Danglish for Beginners | An insider’s view with an outsider’s eye

I’m British, but didn’t live in the UK until I was 18. At university in Sheffield I was called ‘Danish Pete’ and I developed a reputation for being rude. “Hey Geoff, pass the ashtray” I would ask. Geoff would reply offended: “Aren’t you going to say ‘please’?”


I thought I had asked nicely, so I was confused. Was I rude because I didn’t use one word? I turned to my Dad who explained that in Britain, manners are the glue that keeps the dozens of different tribes feeling like a single country: a shorthand for identifying which people to trust. People who don’t conform are stigmatised, whereas polite people are rewarded with inclusion in the group.


These rules aren’t universal, however, and in Denmark manners are less important. I have sat through dozens of conversations with expats who moan about rude, pushy and inconsiderate Danes who cut queues, provide terrible service and can be shockingly obtuse.


They might be right, but there is no need to be offended. Denmark is a small, homogenous and highly predictable country with little social and cultural deviation across the class spectrum. My theory is that this creates a high level of trust and low levels of social insecurity and anxiety. As a result, Danes get away with being arrogant, rude and inconsiderate because they understand and forgive each other.


This implicit trust helps explain why Denmark consistently ranks highly in quality of life and happiness ratings. Its small size means there are few degrees of separation between a high-ranking public servant and a minimum wage worker. This minimises alienation and increases participation. So far, so good.


But what if the generous welfare state is only possible because Danes trust each other to pay their taxes and take only what they are entitled to? Could immigration reduce trust and social cohesion and undermine the foundation of the welfare state?


I think for many well-meaning Danes, this is the struggle at the heart of the immigration debate. Social cohesion has helped Denmark become a transparent, happy and equal country. So does Denmark open its doors to foreigners and risk becoming less cohesive, or does it protect its social cohesion through discrimination and protectionism?


This summer saw a heated debate about Islam. Many seemed to be concerned that if Denmark accepts halal meat, it will be the first step on a slippery slope. Gender-segregated class rooms will soon follow, and Ramadan will become a national holiday. Pork chops and Christmas will be replaced by poppadams and Eid.


This is the problem with social cohesion. Shared values become norms that are taken for granted and Danes fail to realise what actually makes them Danish. There may be eight political parties fighting for power, but they all agree that Danes should be able to expect freedom, justice and security. These expectations are values that the vast majority of Danes share without even realising it, but the fact is they are values that are far from universally held.


To be honest, it seems that the outside world has a better idea of what Denmark stands for than Denmark. Foreigners flock to Denmark for a values system that promises long maternity leave, free education and excellent public transport. They look at the sum of the services and think: “This society stands for something. It’s a society that isn’t run by an elite, but one that takes care of its people.”


Low social anxiety and high levels of trust are clear advantages of being socially cohesive, but it comes with a cost. Danes don’t realise that I get offended when they blurt “Hvad?!” (“What?!!”) when I pronounce a word wrong. I’m expected to react like a Dane but, I’m sorry, it’s inconsiderate not to make an effort to understand a foreigner when they try to speak your language.


Danes are of course not alone in lacking self reflection. But in Denmark’s case, the social cohesion sometimes means that people can’t see the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s why the media debate focuses on halal and headscarves rather than a discussion about how to strengthen real Danish values: democracy, free speech, and the public institutions that keep us together.