most creative and innovative individuals and ventures with their international counterparts. Experts from Denmark could and should be advising US cities like Providence on its foray into making its city more cycle-friendly; while Providence’s art, design and entrepreneurial communities are among the best I have ever encountered, and could offer advice, counselling and mentorship to their Danish counterparts, thus developing substantive engagement between the two cultures.
Providence is also home to ‘A Better World by Design’, the world’s premier student-led design conference on socially conscious design. As someone who has helped guide the students in that effort (which is now becoming a movement), Danish designers and students are most welcome to participate and join us in this effort, serving as a platform for socially conscious Danish designers to gain new followers and momentum for their projects. There are many more examples I could give, but suffice it to say, there are no shortage of opportunities that exist in establishing a new kind of international relationship.
I am of the firm belief that Borge was correct about the shortest distance between two people. Now who would like to join me in establishing a new kind of ambassadorship: one that connects Denmark to creative talent across the Atlantic while showing the rest of the world how truly great Denmark is?
The author is the founder of Cutler & Company, a communications design consultancy