The Cloak of Invisibility

I cannot believe I have not blogged about this before. I have mentioned the phenomena of Danes ignoring me while I was sat right there. A lot of the time, I excused them because I assumed they were shy about speaking English. The ones who I knew spoke English, I was a lot harder on obviously.

Now my Danish is at a level where I cannot excuse Danes for being shy any longer.

For example, the other day, a workman came to my flat and talked to me for ages about workman-y stuff. Then my boyfriend came on the scene and not only did the workman stop talking to me but he also stopped looking at me. I disappeared. He wanted a phone number so he could contact us about later work and it took about three attempts to give it to him. He kept asking my boyfriend for a number and ignoring me. This happened.

He knew I could speak Danish. He knew I could understand Danish. He knew he could understand my Danish. But as soon as a real Dane was there, I melted into the background for him.

Socially, I have had several Danes come greet the other foreigner I was talking to and completely blank me. No glances. No eye contact. No “Oh hello” or “Sorry, just wanted to say ‘hi'”. It is as if I was never there. These Danes are talking English to our mutual friend.

At knitting club, that major wake-up call I had in the early days, I became progressively invisible. Interacting with the other knitters was even actively discouraged by the queen bee with such phrases as “you didn’t really understand what she said” and “you shouldn’t laugh”.

At parties, Danes will absorb themselves in their smartphones until they are drunk, while foreigners will turn to me and engage in conversation.

Danish social skills are very poor in general (obviously, there are Danes with average and above average social skills). This phenomena usually stems from complacency and a lack of curiosity.

The Dane who sits next to you at a social gathering but says nothing, they assume there is nothing you can tell them that they do not know. Why else does the cookie cutter stranger-Dane conversation go

“How long have you been here? Why did you come? Do you speak Danish? When are you leaving?”

Those are the only things about foreigners they cannot derive from first principles.  The Dane who does not even ask those questions is ahead of the curve because, really, does it even matter what those answers are? What difference does it make? You will still be a dirty foreigner and not worth the effort getting to know.

Other nationalities might find it socially awkward to not acknowledge the presence of another human being. The Dane who will not even look at you has not even entertained the possibility that you might be a real person. It is not rudeness because rudeness implies you want to negatively affect another person. It has not crossed their mind. You are furniture to them. Even cows stare at visitors in their field.

But to be ignored during a conversation after a real Dane turns up. That is nothing to do with lacking curiosity, being insecure or complacent. That is something else entirely. I have experienced it before in my own country, usually when my collocutor notices a man in the vicinity. If I were discussing something technical, it matters not how eruditely, any male I have with me is obviously better suited to receive such things as “eye contact” during the discussion.

As a female foreigner, I am taken to be especially peripheral. My input has already been judged to be inadequate.

I cannot understand why the social skills of so many Danes are so poor. Other countries seem to be able to drill their people into avoiding basic socially awkward situations (fun fact: It is always socially awkward to ignore someone in the situations above).

What they really should think of doing is having classes to improve social skills from an early age. I mean, 6 months old is probably not too soon. They could put the children together in small groups and have people educated in educational psychology on hand to facilitate. Then these children could engage in age appropriate activities together, all the while being coached by the adults on how to interact politely.  They should do this for years, just focus on these basics before even thinking about starting formal education and learning other things. Even at school, they really should just focus on social interaction and ignore the academic stuff. Then, and only then, could they expect to have the enviable social skills of other countries.

You will not be the exception

Or maybe you will. But I am so sick of telling everyone what goes on in Denmark, only for it to be repeated by a newbie as in “Now I see what all the negative blogs were talking about!” Yes, motherfucker, NOW you see it.

When I stopped this blog that time, a friend asked me to make the resource about “Should I Move to Denmark?” available so I put it on tumblr for everyone.

One important thing that all “expat” immigrant workers need to realise is

“Whatever you are told in the interview about English being the language of your workplace and that how all your colleagues speak English, bear this in mind, informal meetings around coffee and water coolers are in Danish. These meetings are massively important and you will not take part in them. Also, there will be gossip and team strengthening chats around coffee. You will not be part of this.”

And I know you very well, now you are thinking “This is their country, Danish is their language. I don’t expect them to change for me!” and when it actually happens to you at your new workplace and you realise how socially isolating it is to literally not know what your colleagues are chatting about. And when you feel tired because your brain will try to learn Danish (even without your permission), because you are surrounded by it. And when you have situations at work where you are on the backfoot because no one thought to tell you because you were sat right there when they were talking about it. And when  you realise you have effectively been left out of the decision making/problem solving process. And when you get the impression that people around you are better friends with each other than with you. And when you start to notice you only are spoken to when it is time to tell you what to do.  You will say “I don’t mind that they do this but it sort of bums me out all the same.”

Great. Now we are on the same page. So, you see. It wasn’t “negativity”, it was “giving you a heads-up”. It’s natural that your psychological immune system tricked you into thinking you would be an exception or your colleagues would be different from mine. But newbies (and people planning to be newbies), need to get things in place right from the start.

You will start out being all “nice” and thinking charitable thoughts about your colleagues. You will try to see the good. You will try to persuade yourself it is your shitty attitude that is at fault. This does not work. They will not suddenly begin to treat you better because you were super nice and professional the whole time.

You need to be an English language imperialist.  You need to act like one of those 80 year old women on buses who no longer give a fuck and just call it as they see it. You need to wipe the “It’s okay that they speak Danish, this workplace is in Denmark after all” thoughts. Those bastards TOLD you at the interview “Everyone speaks English.” They TOLD you “The official language is English here”. You need to start enforcing it, guerilla style. Obviously your colleagues are just normal people and so they are probably quite nice (except for vinegar dicks all workplaces seem to pick up), and would be mortified that they have put you in this position. If you are serious about wanting to be the exception, you need to start acting like it. You need to say things like “WHAT?” and “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” and “I DON’T SPEAK DANISH” all the frigging time. You need to say it when they’re having a joke over coffee. You need to say it when they are having a discussion about holiday plans.

You can even say “HAHAHAH YOU ARE LEAVING ME OUT OF THE CONVERSATION.”

and “AM I INVISIBLE?”

or “I GUESS I AM GLAD I CANNOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE SAYING BECAUSE I BET IT IS REALLY FUCKING BORING AND JUST ABOUT MEAT BALLS OR SOMETHING, RIGHT?”

It’s okay, because remember, you are not really going to stay in Denmark longer than about three to seven years, so if they think “What an English language imperialistic DICK” you’re never going to see them again when you move home. Also, it’s not as if they were ever going to invite you to a dinner party for real. They were just saying that to be polite that one time.

These techniques work, by the way. I have been trialling them at my workplace, saying things like that actually gets you a level of grudging respect because you’re at dangerously Danish levels of directness and they like that. (Obvs I don’t say “I DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE SAYING!” because I do know what they are saying, I am calling them out on other bullshit they do)

Best of luck, “expats”, no need to thank me/apologise when you have your road to Damascus conversion and you realise that I was not being “negative” but just not sugar coating the turd for you. You are welcome but I would have done it for anyone.

Copenhagen

Fresh off the boat, I went to visit Copenhagen. I have an account of that first time on my saved archives of this blog. I swear to God, it is mostly a review of a Star Trek movie.

I wrote:-

“If London is an ex boyfriend I have forgotten why we broke up, the Copenhagen was an awkward first date with someone I already know I could never love.”

What I remember was walking around, taking a lot of photos and then getting bored and footsore and going to see Star Trek. I also commented that people were not dicks about my English there.

I have visited a handful of times since, to see friends.  I have had a couple of actual awkward first dates with people, a few nights out and the only thing I have liked about Copenhagen is that my friends live there and I can spend time with them. When I have to go through there, on my way back from Sweden or the airport, I never leave the station like I would in any other big city if I had time.

I had a bit of business to attend to in Copenhagen so I was in town. I said to the man I was meeting that I was going straight home after and he was shocked. I said I hated Copenhagen, that it was like Solihull and there was nothing to do.

He was so shocked (and said “I really love it here!”), that I gave it another shot. I walked around, went to the shops, had a coffee and cake but in the end the only good thing about it was meeting up with friends and chatting.

Maybe that is what people who physically live in Copenhagen like? That their friends are there and they can hang out with them? As a visitor, I found it drab, dirty and boring.

Okay, so it has a shopping street but it reminds me of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn (and not in a good way). It’s dirty, flashy and there is nothing I want to buy there.

On the actual red light street Istedgade, there were loads of unhappy, unhealthy looking prostitutes. One of which was shouting her head off at people, obviously affected by drugs. This was at 10am. For comparison, in Hamburg, the prostitutes did not come out until later in the day and they looked happier, more confident and healthier. They looked like they were in a union. They did not look like sex slaves.

There are some interesting looking shops and cafes in Copenhagen but the prices are offputting. Compared with what you actually get, it’s a rip off actually. I decided to wait until I was in London to go shopping.

The people are okay. The most people I overheard were not Danish, the majority of people seemed to be tourists. In shops, I spoke Danish and they didn’t switch languages (even though one guy was actually British and we spoke Danish for ages before we both realised), this is the first time that has happened in Copenhagen.

Though there was a market researcher who wanted to ask me some questions in the park about a brand campaign. I spoke to her about not really living in Copenhagen, so probably wouldn’t be much help, told her where I lived and where I was from. She said she was from “Anton Berg” or something and I had a vague idea it was something to do with chocolate but maybe it’s underpants? Not sure. So I said I didn’t know and THEN she switched to English.  Her English was okay, accent was good but it was by no means fluent. About as good as my Danish. I think she did it to show me that she could? We were not having a communication problem, I just do not give a crap about Danish brands.

Sorry. Back to Copenhagen. I do not understand what the fuss is about. It is expensive, there is nothing in the shops, it is dirty and there is nothing to do except hang out with your friends. I wasn’t expecting another London or Paris. Maybe another Berlin or Amsterdam? At the very least another Hamburg. But it’s just… not. It’s not in Cardiff’s league. More like Wolverhampton.

I don’t think I actually “hate” it, there are few cities I truly hate because there is always something to like. The parks are quite nice in Copenhagen, for example. But I really do not see it.

To be clear, I like Aarhus. I think it is attractive and fun and there are things to do. I think Odense is okay, though I don’t know it very well. I think Vejle is very pretty in a small-town way. I even quite like F-town, even as all the services are scaled back so only old people and drug addicts have anything to stay for. At least F-town knows what it is. But Copenhagen? It’s a Conference League town with Premier League pretensions.

Sorry for all the people who love Copenhagen. But I bet it is because all your friends are there.

Flink

Occasionally, I have to do break supervision. This usually involves me dealing with minor injuries on the school playground and almost certainly breaking up a fight. Little kids are the worst.

There are a lot of things I say in order to break up and prevent fights. One of which is

“VÆR FLINK!”

(BE NICE!)

Now, as with all phrases I have never heard in Danish, there is always a moment when I say something new and wait to see if there is understanding. Or did I just shit the bed communicatively? The first time I said it, the children smiled and ran off.

“Ja ja!”

So, they get it and they understand it and it also amuses them. Win win.

I told my boyfriend and he said “That’s not a thing.” Not that it didn’t make sense, wasn’t grammatical or what have you. Just that it didn’t exist as a phrase. Well, whatever. I didn’t learn Danish just so I could say the exact same things everyone else was saying.

“Mmm, dine frikkadelle smagt DEJLIG, Tove.”

“Nåh, har du et nyt SOMMERhus, Jens?”

Fuck that.

I was wondering about why I had never heard the word “flink” outside of the book “Fucking Flink” and then, blow me, but I heard the word twice in one week.

I was joining a new gym, more of a fitness club for kommune staff. I might as well, for as long as I am on the payroll. The man showing me around the gym, said “We’re all really flink here, so if you get stuck, you can ask any of us.” Then he pointed out some regulars who waved. So, it IS true, the gateway to friendly Danes is a sports club!

The next day, I had to go to the kommune to pick up a key for the gym. The security guard sorted it all out for me. At the end, I asked “Hey, is this my security code here?”

“Oh no, your security code is the last four digits of your identity number. We’re flink like that, here.”

So, here’s to flinkness. I hope I see more of it.