Bringing stone-age brains into the modern day

Anthropologist aims to illuminate the country’s workplace culture with self-help book

Have you ever found yourself wishing you had a manual to help understand your Danish colleagues? You’re not alone. According to studies, nearly a third of foreigners who relocate to the country find themselves surprised by cultural differences – and those surprises aren’t always positive.  

But according to anthropologist Dennis Nørmark, that culture clash runs far deeper than a strange affinity for herring or Danes’ inexplicable obsession with their country’s flag.

“It’s fair to say that it’s a part of our psychological make-up and must have developed through the human evolution that primarily took place in primitive hunter-gatherer groups. In the Stone Age, so to speak,” Nørmark said.

It’s an issue that Nørmaark has taken on in his latest book, Cultural Intelligence for Stone-Age Brains. Originally published in Danish in 2011 as a means for Danes to understand themselves in a global context, the book was re-released last month in English to advise the rest of the world about the cultural codes of Danish business and society.

Nørmark works as a consultant for Living Institute, a Copenhagen-based organisation that provides workshops in cross-cultural awareness, and is well-known in the international community for his ‘Why are the Danes so weird?’ seminars. He maintains that humans generally prefer to be around others who look and behave like themselves – and are thus prone to stereotyping foreigners in terms of ‘right and wrong’ instead of simply ‘different’.

“This [comes from] a time in which it was probably too risky to engage in collaboration with ‘strangers’, where the risk of misunderstanding was potentially life threatening.”

But while the Stone Age is long gone, Nørmark argues that the mindset from our more primitive origins isn’t so far behind us.

“Today it’s a whole different world. It’s global, it’s diverse and our cultural evolution has generally worked much faster than the biological,” he pointed out. “So we need to challenge our more prehistoric dispositions.”

'Cultural Intelligence for Stone-Age Brains' offers advice to foreigners on how to handle working with DanesIn his book, Nørmark presents descriptions of business and negotiation cultures in various countries, and offers advice on how to handle those nuances. He argues both that Danes need to improve at understanding themselves and others, and that foreigners need to learn how to work with them. In his own experience, the biggest challenges between natives and expats often come from differences in management styles.

“Danes prefer to involve many people in the decision-making process,” he pointed out.” Ideally anyone affected by a decision needs to be heard. It takes a long time and requires a lot of buy-in from everybody.”

“In many other cultures, the management would make a decision without seeking a consensus, but in Denmark the management does not give orders or follow up with detailed inspection – and doesn’t necessarily have the ‘correct’ or ‘final’ answer.”

Nørmark also noted that Danes put an “extreme” level of trust in society, and maintain a very sharp work-life balance that affects their willingness to mix business and private life. To a foreigner, he explained, this can make Danes seem cold and unreachable. But Nørmark thinks that there have been overall improvements in Danes’ attitudes to foreigners.

“When we talk to Danish companies and the Danes who work for them, I experience a broader general knowledge than six years ago when I started in the field,” he said. “So yes, I think it’s getting better, but compared to a lot of other countries, Danes have had little exposure to cultural diversity. There is still some way to go.”