You’re Still Here? | Denmark: Don’t believe the hype


Denmark has a good global reputation. It is hyped as a tolerant, friendly, progressive nation with good public services (if high taxes): a bit like a cross between the Netherlands and Sweden.

When Denmark makes the international news, there are two types of stories.

The first is when Denmark is used as a watchword for Scandinavian socialist paradise: “Of course they would be riding bikes/having public sex areas in that Denmark! Denmark is all about the free and easy.”

The second type is when Denmark surprises the world by being neither free nor easy. Each negative news story is contextualised with a variation of “Oh, it’s just one of those things”, and people go back to believing the hype again. Denmark never seems to fall from grace. It is as if the world needs a Scandinavian utopia and will invent one if need be.

There are four interconnected elements about Danish culture that must be understood in order not to be surprised by the occasional bad thing that happens in Denmark and makes news outside its small borders.


Danish (indeed northern European) culture is largely based on bullying. Sometimes mislabeled ‘jantelov’ or ‘Danish humour’, people in Denmark are cut down to size and mocked when they dare to stand out.

There are regular serious cases of systematic discrimination against vulnerable groups, particularly foreigners, and less serious but widespread work-a-day snideness to keep others in line.

I am subjected to a regular stream of abuse, especially when I translate the news into English on my blog. No-one ever seems to try to engage with me on an intellectual basis about what I am saying – instead it is always “you are angry” this and “you have no friends” that.

Danish Exceptionalism

Unhealthy nationalism is not confined to Denmark, but it needs to be understood that here the belief that most other cultures are lesser is widespread. We all have a story of some rube we met at a party who was not willing to try anything new. In Denmark, this bumpkin is the everyman. Danes refuse to try new things, not because they are fearful of change, but because they lack curiosity. What could ever beat the way they have always done things?

This bleeds into international incidents abroad where the earnest nationalist expects everything to be done in the superior Danish fashion and, when it is not, declares it barbaric and backwards.

If you meet a curious or adventurous Dane, do as I do, and cling on for dear life.

Lack of Empathy

Human rights abuses go on in many nations, even progressive ones. The difference is that when, say, the UK abuses human rights, there is an almighty stink about it. People can put themselves in the shoes of another human and share a sliver of their feelings. In Denmark, many awful things happen that generate almost no public discussion. Children are deported without their parents. Nursing mothers are deported even if their infant is sick and requires medical attention. Kidnappers and abusers are given full custody.

Danish shoulder muscles must be amongst the strongest in the world with all the shrugging that goes on.


Many culture shock situations in Denmark involve someone being ostentatiously selfish in public.

My pet theory is there are the same percentage of selfish people in Denmark, but that something about Danish culture causes them to feel no embarrassment about it. Selfishness goes unchallenged: from a simple lack of courtesy in queues to people refusing to work in jobs they believe are beneath them, despite not being qualified or experienced for anything else.

There are plenty of people who are selfless in Denmark, but they are not encouraged enough.

Does this make Denmark a bad place? No. It just means that the real Denmark is not what the rest of the world imagines. One common defence of Denmark’s shortcomings is that “it is like that everywhere”. And this is very true. Denmark is not an especially tolerant, friendly, progressive nation. The public services are not particularly good. Like everywhere else.

The taxes are pretty high, though. That at least is not hype.

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