Perilous seas ahead if culturally you’re an island

Author of guide outlines the value of ‘narrow’, less-vocational subjects to business and society

The government’s university reform, which was announced in September and which – with moderations recently imposed by opposition parties – will be implemented in the course of the next three years, is intended to reduce the number of students in subjects with allegedly poor job prospects.

But there has been immense resistance to downgrading the so-called ‘narrow’ academic disciplines, particularly when it comes to intercultural studies.

Ditte Maria Søgaard – a communications officer at Copenhagen University’s department of cross-cultural and regional studies and project manager at, which runs cultural training – believes that far from being irrelevant, the study of cultures is central to Denmark’s competitiveness.

Nerdy’s needed too 
“For a small country like Denmark, our main resource is our ability to navigate the world and interact with other people, and this requires knowledge of other cultures and other languages,” she said.

The issue came into sharp focus recently when it came to light that Vestas risked losing a huge order in Mexico because of opposition to a wind park project from the indigenous Ikoots people who fish in the Pacific-coast state of Oaxaca where the park had been planned.

Their language, Mero Ikoots, is spoken in just four fishing villages and is not related to any other language family in the world. In an opinion piece in Politiken, Magnus Pharao Hansen, a PhD student in anthropology, argued that while some hold that teaching Danes this language is a waste of resources, there were people in Vestas who would be wishing they could speak it.

“This is a perfect example of how apparently small and nerdy subjects can all of a sudden prove themselves essential for getting things done out in the real world,” Søgaard contests.

Putting your foot in …
Søgaard is the author of ‘Vandringer I det kulturelle spinatbed’ (wanderings in the cultural spinach bed) – a book on cultural understanding published in 2013 by Gyldendal Business.

She explained that in Danish ‘stepping in the spinach bed’ is an idiom that equates to making a faux pas – culturally or in any other way. Apparently Danes are more specific than English (or French) speakers about exactly where your foot goes when you ‘put your foot in it’.

The book has its origins in a research project called Alternative Spaces, in which academics accumulated some 40 cases from research and business life in Denmark and abroad to illustrate how Danes, as a minority in the global landscape, can run into problems when dealing with other cultures.

Barking mad
The picture that Søgaard paints of the Danes is that despite accounting for little more than 5 million of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants, many Danes are taken aback when they encounter diversity beyond the country’s borders.

“It often comes as a surprise to Danes that everyone is not like us,” she said.

“There’s a metaphor about culture: that it’s like water – the fish is the last one to see it. It seems like it’s not there when you’re in it. It seems like the most natural thing in the world.”

An example that sticks out for Søgaard is an American father who spent some time in Denmark preparing his daughter for what to expect.

“He told her that when she was invited to a dinner party, at some point everyone will stand up, raise their glass and bark like dogs!” she recounted. 

The point is that perhaps contrary to popular belief in Denmark, the chant of ‘Hurra! Hurra! Hurra!’ is not a universal custom.

Can be worlds apart
How Danes perceive hierarchy compared to other cultures is a contrast that came to the fore in the book.

“Danes don’t like hierarchy much,” contended Søgaard.

“Of course it’s there, but it often displays itself in very subtle ways. Sometimes Danes get appalled when they go abroad to countries like India or China where differences in social standing are more outspoken.”

And often it is not looking up, but looking down that they find most problematic.

“They don’t like it that they are themselves expected to show their superior ranking,” said Søgaard.

“Sometimes your job title means you can’t show up to a meeting in a Fiat – it has to be an Audi or a Mercedes – or that you can’t shake hands with the bathroom attendant.”

Søgaard urges humility when dealing with cultural differences.

“You can’t count on your partner seeing things in the same way you do. You can be worlds apart without even realising it,” she explained.

“This is why it’s so important for companies and organisations to have people who can speak other languages and understand other cultures. Cultural understanding is a strategic resource, not just a luxury.”

Integration complications
In addition to its applications in business life, Søgaard sees cultural understanding (or lack thereof) as being a reason for the failure of integration in Denmark. 

“We invited people to the country and just left them alone, assuming that after three weeks or so they would turn Danish,” she said with more than a hint of irony.

“We thought that everyone would want to be Danish – that Danishness was sort of the end point of evolution. This obviously didn’t happen. Now we have people like Yahya Hassan telling us about a different reality. Somehow this is at the root of why the integration debate in Denmark got it wrong in the 1980s and 90s.”

Factfile: The most native speakers 
1. Chinese/Mandarin (1.36 billion, two official countries)
2. Hindi (366 million, one)
3. English (341 million, 115)
4. Spanish (322 million, 20)
5. Arabic (280 million, 26)
6. Bengali (207 million, one)
7. Portuguese (176 million, five)
8. Russian (167 million, in 16)
9. Japanese (125 million, one)
10. German (98 million, nine)
11. Thai (83 million, one)
12. Korean (78 million, two)
Source: Berlingske, 2013

Factfile: European proportion of world population
1920: 21 percent
2010: 7 percent
2050: 4 percent