Where do you meet these people?

I have instituted a foreigner-bubble to protect me from the shit going on in the news. Fact is, I have enough on my plate with stuff that I cannot blog about.

Still, in terms of integration, things are going alright. Aarhus is way better than Fredericia in terms of opportunities to socialise and relax. I feel a bit more at home here than I did in Fredericia. At-homeness would peek in at the weekends when I went to the neighbour-baker and got some pastries. That was it though.

Some people have asked me how it was to integrate. What it was like to come here seven years ago and settle down. And I tell them about the high points and the low points. If they are Danish, they will make a comment on the low points. Where do I meet these people? How unlucky I was to meet such unkind people! How I must be focusing on a few outliers because they surely were not the norm.

But in Fredericia, it was about 50/50. Half of the time, the people I met were friendly and helpful and the other half, they would not have pissed on me were I on fire.

Of course, friendly kind people cannot imagine someone being so rude or so unwelcoming. It’s like when women talk about street harassment and regular men are incredulous and think she is exaggerating or making it up entirely.

What would be easy, now that things are fine, would be to gloss over the details and just focus on how good things are now. This would make my conversations less awkward. It would mean I wouldn’t have to defend myself against the implication that I did something to deserve it. But I don’t. I talk about it because this is a missing piece of the integration puzzle.

Every time the news or the politicians talk about the dirty foreigners who do not even speak Danish properly, they never talk to one of them to find out why. Why is easy: I tried to practice and people were hostile and so I limited my interactions to things I knew I could do. Having a conversation with me in Danish is possible but unpleasant because I had a difficult decision

Through Door One: I could have tried to socialise with Danish people I liked with my shitty Danish. But I liked them. I didn’t want to put them through it and I wanted them to enjoy my company.

Through Door Two: I could have tried to make more small talk with strangers to level up. But I was flipping a coin every time to see if they were total shits about my accent. I’m resilient but I’m not that resilient.

So I didn’t go through either door. Which meant that when I went to my union rep training last year all but about two people were total fucking pricks about my accent for the first three days. Let’s focus on the two, on the outliers: one was a foreigner and therefore easy going. The other was actually famous for some talent show and was just effortlessly cool and awesome. He talked to me like a human being. A few of them warmed up over the next few sessions but only because I had decided ‘fuck em’ and if they gave me any shit, I blocked them out. I brought a book for the coffee sessions in case they were ignoring me and I read chapters and chapters. I tried though, in the first 3 days. I broke down in tears after trying so hard.

Though, it’s not the ignoring that gets me. I am so used to it. Honestly, I have learned that the types of people who ignore people at their table who are nodding, giving eye contact and smiling because they assume that they don’t understand Danish because they heard a foreign accent usually have nothing of consequence to say. These people lack the critical thinking needed to realise I understand more than I can say and thusly lack the critical thinking necessary to contribute anything of note to the dialogue.

What gets me, is the vinegar face when they hear my accent. And the repeating back what I said with a singy-songy accent. And the discounting of ANYTHING I have to say unless a Dane repeats it.

So, why do so many foreigners like me have such bad accents? Well, it’s simple. A clear majority of people I have ever spoken more than transactional Danish with (as in “Can I have a sandwich?” “Where is the post office?”), are not able to listen without making me feel uncomfortable.

You want accentless-foreigners? You have to start talking to the ones with the thick accents in such a way that makes them want to keep talking.

Sensationalisation

Before the shootings in Paris, I had commented that the Danish media was spending a lot of bandwidth talking about Islam creating an us-and-them mentality. After the shootings, the story was simple enough for the media to have on repeat, so the message could be properly disseminated. Vice.com reported on concerns that political forces were hijacking the event for their own devices, at the expense of community cohesion.

Every time a politician tries to make political capital on anything, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. For every voter they recruit with talk of their economic or social policy, they turn off others. They accept that risk. That risk is acceptable: it’s how free speech works.

Every time a politician tries to drive a wedge between ‘our values’ and the ‘other’, their aim is to recruit  voters but they are putting others off. This sort of politicking makes the marginalised feel more so. Usually, the marginalised stay passive and so politicians have got into the habit of doing it. You see it in the UK, when the Conservative Party propose stopping national unemployment insurance pay outs to the obese. And of course, we saw a lot of it after the shootings in Paris. “Why don’t moderate Muslims decry these attacks?” “Muslims are solely responsible for stopping this”. For every Dane that nodded their ignorant little head about the sentiment; many were irritated, infuriated, provoked.

And it’s just free speech. It’s just how free speech works. Those who work in politics are free to make disenfranchised people feel like shit, if it gains them a vote down the line. You won’t find any argument on that point here.

But.

Shouldn’t they be a bit more nuanced? Shouldn’t they make the effort to tell the long story? Shouldn’t they look at the wider picture a bit more? And make it a bit more thoughtful?

They do it because it works and they do it because we are lazy. The voters cannot be bothered to sit down and absorb a complex argument, so politicians are careful to craft the best soundbite to save everyone the effort. Instead of politicians having an actual debate on the nature of power, the role of conflict in the modern world, the causes of violence across the globe; we just get regurgitated pap. “Free speech should never be threatened!” “Their values are not our values!”

“For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.”
H.L. Mencken

In fact, the message was simple enough that politicians and others who work in politics (for example, dictators), who have no respect for free speech could show up and pretend that they did for a day. It was easy for them because no one was having a discussion, they were just pronouncing shibboleths.

And, honestly, if someone unstable does become so incensed about any given poltician’s message that they become violent, this is not a reason to make the discussion more nuanced. For one, you cannot change your behaviour just because violent people do not like it. For another, their crimes are great for electioneering.

The reason to use free speech to make intelligent, moderate, well-informed pronouncements is for its own sake. Which is why it is not happening.

And thence to the role of the media.

Here is a video is from 2009 about a school shooting in Germany and its wall-to-wall coverage in the international media.

Forensic psychologists have pin-pointed things that can make copy cat mass murder more likely. These things include blanket coverage, sensationalised reports, making the shooter appear to be an anti-hero, focusing on the body count.

The media has responsible standards for reporting on suicide. The media mostly follows this, though not in the case of high profile suicides like Robin Williams. This is because using these guidelines saves lives.

By reporting on “Charlie Hebdo” (and the siege in the Jewish supermarket) in a sensational, blanket way, they made copy-cat killings more likely. They did not emphasise the troubled, disturbed lives of the murderers but made them out to be some breed of freedom fighter, allied to a terrorist cell. Compare/contrast with the reports on Breivik’s mental state and less than flattering comments on his character.

Though, it is not like the media cannot report on mass killings in a responsible way. The Chapel Hill suspect was dismissed as a mentally ill anomaly almost immediately and the crimes he is accused of were reported much less sensationally and were buried under the news cycle very quickly.

But what incentive does the media have to tone down the coverage of mass murder when it is clearly what the public want to consume? Nothing much happened between the Copenhagen shootings suspect being killed by police and his name being released but there was wall-to-wall coverage anyway. In this time online, many new stories were written because each click means revenue and the public are ready and willing to click. It is what the public want and so it is what they get.

His name has been released and the only detail about him that has come out is that he was active in illegal gangs. Straight off the bat, he is an anti-hero. The police have not confirmed this was a terrorist attack, just that they are investigating if it was. The Danish media are calling it terrorism anyway. This rolling coverage cements the same old us-and-them attitude. But who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’?

Responsible reporting of this mass murder could save lives. But it is an election year, people don’t want to buy newspapers anymore and the public are simply not interested. They want pictures of bullet holes, they want to feel a frisson, they want a simple bedtime story. They don’t give a shit about the dead or their families, they just like to rubber neck and shudder.

And for all the Mr and Mrs Denmarks who are polarised against The Muslim Threat by this coverage; young troubled men are also being polarised against The West.

Micro Aggressions and Stranger Danes

To preserve anonymity of the people I meet, I try not to tell stories that would give away individuals. I’ve had a few experiences in the last few weeks that I really wanted to talk about but there was no way to do so without invading the privacy of others.

I don’t know what happened but I suddenly had a flood of invitations to events where I would be an unaccompanied foreigner to a group of people that do not know me or each other. A wedding, a party, a training event, that sort of thing.

And I had to meet a LOT of stranger Danes.

Here is my Ideal Stranger Dane, of which I met maybe half a dozen at these events.

  • Starts out with a question or a comment not about where I come from
  • Talks to me about something interesting that we can both get stuck into
  • Finds things in common
  • Makes jokes/laughs at my jokes
  • Is patient with my mistakes in pronunciation/word order/correct word usage

Here are the things that are (more or less), involuntary that Stranger Danes sometimes do (and it gets on my nerves)

  • Shudders or pulls a face when they hear my accent
  • Keeps that expression on their face whenever I speak to them
  • Walks away/turns their back on me when I approach while they are on their own
  • Repeats everything I say back to me with a singy-songy voice as if teaching an infant how to speak
  • Does not return my smile (or if they do, it doesn’t touch their eyes)
  • Only makes eye contact when talking about crime
  • Looks pissed off when I say Danish is not actually that hard for an English speaker (the hard thing only being that it must be perfect or ELSE)
  • Looks super pissed off when I say I have been in Denmark for 6 years

Here are the things that are just thoughtless but are somewhat of a choice

  • Asks DURING Danish language conversations I am having with them, if I speak Danish
  • Asks after I have replied in the affirmative “But do you UNDERSTAND Danish?”
  • Tells me that I do not understand Danish, while I am listening
  • Goes on about how hard Danish must be for me
  • Only asks me about where I am from and why I came to Denmark
  • Ignores me after this information has been shared
  • Compares me pointedly with other people who are also learning Danish
  • Insists that if I have a problem with an activity it must be because of my shitty language skills
  • Tells me that I am not ‘integrating’ if I choose not to be ignored or patronised by choosing another activity or if everyone around me chooses to move away from me
  • Underestimates my intelligence vocally

There are plenty of foreigners who can handle this or do not notice it. But it gets to me after a while. Especially since, if I bring this up, some people will jump on me to tell me all this stuff happens because I am a fucking bitch who deserved it.

Well, it never happened in the UK and it never happened in France and it never happened in Germany. In the UK, I make friends super easily. In France and Germany, people are used to hearing their language being mauled and they’re cool with it. They just let you communicate and are more or less Ideal Strangers.

In Denmark, people are not used to hearing their language mangled and they have been infected with the idea that foreigners are bad. Our badness stems from not wanting to be part of the group and not learning the language to perfection. Look at Prince Henri, he’s pretty much reviled and his Danish is perfect… he just has a French accent. That’s enough for Danish people to think that he is a stuck up prick. That’s all it took.

Of course, none of the people who were less than Ideal were bad people. They are nice, decent, otherwise smart people. They just lack empathy, curiosity and self-awareness. So, those people didn’t get to find out about the things that we have in common or some awesome or interesting point of view that only I can share. They didn’t get to find out that I am funny. They didn’t get to hear what it is actually like to be foreign in their country. So. I guess I won that one?

 

Should I Move to Denmark: Sprouts of Progress

When I first got here in 2008, there was many an initiative to keep highly-trained “expats” in the country. Not that I benefited from any of them, I worked in a state school in a town which had not really thought to attract international talent at that time. I was only on the periphery of it but I observed several attempts to recruit and retain foreign workers.

I am not sure what they were saying to the employers, it was not information I was looking for. But I remember what they were saying to me: if you don’t like it, it is because you are a dick.

There was a blog run by the government which seemed to be telling me everything was cupcakes and unicorn rainbows. And that anything I had to say on the contrary was because I was a bloody bastard. There were events, which I think are still going, about how to adapt to Danish culture. I have never been to one but I think the take-home message is supposed to be “lower your expectations”. Occasionally, they would ask Freshies to make presentations about how to integrate, for other foreigners or to Danish companies. They only asked people who had a proven track record for only addressing the issue in the most “positive” way. Note: not “constructive”, I do not mean someone who notes challenges and explains how to overcome them but people who reject critical thought entirely in order to promote the idea that only bloody bastards have problems getting along in Denmark.

unicorn
Pictured: The expat experience of Denmark as described by the Danish government (Photo credit: Totally Severe)

And hey, it did not work. The issue with recruiting and retaining international workers remained. There was a huge problem with staff turn-over, people come and then leave before their contract is up. Maybe they say things like “high taxes” or “not much choice in the shops” but they were never going to tell you other reasons so long as they have been primed with “if you have other criticisms it is because you have not tried hard enough”.

I remember a really good blog entry by a psychologist about how to make your staff leave early, tongue in cheek, about the shitty things companies inadvertently do that make their workers unhappy. I cannot find it anymore but it was really good, you guys!

Stuff like:- Always speak Danish. Let them sink or swim. Forget about their spouse.

I move in different circles now and I saw a magazine bearing a cover girl that I sort of know. So I picked it up and imagine my surprise at the content!

The magazine is aimed not at The Internationals but their employers. It is written in English. It has interviews with expats. And it has guidelines for recruiting and retaining!

Hallelujah!

Guidelines such as “be honest about challenges before they get there”, “get your other employees to speak English at lunch and in meetings”, “change all your signs/information into English”, “make sure the spouse is happy”, “help them with bureaucracy” etc etc

You know, the shit that got me called “negative” when I talk about it… That stuff.

What seems to be happening now is that foreigners in Denmark who arrived after me are a lot happier. They are socialising, they are happier in their jobs, their children are being educated, their spouses are finding things to do, it is all good times.

Sure, they do not want to stay longer than the three or five years they promised their company. But they do not want to leave early. That is good. It is also gratifying that every survey I filled in, where I outlined the issues as I saw them, has been addressed.

I really want to move up to Aarhus, it looks like a much better situation for me up there. I do not want to stay in Denmark forever but at least life is actively being made more bearable. Maybe I do not need to warn people about here quite as strenuously.

Whatever you say I am, that’s what I’m not.

Funny how people react to criticism of Danish culture. If you start a blog in which you tackle the day-to-day situations involved in integrating into another culture and then you mention some of the not-so-good things then you open yourself up to abuse. This, I think, is ridiculous.

Now, obviously, there are foreigners who live in Denmark who are having a whale of a time. They are a good match for the culture, they don’t get any hassle from the borough, they find a nice job, their colleagues and people they meet socially are nice. These people have lovely times in Denmark. YAY! Good for them!

So, why then, do people who say they are having a great time feel the need to attack me if I say I have had problematic experiences or if I take the experiences of others and average these out and talk generally about the culture of Denmark?

The personal attacks I have had most recently are:-

  • You hate Denmark
  • You imagine Danes hate you
  • You treat “the Danes” like animals
  • You deserve to be treated like a twat
  • You treat people aggressively
  • You are unhappy
  • You are lonely
  • Any bad experiences you have are YOUR fault
  • You are negative
  • You are unhappy
  • You cannot speak the language

Apart from being untrue, these are not arguments and they do not address my points. They are “ad hominem” and “tu quoque” arguments. They are caused by the human brain distorting reality.

  • Someone else’s problems are always more simple than our own.
  • Someone else’s misfortune is more likely to be their fault, where our own is seen to be in the lap of the gods.
  • Our own success is seen as deserved, other’s success was pure luck.

So. If you have two people. One person has spent the last four and a half years in Fredericia and has very few Danish friends and most of her friends are from other countries, another person has spent the last year in Copenhagen and has many Danish friends.

The Copenhagen one is going to think “That Frederician girl has no friends because she’s a negative bitch.” The Frederician one is going to think “That Copenhagener has got more friends through blind luck!”

And neither would be right.

I have very few Danish friends because

  1. I live in Fredericia. (Famous only for its drug addicts, prostitutes and petty criminals.)
  2. Most of the people I work with have families and are therefore very busy
  3. I didn’t speak Danish when I first came

Someone in Copenhagen might have more Danish friends because

  1. People move to Copenhagen from their shitty Jysk villages, they are desperate to make new friends
  2. People in certain industries are better travelled and cosmopolitan
  3. Certain industries have a younger workforce, who are up for more socialisation

You could call it luck or circumstances but you most certainly could not start to blame the individuals.

How on earth could a stranger hope to make an accurate assessment of the situation based on 600 words on the internet? Even if I got someone to follow me around with a clipboard for a week/month/year, I think they would find it hard to tell me exactly what it was I was “doing wrong” because I’m not doing anything wrong. Plus, they would be more careful because a real life human being would be in front of them.

It is so easy for these so-called “positive” people to judge me and find me wanting. It is so easy to invent faults and attack me.

If they were truly positive, they would treat me graciously and with compassion. Instead, they rely on cheap attacks.

Let me tell you something, “positive” people. I have been here for nearly five years. For every one of “I am having a great time!”, there are at least three people who tell me “I am having a shit time,”. I met a woman who almost cried when she whispered “I thought it was just me.”

This shit HURTS, this shit is mentally damaging. Every time I go abroad or back home, I make new friends.

I am rather personable. If I had to stay here all year around, and I had to listen to “you get out what you put in”, I would quickly go mad.

Obviously, no one wants to be friends with Eeyore. No one wants to hear wall-to-wall whinging and whining. Fine. But that is not what I am like. I’m lovely! I go to parties where I don’t know *anyone* and chat all night. I am EXTREMELY friendly. I have a lot of friends, I make them easily, I like to have a laugh, I attend a lot of social events (I try not to say “no”), I like to listen to new people, I volunteer, I blah blah bloody blah.

I just don’t have that many Danish friends. So, it can’t be me. If I can make friends with Swedes, the Dutch, Germans and Danes; then why can’t I make friends with LOTS of Danes?

The answer is complicated and I don’t have the energy. The answer starts with they are busy enough with the friends they already have, diverges into day care has not prepared them adequately for befriending new people and ends up with they do not have the theory of mind to realise that excluding others is a dick move.

And OF COURSE it doesn’t apply to all Danes. Some of my best friends etc etc parp. It applies to SOME Danes. The Danes I am talking about.

Anyone that is tempted to talk smack about me (or others finding it hard to make a social circle here), go find a Dane that moved from one town to another. Ask them about their network of Danish friends. Are they in the new town or the old one?

I suggest you do not tell them that the reason their friends are concentrated in their home town is because they are a bad person who deserves no less. Don’t be a jerk, eh?