Weird Danes and Expats

I am not an expat. I am an immigrant. I am a long-termer. Not a tourist. I have a completely different perspective on Denmark than someone who is only here for a short-term contract or an actual Dane. Denmark is my home. I have Danish friends. I understand Danish culture. But I am not a Dane.

One of my Danish friends asked me if I wanted to go to a seminar about Danish culture and I did. I did want to go. So, I went to see what I ‘should’ think about Danish culture according to an anthropologist named Dennis Nørmark.

He is very entertaining and his talk was very well pitched. But I had many thoughts and I will share them with you now.

He led with an example about ‘expats’ being negatively affected by Danes not bothering to hold doors open for them. Who knows why they don’t look behind their shoulder to see if there is anyone behind them. I have a few pet theories (their pedagogues don’t teach them to do it in daycare, it wouldn’t occur to them that other people exist, no one else does it etc). Our friend, the anthropologist, says the behaviour is considered too courtly. That Danes view each other as a family, so they do not go to extraordinary lengths (i.e. looking over their shoulder briefly when passing through heavy doors), for them.

The Danes I have spoken to (sample: two), about this say that they would (and do), hold doors open for colleagues and family. So. I am not sure what he thinks he is saying.

I was worrying for the people at the talk because I would hate for them to get the impression that all the behaviour they are interpreting as ‘rude’ is not-rude-for-Denmark. Because, and Dennis didn’t cover this in any detail, there is a lot of that too.

Okay, newbies, listen up. There are some things that are ‘get used to it’ and some things that are ‘rude-for-Denmark’.

In the ‘Get Used to It’ pile, is not bothering to check if someone is behind you when passing through a door. Also, in the supermarket, if a Dane wants to get past, it is not rude to push you out of the way. They do signal the intent to move into your body space, their eyes get defocused and they get closer slowly. You need to look out for it.  The same with not thanking you for putting yourself out (for example, stopping to let someone pass), and barging past you when you are waiting for someone less mobile than you to cross a more narrow walkway.

Why they do this? Fuck knows. I doubt it is because they see each other as family. I am very dubious about this guy’s interpretation of these behaviours. I agree with him that they do not think of themselves as ‘rude’ and a Danish outside observer of these behaviours would also not classify them as such. It’s just what they do here. I would classify it as ‘anti-social’ and call it quits. They don’t want to make contact with other people for cultural reasons, so they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Even when it means that the other people they are trying to afford privacy to, by ramming them, making them wait, ignoring their altruism, are put out.

But. Newbies. What you need to start to understand is: there are rude behaviours too. And you will see a lot of them. Because everyone is so shy and conflict averse, they rarely call people out on them. Maybe the Get Used to It behaviours were impolite in Danish culture but everyone was doing it, no one was calling anyone out and now it is normal. Who knows.

Rude behaviours include:- pushing in queues, punching people to get past, swearing at you, urinating on you, racially abusing you etc. You will see some of these. In my first few years, I saw a lot of them. Not so much anymore.

You see, Denmark has its fair share of assholes. But they are rarely challenged. So the culture of Denmark tends towards the assholish. It’s very sad but what can you do? That is not to say the majority of people here are assholes, au contraire, the majority are delightful. But if you realised that it did not truly matter if you shoved someone when getting off the bus, would you bother trying to get down without touching the people pressing from the outside to get in? What is the point? It’s not even rude here.

Then he also said things that were not entirely true. Or true for a certain value of true. In his defence of Dane behaving in a xenophobic way, he said that the Danish culture has been homogeneous for a long time so they are catching up to the multi-culture thing everyone else has going on.

He defended this point of view with the stats that in a period during the 1800s, there were only 20 foreigners a year settling in Denmark.

Not counting the Swedes or the Germans.

And, presumably, not the slaves. And not counting the foreigners already here, like the second gen French in Fredericia and the Dutch in Amager who were just beginning to assimilate in that period.

Not counting the Swedes? Honestly, if you are going to argue from authority and bring up a historical context, you better have done your reading, boy.  The Swedes were hated in the 1800s. The Danes thought they were lazy and thieves and they deported them without so much as a by-your-leave. If you want to make the case that Denmark didn’t have to deal with problems around immigration until the 20th Century, you really ought to draw a veil over the state of play in the 1800s.

Guys, this ‘we have always been homogenous’ get out of jail free card has been revoked. Danish society is xenophobic because there is no consequence for being so. My country had a lot of immigration for its entire history but it did not stop us being pricks throughout and we are still unwelcoming to certain groups. No one has any excuse, not even Denmark.

Now, maybe what he was saying was helpful to short-termers and I should shut the fuck up. Maybe being told ‘it’s just culture, don’t be sad’ is useful for people. Maybe it helps the culture shock process?

But if I had been a newbie and heard his talk, I think it would have upset me. So, I can’t help thinking it is kind of cruel. Also, casting Danes into noble savages that don’t know any better? Give me a fucking break. There are so many polite Danes, it is possible to be kind and show empathy here. I can imagine the cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously upset by selfish or anti-social behaviour and thinking ‘it’s just their culture’ and I don’t think it is fair to put people through that.

I hold onto the fact that other Danes have had enough of the assholes running ting. Thomas Skov and Lars AP would like Danes to be more courteous and friendly. They are Danes. They are part of the culture. So when people are mean to me, I think ‘they are just ignorant peasants and they have major problems with social skills’

I guess he’s right though. People on three year contracts are never going to burst through and fix Danish culture to their tastes and so lowering their expectations will help their psychic balance. And any cultural change will be very slow, so lowering your expectations is a good idea for anyone.

But. I do wish he had kept his interpretations to himself or at least not pretended they were objectively justified.  Because what he was doing wasn’t anthropology, it was travel writing.

9 thoughts on “Weird Danes and Expats

  1. It’s very interesting to read your take on this lecture since you have such a different perspective on it than I did (being a total newbie with only 3 weeks in this country). Also, since you teach Danish children, I think you have a very valuable and unique position from which to observe real and day-to-day Danish culture.

    I did find it interesting when Nørmark was talking about how Danes will not help you if they see you struggling because they think it’s more polite not to bother you. I’ve had the exact opposite experience so far. I feel like every time I pull out a map to get my bearings a Dane will ask if I need help. So I definitely don’t think that this norm of negative politeness applies to every native Dane in every situation. Maybe it’s the influence of people like Lars AP.

    It is also hard for me to accept the lack of politeness in Danish culture, as I think it’s just nice to be nice. Why would you not say “excuse me”? And I’m still dealing with the fact that I won’t be able to say “please” when ordering a coffee in Danish. But I know that I’m coming from a different cultural background, and I’m sort of torn on whether to chalk it up to cultural differences or to continue to be slightly offended.

    I really appreciate your take on Danish culture and look forward to reading more!

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    1. And sometimes you need to say excuse me because the person you are pushing past is unsteady on their feet. I don’t get how it can be classified as polite not to show that courtesy!

      I’ve met some very polite Danes too so I think it is inappropriate to say they are abnormal or not doing their culture properly like he was implying! I think he’s just half assed a lot of this stuff, to be honest. I want the full ass!

      As for ‘please’ there are ways of expressing that thought in Danish.
      ‘Bede om’ and ‘venglist’ but they are in the middle of the sentence and so using them modifies how you structure the phrase. Plus you’d never use them in a shop, only for big requests/favours.
      In a shop you can say ‘tak’ in place of please but leave a gap between the request and the tak. If you say tak too soon, it runs together with the word before and the Dane is unlikely to understand you.
      For example: po bee low bet….tak (på beløbet tak- no cash back thanks)
      Jeye vee gurn ha en kaffay….tak (jeg vil gerne have en kaffe tak- could I have a coffee please)

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      1. Thanks for the phrases! I haven’t started my Danish lessons yet (those will come next month), but I am desperate for some Danish phrases to use. And the phonetic pronunciation helps :)

        My husband says that at work everyone is very polite and friendly and will hold open doors for others, etc. So it seems like there may be a couple of standards, one for strangers and one for acquaintances/friends. But then, isn’t that true of everyone? And of course, it’s hard to speak generally about a culture because there are always those who don’t fit the “norm.”

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  2. I had a lot of thoughts on this when I read it yesterday. Let’s see if I can remember even half of it today :-)

    I think there are two kinds of rudeness: the kind that is just basically being inconsiderate, and the kind that depends on culture.
    Am I impolite, if I point the soles of my feet towards someone, if I’m sitting on the floor? In Denmark, no. In the middle east, yes. Am I being rude if I keep eye contact with my boss, when she is telling me what to do? In Denmark, no. In Japan, yes. Am I inconsiderate, if I walk close to somebody without saying ‘excuse me’? In Denmark, no. In England??? Maybe. I’d say it depends if I’m on a busy street in London, or if I’m in a local high street shop.

    On the other hand, there’s the basic human good behavior: not hurting people, helping people who are hurt, being polite in the way you adress others and so on. And even though most people agree that this is something you should do, the way people go about it in different cultures varies.

    I struggled with ‘please’ when I first moved to England. Being brought up in Denmark a phrase like “Pass me the salt, please.” “Giv mig saltet, tak.” sounded very impolite! It is phrased as an order, no matter what little modifier is added at the end. “Would you be so kind as to pass me the salt?” “Vil du være så venlig at række mig saltet?” sounded (and still sounds) much more polite to me, even though there was no ‘please’, because it is phrased as a request. I learned that ordering people about was no problem in England, as long as you remembered to add a please ;-) but I still don’t like it. It feels all kinds of wrong to leave out the question.

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    1. Very true. What’s so hard during culture shock is working out what is fine for that country and what is, indeed, rude.
      My take home from his talk was it is all cultural. All of the stuff foreigners might find rude, he seemed to be claiming was acceptable because of cultural rules. And I think he is dead wrong.
      Also I think his explanations of WHY something isn’t rude here fell apart under close examination.

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      1. I agree. There are rude people everywhere, but I suppose it stands out more when you add the ‘culturally percieved rudeness’ to the basic kind. And of course it’s easy to lump them together and just claim that people in the culture that you’re not yet familiar with are generally more rude.
        For example, I found it very rude that the waiters wouldn’t make eye contact or even talk to me, when we visited Egypt. They kept adressing my husband instead. It was hard not to think of that as extremely rude! But I knew that it was cultural, and not something they did because they wanted to offend me, and that helped. It still made my blood boil, though. But I knew it was my perception that was off, and not their behaviour.

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