Danglish for beginners | Be existential and let someone else decide

Three couples were recently married on a TV show. Their first meeting was in the church, minutes before exchanging vows. These six Danes had applied to public broadcaster DR to be on a reality show and allow a panel of experts to match them with a partner and marry them off sight unseen. Their relationships are played out over eight episodes, and after four weeks they can choose to either stay together or seek a divorce.

Surprisingly, they all seem like rather sensible people. Each explained that they decided to take the drastic action after years of fruitless searching. After hearing of the programme, aptly named ‘Gift ved første blik’ (‘Married at first sight’), they decided that giving up control might pay off.

The programme is an interesting experiment on the psychological effect of delegating responsibility to others. Will depriving the participants of choice force them to trust the experts and give them the motivation to really give commitment a go?

I only became a journalist because my mum confronted me one day with the contact details for a journalism training centre in Manchester. It was nearing two years since I’d completed my master’s degree, and I was working in a bar, a café and a bookshop. I was 26 and living at home.

“You would be good at it, Peter,” she said, hands on hips.

The following year I started working at The Copenhagen Post.

Up until then journalism was on my long list of options. But there was a lot I wanted to try. The problem was that I was paralysed by choice and unsure of how to make up my mind.

Being spoilt for choice is a first world problem. But the fact is that we live in a modern secular society without religious or cultural taboos. There are no longer set values to inform our decisions, and cultural relativism is the status quo. But if that’s the case, how do we know that we are making the right decisions?

I studied philosophy at university but was terrible at ethics. I wasn’t interested in writing about whether there are universal moral laws and whether it is possible to have good and evil without the existence of God. I’m okay with the fact that morality is relative and created by man, and that most people inherit their values unquestioningly from their immediate society.

This is particularly the case in a homogenous society like Denmark. When the couples married on the TV show, only their partner was unfamiliar. The structure of the wedding, and the traditions within, all complied with Danish standards.

Sharing traditions makes the job of fitting in easier, but they can’t make our choices for us. Traditions don’t help us decide whether we should get married or not, or change careers or have children. I’ve watched people put off making these types of decisions well into their 30s. Adolescence is getting longer. We all think we’ll just grow up and figure it out someday.

But many of us don’t. We risk spending so long weighing up the benefits of one girl over another, of marriage and children against fun and freedom, until one day the decision has been made for us.

The problem is with choice. Having options can seem like a plan in itself. But many in my generation are unable to move beyond this and take control. And when we’re surrounded by friends and family, have a well-paid menial job and generous welfare benefits to fall back on, there is no pressure to move beyond adolescence.

Of course we should be grateful to have so many options. Having options doesn’t automatically make us happy, and sometimes the only solution is for someone else to tell us to make a leap of faith, so we can find value and meaning in a commitment.

It was my mum’s steely gaze that made me move beyond the paralysis of choice and into a writing career. For six Danes, it was the advice of strangers on a TV show that brought them together with their partner. Who knows what will work for you.