Tricky Dicky | What the Danes could learn from a dose of British politeness

When my parents were over in Copenhagen this past summer, my mum was very impressed by how friendly and helpful everybody was around this city. 


“Come back in the wintertime,” I said. “You’ll have a totally different experience.”


With yet another winter fast approaching, it seems as though I will once again have to deal with the grumpy and unfriendly Danish faces I often encounter. For the next six months, I will have to struggle through my own winter greyness, while not allowing these unsmiling Danes to spoil my seasonal mood.


But wait, bear with me, even though we are veering towards very familiar territory, this column is not going to be another predictable Dane-bashing piece. I could have easily asked the question: “Why are Danes so rude?” But now that I have been accepted into this exclusive Scandinavian club, posing that question would have been just as rude! 


So my overall aim is to try to find a constructive solution that would make the public sphere a happier and easier place to navigate. We have to think of the public sphere like a motorway – when there is good traffic flow, everybody has a smoother ride.


Despite their often cold exteriors, Danes are not as frosty as they appear and, believe it or not, they can be incredibly polite. Let’s consider the unique Danish word hygge, which literally translated means ‘cosy’ but, at the risk of repeating another thing you’ve heard over and over again, many don’t think it can be properly translated. And who else says “Thanks for the food” after eating dinner or, when arriving at a party, greets and shakes hands with every single guest in the room. The latter is an ice-breaker we foreigners could learn from.


Yet somehow, these private niceties tend to go straight out the window out on the street. There is something clearly lacking: a missing ingredient that would make the public sphere a more enjoyable place to be. And no, I am not talking about better Danish service at restaurants and supermarkets – that is simply a lost cause, and I have decided to give up the fight.


I know it is not in the Danish culture to chat with random strangers, and I also know Danes find American politeness insincere. Well, they are not alone there – we Brits do as well. So I am not advocating that everybody starts saying “Have a nice day” – which makes even me wince when it is said at my local 7-Eleven! However, when it comes to politeness, we Brits certainly know how to do it with style. As we go about our daily business, we have no problem smiling at a stranger, chit-chatting with them in a queue, or simply holding the door open when they walk past. And you know what?  All of these positive little interactions make for a better and brighter day.


So with a lot less sunlight coming our way, I think we have a responsibility to make the streets of Copenhagen a brighter and friendlier place to be. It’s simple, really: the next time you are on the street and have an interaction with a stranger – instead of giving them a blank stare, give them a friendly smile. Make an extra effort to do something nice and considerate. Such small acts of kindness have the power to melt anyone’s icy expression on a cold winter’s day.